Graduate Class in American Fiction, tape 1

DATE: 21 February 1958

OCCASION: Frederick Gwynn's Graduate Class in American Fiction

TAPE: T-123a

LENGTH: 31:53

Play the full recording:

Frederick Gwynn: [...] and as we get into the final month, he's answered a good many questions. About the only one he hasn't heard that's familiar to all teachers is, "Will that be on the examination?" Mr. Faulkner's by now an old member of the English Department, [although we did not accord him] with the [title] of professor we can ask him almost—we can ask him a lot more things than we can ask professors, so now's our chance.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, one of your novels, Requiem for a Nun, has been adapted to the theater and was successfully presented in Paris and England. Do you feel others of your works might be successfully dramatized, too, and do you plan to do it?

William Faulkner: I—I don't know. I don't know too much about theater. I wrote that book as a play. It wasn't adapted. There were sections of it—it—the story fell into three acts told in dramatic form. It was—I—I think played that way. There were no adaptations and no changes. Of course, there may have been some changes when Albert Camus got hold of it in Paris. He turned it into an existentialist job, but he didn't change it too much. I think the—the version in—in London was about as I wrote it, but it was—was written in that form. I felt, at the time, that that was the most effective way to tell the story I was trying to tell. I think that's one of the tools of the writer's craft, that he is at liberty to use whatever method he thinks does the job best.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Douglas Day: Mr. Faulkner, Romain Gary wrote recently that he refuses to write only from his own experience because it limits one so. Do you believe that it's possible for—for good fiction to be written by a novelist who attempts to write of things beyond the limits of his own experience?

William Faulkner: Oh, yes. Of course, you've got to define what you mean by experience. If you restrict experience to what you yourself have—have done, that is a—a limited field, and you would have only a limited field to write from. To—to me, experience is—is anything that you have perceived. It can come from—from books. A book that—a story that is—is true enough and alive enough to move you, that, in my opinion, is—is your experience, is one of your experiences. You need not to do the—the actions that the people in that book do, but if they strike you as being true, that they are things that people would do, that you can understand the feeling behind them that made them do that, then that's an experience to me. And so, in my definition of experience, you—it's impossible to write anything that is not an experience, because everything you have—have read, have heard, have sensed, have imagined is a part of experience. That is, I think, there's as much of memory in the—the nerves and the muscles as there is in the gray matter.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I have a question Mr. Faulkner, sort of along these lines. It's a little long, [yet] I hope you'll bear with me.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir. Go slow with it [so I won't miss it].

Unidentified participant: I certainly will. As background on it, Mr. Gwynn asked us to—to write an outline of a novel that we wanted to write last semester. It was quite a difficult task, for me at any rate, and here it is the question which comes out of that attempt to write that outline. I sometimes think that the writer who tells the truth has an almost insurmountable problem. First, he must know what and how other people think, and second he must record what he knows in his artistic creation. If you agree with this premise, which part of the writer's task is the more difficult: knowing a character, that is what he believes and how he reacts to the situations and so forth, or once you know it, getting it down on paper?

William Faulkner: Now there's another case where we've got to define terms. In my opinion, truth don't have very much relation to facts, that some things you imagine or you hear, you know is true. Maybe it ain't so, but it should be so. That to me is truth. Now, give me the second half of your question again.

Unidentified participant: Well, the second half, as—as I look at the problem of writing the novel is, once you have your character in [mind], then getting him down on paper, telling about the character, describing his thoughts or his opinions or how he reacts under pressure or his philosophy, is getting that down—that's the, I suppose, the mechanical part. Now what to me is, first, you know your character, and you know what he's like. You know him, and then you have to put him down on—on the paper as you're writing, and I was wondering if that is the sort of the way you approach a novel, which it probably is not, but if it is, which would you say is—is the hardest of the two problems: to—to get your character in your mind or to get him down on paper once you have him in your mind?

William Faulkner: I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he's true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It's the—the ingestion and then the gestation. You've got to know the character. You've got to believe in him. You've got to—to feel that—that what—that he is—is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of—of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the—the—the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical. It's—I think, most of the—the writing has got to take place up here before you ever put the pencil to the paper. But the character's got to be true by your conception and by your experience, and that would include, as we've just said, what you've read, what you've imagined, what you've heard, all that going to giving you the gauge to measure this imaginary character by, and once he comes alive and true to you, and—and he's important and moving, then it's not too much trouble to put him down.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I think my question follows a little bit from that one. I was wondering, to what extent [is] the creative literary process really sometimes painful, and if facility in writing necessarily goes with excellence or the other way around. And if it's too difficult, does it appear to the reader as being labored and—and worked over?

