Engineering School Students, tape 2

DATE: 8 May 1957

OCCASION: Engineering School Students

TAPE: T-125

LENGTH: 31:11


Play the full recording:

William Faulkner:

"I'll buy the damn girl then and we'll call the rest of this foolishness off."
"Hah," Mr Hubert said again. "This is the most serious foolishness you ever took part in in your life. No, you said you wanted your chance, and now you've got it. Here it is, right here on the table, waiting on you."

William Faulkner:

So Uncle Buck shuffled the cards and Mr Hubert cut them. Then he took up the deck and dealt in turn until Uncle Buck and Mr Hubert had five. And Uncle Buck looked at his hand a long time and then said two cards and he gave them to him, and Mr Hubert looked at his hand quick and said one card and he gave it to him and Mr Hubert flipped his discard onto the two which Uncle Buck had discarded and slid the new card into his hand and opened it out and looked at it quick again and closed it and looked at Uncle Buck and said, "Well? Did you help them threes?"
"No," Uncle Buck said.
"Well I did," Mr Hubert said. He shot his hand across the table so the cards fell face-up in front of Uncle Buck and they were three kings and two fives, and said, "By God, Buck McCaslin, you have met your match at last."

William Faulkner:

"And that was all?" Uncle Buddy said. It was late then, near sunset; they would be at Mr Hubert's in another fifteen minutes.
"Yes, sir," he said, telling that too: how Uncle Buck waked him at daylight and he climbed out a window and got the pony and left, and how Uncle Buck said that if they pushed him too close in the meantime, he would climb down the gutter too and hide in the woods until Uncle Buddy arrived.
"Hah," Uncle—Uncle Buddy said. "Was Tomey's Turl there?"
"Yes, sir," he said. "He was waiting in the stable when I got the pony. He said, 'Aint they settled it yet?'"
"And what did you say?" Uncle Buddy said.
"I said, 'Uncle Buck looks like he's settled. But Uncle Buddy aint got here yet.'"
"Hah," Uncle Buck—Uncle Buddy said.

William Faulkner:

And that was about all. They reached the house. Maybe Uncle Buck was watching them, but if he was, he never showed himself, never came out of the woods. So Miss Sophonsiba was nowhere in sight either, so at least Uncle Buck didn't give—hadn't quite given up; at least he hadn't asked her yet. And he and Uncle Buddy and Mr Hubert ate supper and they came in from the kitchen and cleared the table, leaving only the lamp on it and the deck of cards. Then it was just like last night, except that Uncle Buddy had no necktie and Mr Hubert wore the clothes now instead of a nightshirt and it was a shaded lamp on the table instead of a candle, and Mr Hubert sitting at his end of the table with the deck in his hands, riffling the edges with his thumb and looking at Uncle Buddy. Then he tapped the edges even and set the deck out in the middle of the table under the lamp, and folded his arms on the edge of the table and leaned forward a little on the table, looking at Uncle Buddy, who was sitting at his end of the table with his hands in his lap, all one gray color, like an old gray rock or a stump with gray moss on it, that still, with his round white head like Uncle Buck's but he didn't blink like Uncle Buck and he was a little thicker than Uncle Buck, as if from sitting down so much watching food cook, as if the things he cooked had made him a little thicker than he would have been and the things he cooked with, and the flour and such, had made him all one same quiet color.

William Faulkner:

"Little toddy before we start?" Mr Hubert said.
"I dont drink," Uncle Buddy said.
"That's right," Mr Hubert said. "I knew there was some thing else besides just being woman-weak that makes 'Filus seem human. But no matter." He batted his eyes twice at Uncle Buddy. "Buck McCaslin against the land and niggers you have heard me promise as Sophonsiba's dowry on the day she marries. If I beat you, 'Filus marries Sibbey without any dowry. If you beat me, you get 'Filus. But I still get the three hundred dollars 'Filus owes me for Tennie. Is that correct?"
"That's correct," Uncle Buddy said.
"Stud," Mr Hubert said. "One hand. You to shuffle, me to cut, this boy to deal."
"No," Uncle Buddy said. "Not Cass. He's too young. I dont want him mixed up in any gambling."
"Hah," Mr Hubert said. "It's said that a man playing cards with Amodeus McCaslin aint gambling. But no matter." He was still looking at Uncle Buddy; he never even turned his head when he spoke: "Go to the back door and holler. Bring the first creature that answers, animal mule or human, that can deal ten cards."

William Faulkner:

So he went to the back door. But he didn't even need to call because Tomey's Turl was squatting against the wall just outside the door, and they returned to the drawing-room where Mr Hubert still sat with his arms folded on his side of the table and Uncle Buddy sat with his hands in his lap on his side and the deck of cards face-down under the lamp between them. Neither of them even looked up when he and Tomey's Turl entered. "Shuffle," Mr Hubert said. Uncle Buddy shuffled and set the cards back under the lamp and put his hands back in his lap and Mr Hubert cut the deck and folded his arms back onto the table-edge. "Deal," he said. Still neither he nor Uncle Buddy looked up. They just sat there while—while Tomey's Turl's saddle-colored hands came into the light and took up the deck and dealt, one card face-down to Mr Hubert and one face-down to Uncle Buddy, and one face-up to Mr Hubert and it was a king, and one face-up to Uncle Buddy and it was a six.

William Faulkner:

"Buck McCaslin against Sibbey's dowry," Mr Hubert said. "Deal." And the hand dealt Mr Hubert a card and it was a three, and Uncle Buddy a card and it was a two. Mr Hubert looked at Uncle Buddy. Uncle Buddy rapped once with his knuckles on the table.
"Deal," Mr Hubert said. And the hand dealt Mr Hubert a card and it was another three, and Uncle Buddy a card and it was a four. Mr Hubert looked at Uncle Buddy's cards. Then he looked at Uncle Buddy and Uncle Buddy rapped on the table again with his knuckles.

William Faulkner:

"Deal," Mr Hubert said, and the hand dealt him an ace and Uncle Buddy a five and now Mr Hubert just sat still. He didn't look at anything or move for a whole minute; he just sat there and watched Uncle Buddy put one hand onto the table for the first time since he shuffled and pinch up one corner of his face-down card and look at it and and then put his hand back into his lap. "Check," Mr Hubert said.
"I'll bet you them two niggers," Uncle Buck—Buddy said. He didn't move either. He just sat just like he sat in the wagon or on a horse or in the rocking chair he cooked from.
"Against what?" Mr Hubert said.
"Against the three hundred dollars Theophilus owes you for Tennie, and the three hundred you and Theophilus agreed on for Tomey's Turl," Uncle Buddy said.
"Hah," Mr Hubert said, only it wasn't loud at all this time, not even short. Then he said "Hah. Hah. Hah" and not loud either. Then he said, "Well." Then he said, "Well, well." Then he said: "We'll check up for a minute. If I win, you take Sibbey without a dowry and the two niggers, and I dont owe 'Filus anything. If you win—"
"—Theophilus is free," Uncle Buddy said. "And you owe him the three hundred dollars for Tomey's Turl."

William Faulkner:

"That's just if I call you," Mr Hubert said. "If I dont call you, 'Filus wont owe me nothing and I wont owe 'Filus nothing, unless I take that nigger which I have been trying to explain to you and him both for years I wont have on my place. We will be right back where all this foolishness started from, except for that. So what it comes down to is, I either got to give a nigger away, or risk buying one that you done already admitted you cant keep at home." Then he stopped talking. For about a minute it was like he and Uncle Buddy had both gone to sleep. Then Mr Hubert picked up his face-down card and turned it over. It was another three, and Mr Hubert sat there without looking at anything at all, his fingers beating a tattoo, slow and steady and not very loud, on the table. "H'm," he said. "And you need a trey and there aint but four of them and I already got three. And you just shuffled. And I cut afterward. And if I call you, I will have to buy that nigger. Who dealt these cards, Amodeus?" Only he didn't wait to be answered. He reached out and tilted the lamp-shade, the light moving up Tomey's Turl's arms that were supposed to be black but were not quite white, up his Sunday shirt that was supposed to be white but wasn't quite either, that he put on every time he ran away just as Uncle Buck put on the necktie each time he went to bring him back, and on to his face; and Mr Hubert sat there, holding the lampshade and looking at Tomey's Turl. Then he tilted the shade back down and took up his cards and turned them face-down and pushed them across the middle of the table. "I pass, Amodeus," he said.