William Faulkner: Sometimes, probably. I think of—of so much of Dreiser, that must've been a terrific anguish to him to write. I can think of—well, Flaubert, say, that—that sounds so easy, so simple, that must have been a terrific effort to him, too. Probably you can't—can't draw any—any general—generalization from that. Now, what was the question about the— the—the anguish and trouble. We almost touched on that. Tell me that again, the first of your question was—

Unidentified participant: I just wanted to know to what extent [that in] the creative literary process is or can be expected to be—?

William Faulkner: Well, it's anything that—that you like to do better than anything else, of course you're willing to make sacrifices for, and usually the things that you like to do are troublesome. That is, if you like to ski, that's—that's difficult. Everybody can't do it. But if you like it well enough, that very anguish is fun. You do it because that gives you more pleasure than anything else you can think of. It may be difficult, just like mountain climbing. Nobody would climb mountains just for fun. People don't know why they climb mountains, but that's their cup of tea they like. I think that's true of the writer, that he's—he's willing to face the—the anguish and the trouble of it because—one reason is he can't help it, he—his choice is either to—to write or not write, and he says, "Well, I'm going to write anyway." The other is to have done the job well, then he has—has been repaid for the trouble and the suffering, we'll call it, that he went through. Also, he has justified the fact that people must suffer. There's really no good reason why there should be pain, you know. There's no biological reason for it, and yet we constantly suffer pain and fear and if the individual can make something which—which makes him feel good, that this is something that wasn't here before me, and I've made it, and it's—it's not quite good enough, but it's the best I can do, and I had a good time at it, then that is his—his pay for it.

Unidentified participant: This sort of relates to the question before that, but when you are writing a novel about a particular group of people and a particular environment, just to what extent—how fully do you imagine these people and this environment beyond what actually goes into the novel?

William Faulkner: I think one of the—the first qualities a writer must have is an inherent incapacity to stick to the truth, that he will—will take characters, situations he has seen with the best intention in the world, but despite himself, he cannot stick to that. He's going to improve it somehow. He's trying to make something a little new, a little different than what was here before, and he's not going to worry too much about whether he sticks to the truth, and he finds that he's got away from fact, I mean, not the truth, which is as I just said, there's not too much relation between fact and truth. When he finds that he has got away from fact, he doesn't worry about that. Because he has dedicated himself to stick to truth, as he sees it. I mean, by truth, the—the things which move people. The—the—the desires, the passions in the human heart, the things that the human heart considers important—honor and truth, shame, baseness, courage—that's what he's writing about, and when he's got to—to ignore fact to do that better, then he won't hesitate to ignore fact, because he's not really interested in facts. Fact can change too much. Fact can be one thing today and something else tomorrow. A posted sign can change a fact, you know, but it can't change the truth.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I think some magazines pay more for humorous stories than they do for stories of a more serious nature, at least I've heard a number of writers say that in relation to The New Yorker, supposedly because humor is harder to write than—humorous stories are harder to write than serious ones. Do you find that true in your writing, that it's harder for you to write a funny scene, a humorous scene, than it is to write one of a serious nature?

William Faulkner: With me, the character does the work, and so I couldn't say that it's more difficult to write a funny story than a sad one. That I think the writer is mainly not writing a story. He's writing about people. He thinks of the character. He gets that character from observation, from experience, from imagination, and suddenly that character himself or herself turns out to be funny, and then she says and does funny things. I think maybe what you might call a professional writer that—that has a—a knack for composition, for knowing what magazines will pay the best price for and has the talent to—to write something to fit that, now he may be able to answer that question better than me, but I think I've found it more satisfactory to write mainly about people and let the character himself—if he's comic, then he does and says comic things, and I don't think I would worry too much about that.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you've stated that your method of composition is just to let the story write itself. And I was wondering if you could tell us whether or not Sherwood Anderson wrote in [a—similar to] this fashion.