William Faulkner:

He was still too worn out for sleep to sit on a horse, so this time he and Uncle Buddy and Tennie all three rode in the wagon, while Tomey's Turl led the pony from old Jake. And when they got home just after daylight, this time Uncle Buddy never even had time to get breakfast started and the fox never even got out of the crate, because the dogs were right there in the room. Old Moses went right into the crate with the fox, so that both of them went right—right on out through the back end of it. That is, the fox went through, because when Uncle Buddy opened the door to come in, old Moses was still wearing most of the crate around his neck until Uncle Buddy kicked it off him. So they made just one run, across the front gallery and around the house and they could hear the fox's claws when—when he went scrabbling up the lean-pole, onto the roof—a fine race while it lasted, but—but the tree was too quick.
"What in damn's hell do you mean," Uncle Buddy said, "casting that damn thing with the dogs right in the same room?"
"Damn the fox," Uncle Buck said. "Go on and start breakfast. It seems to me I've been away from home a whole damn month." [applause]

John Longley, Jr.: Let's give Mr. Faulkner and Mr. Faulkner's voice a moment's rest, and—and he has told me that he'll be glad to have questions. And so we'll take about a five-minute break, and then have a question period.

John Longley, Jr.: I think Mr. Faulkner will be very interested to see what questions you might have to ask him, so go right ahead and volunteer.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, are you playing a kind of fugue on the theme of races here? Are you having a lot of fun with that?

William Faulkner: I had a lot of fun with it. I wasn't playing a fugue on the theme of races. I was writing about people in what I—what to me was amusing terms, and I hoped it would be amusing terms to the reader. No, it was primarily about people, about people who had got into a—a predicament and solved it with the only tools they had.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, this is a little bit off the theme of literature, but I'd like to—if you wouldn't mind tell us a little about your trip to Greece? [I think] I would like to hear a little about that, if that's not getting too far off the subject, too far away from it.

William Faulkner: It was a—a strange experience in that that was the only country that looked exactly like—we had—I mean, the—the background, the—the educational background of—of the Anglo-Saxon had taught him to expect it to look. And sure enough, there was the Hellenic light that I had heard of, had read about. And I saw Homer's wine-dark sea, too. And there was a—the only place I was in where there was a sense of a very distant past, but there was nothing inimical in it. In the other parts of—of the Old World there's a sense of—of the past, but there is something—something [Gothic]—Gothic and in a sense a little terrifying. In Greece, the people seem to function against that past that for all its—its remoteness in time, it was—was still inherent in the—the—the light, the resurgence of spring. You didn't expect to see the—the ghost of—of the old Greeks, or expect to see the actual figures of the gods, but you had a sense that they—they were near, and they were still powerful, not inimical, just—just powerful. That they themselves had—had reached and were enjoying a—a kind of a nirvana. They existed, but they were free of—of man's folly and trouble, of having to involve themselves in man's problem. That they were—at last had the time to watch what man did without having to be involved in it. Yes, it was—was very interesting. I—I think that—that two weeks is not only too short, it's an insult to that country, that one should go with—with no limit to his visit. That there's no end to what you can see, and then sure enough, you see something which is exactly like what you imagined. There will be the plain and—and across it, suddenly there is Parnassus with snow on it, and the old ruins—they look ancient, but there's a sense as though it happened only yesterday. That whether Agamemnon ever lived, ever was an actual man or not, there he was, he—because he had to be. It was necessary. That he—he was in the literary history of man's spirit, so therefore he must have existed at one time as a flesh and blood man.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in your new book, The Town, you have Flem Snopes assuming the mask of respectability. And I was wondering, since you, I think, are going to write a trilogy, that—I was wondering what type of character would Flem Snopes assume, say, in your next book?

William Faulkner: He had never heard of respectability. He didn't even know it existed, until suddenly [audience laughter] he found that he needed it. And so he assumed it, and as soon as he doesn't need respectability any longer, he will cast it away. That he had a certain aim which he intended to attain. He would use whatever tools necessary, with complete ruthlessness, to gain that end. And if he had to use respectability, he would use that. If he had to use religious observance, he would use that. If he has to destroy his wife, he will do that. If he has to—to trick a—a—a child, a girl child, into—to being his tool, he will do that with no compunction whatever. That respectability to him was just a tool.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: May I ask [you], to what extent when you're composing your stories, are your characters— do they represent ideas or a theme consciously on your part, or to what extent are they just people who keep developing as characters and let theme and plot fall where they may?

William Faulkner: Yes, the character comes first as people. I—I didn't have enough formal education to—to know really what ideas are, that ideas to me must be translated into—to the human being struggling against his own problems. The ideas are only incidental or maybe coincidental to writing about people, and the—the ideas of the—the symbolism, they are simply, in my own case, the tools which the craftsman uses to tell the story, but his interest is primarily in the characters, not in the plot, not really so much in what they do, but it's in—in making the—the—the figure of his imagination assume three dimensions and stand on its own feet and cast its own shadow. The symbolism, the style, the ideas are only coincidental to that and are simply the tools which the craftsman uses.

Unidentified participant: But would—would you say then, sir, that you have to—you would begin with an idea for a character rather than an anecdote or an idea?

William Faulkner: Well—

Unidentified participant: Of an event?

William Faulkner: It could be an anecdote or a scene, but it would be not an idea. It would be people in motion, people in some tragic or comic situation struggling to get out of it, or it could be—come—the first conception would be the character itself.

Unidentified participant: For example, this story you read us this evening, do you recall—this is probably so far back, I wondered, though, what was the germ of that story? Do you recall it, perhaps?

William Faulkner: The germ of the story was one of the three oldest ideas that—that man can write about, which is—is love, sex. And to me it was—was comic, of the man that had got himself involved in an engagement, and he himself couldn't extricate himself, and his— [audience laughter] he had to call on his brother, and his brother used the only tools he had, which was his ability to play poker. [audience laughter] Which to me what was funny. It was funny. Also, it was—it had a certain sociological importance in, to show my country as it really was in those days. The—the—the elegance of the colonial plantation didn't exist in my country. My country was still frontier. The plantation, the—the—the columned porticos, that was Charleston and Natchez. But in my country it was still frontier. People lived from day to day, with a—with a bluff and crude hardiness, but with a—a certain simplicity, which to me is very interesting because the—the common picture of the South is all magnolias and crinoline and—and Grecian portals and things like that, which was true only around the fringes of the South, not in the interior, the backwoods.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, to what extent have you drawn directly on experience for these stories?

William Faulkner: That's difficult to say. The writer, I think, has three reservoirs: one is experience, which includes what he has read. The other is observation, which, of course, is what he has seen and done. The third is imagination. And he himself doesn't know, and, in fact, he hasn't gotten time to be concerned or to care how much of which he draws on at any one time. It's as though he had three reservoirs with three pipes that go to a common tap, with maybe a—an automatic selector somewhere that—that when—when observation doesn't go far enough, it tries experience. When experience hasn't gone far enough, it reverts to imagination, that the only check is some rigid concept of what is truth and what is not truth in—in the craftsman, which what he does has got to match. If it doesn't match, he throws it away, and then he's got to—to go back to imagination. If that is not enough, then he's got to—to increase his experience or his observation. But no man can say just how much of—of each he uses. He knows, any writer, that he is going to change and alter anything he writes because any fiction writer is a congenital liar to begin with, you see. He is not going to—to take anything as is. He's going to change it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Have you enjoyed your stay here at the University?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir, very much.

Unidentified participant: We were interested in your comment of—of coming to Virginia because you liked snobs, I wonder if you [might care to][audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, that was—I thought that we were more or less informal then, and I didn't really mean that as a serious observation. But— [audience laughter] Now, let me define what I mean by a snob, is someone who is so complete in himself and so satisfied with what he has that he needs nothing from anybody. That when a stranger comes up, he can accept that stranger on the stranger's terms provided only the stranger observe only a few amenities of civilization. [audience laughter] And to me that—that's what the people, what Virginians do. They don't—they never push at me. They want nothing of me. They—they will—will offer me their hospitability, and they will—will accept me. All I have to do is just to behave decently. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, is there any one incident in your life that you just decided then that you were going to become a writer?