William Faulkner: I think so, yes. He—writing was—was very difficult for him because he took it up late in life and contrary to his tradition and his training. He had been successful in the—the ordinary shape of the American dream, which was to come from nothing and—and by your own shrewdness and skill make something of yourself and establish a certain position in the community. Then suddenly he decided he wanted to be a writer, and he, at his age, he—he was thinking always, "Well, now am I good enough to be a writer? Is this a mistake? Maybe rather than to try to be a writer and fail, I should've stuck to what I had trained myself to do," and he himself didn't have the confidence in what he did. It would be other people that would say, "Well, this is—this is splendid. This is marvelous. Few people can match that." He never did quite believe that. He was afraid that somebody might come along and say, "This is nonsense, it's trash." And if someone had, he would've believed that, that he himself didn't have the confidence in what he did or in the doing of it, which the person that begins to write, to want to be a writer young has. When you're young, you know nothing. You believe that you can climb a mountain or can fly an aeroplane faster or ride a racehorse than anybody else can. You're not afraid to try anything. But in his case, he—he was afraid. Did that answer the question or did it get away from the question?

Unidentified participant: Well, I don't know. It—I thought it was very interesting. I don't know whether exactly was the thing I was—

William Faulkner: Well, let's have your question again. I got off myself. That's my fault.

Unidentified participant: I—I was—just wanted to know if he wrote in the same fashion you did. You said that you just let the story write itself, and I was wondering if he did the same thing.

William Faulkner: Yes, and—generally, yes. I think that all people write from—in—by the same method. It's a matter of—of imagining any number of things. The writer at the moment of putting it down has got to be a censor, to say, "Now, this is—this is right, this is wrong," and to throw away the wrong. Anderson didn't quite have that—that confidence in his own capacity to pick and choose. There was an instinct that would save him in the end. A lot of—of the stuff that went into his—his stories a man with a heart or mind more sure of himself would've stricken out and would've gotten rid of some of the—the sense of fumbling and clumsiness, the heavy-footedness, which was in Anderson's stories, which he himself didn't like, but in my opinion, it had a great deal to do with making his stories. The very fact that they did sound clumsy and—and not quite strained but a little puzzled, that the truth did come out of—of all the heavy-footedness and the—the fumbling, the—whatever it was that—that made him go to the length of reducing some of it to the sort of First Reader statements, gave something to the final result that—that no imitator could—could match probably. But it was much more of a unhappy strain to him, that he never got the—the pleasure of—out of writing that a more facile craftsman could've done. It had nothing to do with the result, of course, but it just was.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Frederick Gwynn: Even if he didn't have confidence in his own ability to write well, do you think he had the confidence in his own vision of some truth?

William Faulkner: Absolutely, I do. That is why he stopped being a successful advertiser and became an artist. He had absolute confidence in his vision and—and knew it was important enough for something to be done about it, for him to try to—to tell it, to show to people what he had seen, which he—he, in my opinion, he did marvelously well, but clumsily.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, this is another question about Anderson. One critic suggested Sherwood Anderson felt a particular kinship to Gertrude Stein. Miss Stein is spoken of so frequently in connection with the writers of the Twenties, that I would be interested to know whether you recall any discussion by Anderson of her, of her work, and its supposed influence upon himself.

William Faulkner: Yes, he had the—the unlettered man's boundless and almost baseless respect for—for literacy, for education, and she was—was an extremely versatile creature that way. She spoke two or three different languages, and she came from a background of people that took the best of education as a matter of course, which he didn't have. Also, she was one of the few people that he could trust. I mean that—that when she said that what he was doing was—was good, he never doubted it, because he knew that she would never do anything to hurt him. Other people that told him it was good, he never did quite trust. He said, "Well—well, maybe they'll—they'll do something to hurt me tomorrow. I'm afraid of them." But with her he never was, because he knew that she was a—well, you might say a lady, and wasn't—was never going to hurt him.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you believe that Sherwood Anderson was too deliberate in his use of [symbols] or do you believe that some of his—these symbols were unconsciously used in Winesburg, Ohio?

William Faulkner: A little of both. You've got to remember that suddenly at the age of about 40 he decided to be a writer. He had to learn a complete new trade with a complete new equipment, and up to that time, he had probably not thought too much about symbolism. He had to teach himself that as he went along. But he—what he taught himself, he—he would stop to prove to—to be sure that it was right, that it was in—in accord with the—with the symbolism of—of the new psychology, which was coming along at that time. But he had to teach himself his trade as he went along.

Frederick Gwynn: Do you happen to remember how you first met Mr. Anderson?