William Faulkner: I was living in New Orleans. I was running a—a power boat for a bootlegger. I would go down [audience laughter] and take the boat with a—a—a man with a gun and a—a—a—Negro hand for the crew through the industrial canal across the—the Mississippi Sound to an island where the schooner would bring the raw alcohol up from the Indies, and we would load the cargo and bring it back to town. I'd get a hundred dollars for each trip, and in those days, that was a lot of money, so I wouldn't have to work until I began to run out of money. Then I would make another run with the boat, and I met Sherwood Anderson, and I liked him at once. We would meet and walk around the French Quarter, and he would talk, and I would listen. We would meet again in the evening. We'd go to some pleasant courtyard, and we'd sit over a bottle of whiskey, and he would talk, and I would listen. In the mornings, he would be in seclusion working. That went on day after day, and I thought if—if that's all you had to do to be a writer, then that was the life for me, [audience laughter] so I [decided I wanted to] become a writer, and I started a book, and right away I found it was fun to do, and I hadn't seen Mr. Anderson in weeks. I met Mrs. Anderson on the street, and she said, "We haven't seen you." I said, "Yes'm, I'm writing a book." She said, "Good God." [audience laughter] I saw her again a few weeks later. She said, "I told Anderson—Sherwood you were writing a book. She says, "Do I want him, Mr. Anderson, to read it?'" I said, "Well'm, he can if he wants to." She said, "Well, he told me to tell you he'll make a trade with you. If he don't have to read that manuscript, he'll tell his publisher to take it." So I said, "done." [audience laughter] And I finished the manuscript, and he told his publisher to take it, and that's how I got to be a professional writer. [audience laughter] But, of course, by that time, I'd found that writing was fun. It was—was—was the most fun I'd found yet, and I knew then that I had been bitten and was incurable.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I was wondering how long you can write—for how long at a stretch can you write before you feel tired, before you've tired yourself out?

William Faulkner: You get tired, I think, before you realize it. I took a leaf from—from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when she says, "Always leave him while you're looking good." [audience laughter] Well, I—I always try to remind myself to stop before I'm—have found out I'm tired, but as long as it's hot, it's—it's difficult to break off and—and quit. That takes a certain amount of discipline, to stop and always leave something fresh to start on tomorrow. That's the only rule about writing I have, is never to write completely out at one stretch. That could be an hour or sixteen hours in a day, though there're some workmen that—that have to have a rigid discipline. They sit so many hours a day whether they write anything or not. They do research. They have notebooks, and they—they take a piece of paper and—and plot a graph for the story to follow, which I've never done, because I'm lazy, and I—I don't like the effort of putting the words on the paper, so I put that on—put that off as long as possible, and a great deal of that is—is done here before I start to write.

John Longley, Jr.: [Did you have a question?]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I have a question I've always wanted to ask an author, is do they really put all the significance and meaning and trying to teach this big lesson in the book, and I—I had thought that you answered it once, but then you seem to contradict yourself. Do you write to try to teach somebody a lesson, to describe your state, or just because you think you've got to write a good story and make some money off of it?

William Faulkner: No, no. All that is incidental. What the writer is—is—is doing is trying to create people. He hasn't got time to bother with the symbols and the message. The first-rate writer hasn't. He is busy creating people, and he would do that even if he had to pay for the privilege. He's not interested in the money. The money is—is incidental, too, that he is having a—a good time creating living people.

Unidentified participant: And that's motive enough [to write a book]?

William Faulkner: Uh, yes, I think so. Actually, he's—he's demon-driven. The—the writer who is trying to—to tell a message is not primarily a writer. He is—he's more of an—an evangelist or a propagandist [maybe]. But—but the writer, the—the true fictioneer is interested only in creating human beings.

Unidentified participant: Then could I ask you what Ike Snopes is supposed to be in—in The Hamlet? What were you creating then? Is he someone like whom—like someone whom you knew or what? I—

William Faulkner: No, no. No writer is satisfied with—with the folks that God creates. He's convinced that he can do much better than that. [audience laughter] To me, Ike Snopes was simply an interesting human being with—with man's natural, normal failings, his—the baseness which man fights against, the—the honor which he hopes that he can always match. The honesty, the courage which he hopes that he can always match. And at times he fails. And then he is—he is pitiable. But he's still human, and he still believes that man can be better than he is, and that is what the writer is—is trying to do, is interested in, to—to show man as he is in conflict with his problems, with his nature, with his own heart, with his fellows, and with his environment. That's all I—in my opinion, any book or story is about. Of course it has mutations. The problems fall into the categories of money or sex or death. But the—the basic story is man in conflict with his own heart, with his fellows, or with his environment.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, is there any special reason why you consider Wolfe such a great author?

William Faulkner: That was an unfortunate remark I made about twenty years ago that I've been explaining ever since. It was at a—a group meeting something like this. Someone asked me how I rated my contemporaries. I said it's too soon to rate us, we haven't finished yet. He said, "Well, you have—haven't you any opinion at all about them?" I said, "About who?" He named Wolfe, Dos Passos, Caldwell, and Hemingway. I said, "Well," and this was sort of off the cuff. I never thought of it before. I said, "Well, I—I think we all failed, and so I would rate them on the—the splendor of the failure." I put Wolfe first because he made the—the—the most splendid failure. I put myself second. I put Dos Passos third, Caldwell fourth and Hemingway fifth. It had nothing to do with the value of the work we'd done but on the—on the splendor with which we had failed. I put Hemingway last because he had found quickly a—a method in which he was secure, and he didn't need to splash around, to experiment, that he stuck to that, and he didn't—didn't need to—to try to—to put all the history of man's heart onto one pinhead and one paragraph, which Wolfe had tried to do, which is why Wolfe's material would have been unreadable had it not been for his editor, Mr. Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's, and Mr. Perkins in—in a way really wrote Wolfe's book because the mass of incoherent material that—which Wolfe sent to him would've been unreadable, [audience laughter] if it hadn't been for Mr. Perkins.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you say that your characters are, and as much as possible anyway, just people. And yet I sort of got the idea that Flem Snopes is sort of a—a practically inhuman character and sort of symbolic himself. Does that ever—did that enter when you wrote that, or—

William Faulkner: Well, it would depend on what he is symbolic of. You see people who are inhuman people. I think that I didn't invent an inhuman—the inhuman type, which— which Flem is a—a manifestation of. I think that Jason Compson in another book of mine is—is completely inhuman. But in a way, he is, I hope, a living man. I have known people in actual life who were hopeless, who in—in the terms of—of—of the humanities, in the terms of—of the—of the verities of—of man's condition, compassion and pity and courage, unselfishness—he was inhuman, but he was still a living man. He was not created to be a symbol of anything. He was simply created because suddenly he had a place in—in that particular scene that I was writing about, in that particular problem of human beings that I was writing about. Not to symbolize anything at all.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, do you believe that the theory of absurdity is applicable to man himself?

William Faulkner: I doubt if I understand you. You'll have to explain a little more what you mean by that.

Unidentified participant: Well, the theory of absurdity implies that man is completely unintelligent. He—it's absurd for him to ever [...]

William Faulkner: Oh, I see.

Unidentified participant: Putting myself on the [plane] of being or to come in contact with God or anything like that.

William Faulkner: No, I don't. That would take a—a different mentality from mine to accept man as absurd. He is ridiculous at times. He is—he is nothing consistently [absurd], except these—these exceptions we spoke of, who are inhuman and who are—are—are devils, but in general, man is capable of—of absurdity, just as he's capable of grandeur, but he is not consistently capable of any. My belief is that he wants to be consistently capable always of—of the best things of—of—of grandeur, of courage, of compassion, of honesty, but he fails. But—but to me he's not absurd. It's only in his—his ephemeral manifestation of the moment.

[end of recording]