William Faulkner: Yes, I had—had worked in a New York bookstore. The manager was Elizabeth Prall, a Miss Prall then. Later I heard that she had married Anderson, was living in New Orleans. I happened to be in New Orleans, and I had gone to call on her, because I—I wasn't going to—to bust in on Mr. Anderson without an invitation from him. I didn't think that I would see him at all, that he would probably be in his study working, but it happened that he was in the room at the time. And we talked, and we liked one another from the start, and it was this—just the chance that I had gone to call on Miss Prall, that I had known, who had been kind to me when I was a clerk in a book store, that I came to meet him.

Frederick Gwynn: Sir, I'd like to follow that up just once, if I may, sir. We were talking about the background of Anderson's writing, and all of the writing out of the '20s, and how people often gathered in groups in Greenwich Village and Chicago and New Orleans. Was there something in New Orleans that pulled you down there, or were—were you just making a—a trip?

William Faulkner: Well, yes, I had heard of The Double Dealer and the people there for years. At that time, I went to New Orleans to—to get a job in a ship and go to Europe. That was why I happened to be in New Orleans at that time. That I hadn't—it was no pull to be a part of a literary group, no. That I had felt the pull—I—I think that any young writers does feel that pull, to—to be with people that—that have the same problems and—and the same interests as him, that—that won't laugh at what he's trying to do, that won't laugh at—at what he says no matter how foolish it might sound to the Philistine. But that was the—the reason I was in New Orleans, was to get a job with a ship.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I'd like to follow up your remark about the Philistine for one minute if I can. During the past hundred years or so, much has been said and written about the gulf between the writer and the other people [of his own time]. If this gulf and supposed lack of understanding is a certainty between the writer and his time does exist, what would you suggest [are some of its causes]?

William Faulkner: Probably the writer is just too confoundedly busy with his own private affairs to have much time for his contemporary scene, that he's aware of it, but he ain't too interested in it, that to him, the world is not just A.D. this particular year. To him, the world is all man [would call] anguish in the books and the plays and the poems. That's where he lives. He just happens to have to eat in—in 1958, but he don't really live there. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, it's been stated that you regard civilization as evil and nature as good, and in "The Bear," you seem to indicate that the purity of untouched nature as opposed to the tainted air that hangs about the human spoilers of the wilderness, that there is this difference. Is this the result of a belief that man, if he returns to a natural life, can be rejuvenated?

William Faulkner: No, and if I ever gave that impression in my work, that's not quite true. I think that with any writer—civilization, his age, his time, is a part of the equipment, the reservoir that he will write from, that that is the—the writer, the artist, probably don't think anything is either good or bad. It just is, and it's vastly interesting because it moves, and that is the—the source and the material from which he's going to try to make something. It's motion. It's people, no matter whether what they do is cowardly or brave or—or a nuisance or diverting or entertaining. It's still motion, and he himself hasn't got time, or inclination either, to judge it. I think that anyone who says civilization is—is bad and—and non-civilization is therefore good, and if man could just leave civilization and live in a tree and eat nuts, [audience laughter] that he'd be better off, I—some men might be better off with that, but not everybody would. If—if—if you like to live in a tree and eat nuts, then you'd be better off and be happier, [audience laughter] but the other people that are just as honorable and just as brave that live in the middle of civilization. But that's all part of the—the reservoir that you write from. That's part of the experience, to be in the midst of [it, the] motion.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you think that Sherwood Anderson could've expanded his Winesburg, Ohio into a series of novels as you've done with your Yoknapatawpha County people, or do you think that he's necessarily more limited to a form like the short story?

William Faulkner: He was, yes, limited to that form, and his tragedy was that he was limited to that one book, that—that was—was truth as he saw it. It was valid, true truth, but he had done it that one time, and he never could do it again. Because the truth, it was as though the truth that he was capable of burst on him like a—a thunderclap all in one flash, that there was nothing to progress from nor toward, that it all happened to him like a—a—a house falling on him.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, many of the characters in Winesburg, Ohio had the problem of not being able to communicate with their fellow man, and I think some of your characters also seem to have that trouble. Now, you've said that the most important thing for man is for him to be able to believe in himself. Do you believe that before he can believe in himself, he must overcome this barrier of communication [with others]?

William Faulkner: He would be happier if he could overcome the barrier. I don't believe that the fact that he feels he can't communicate would have anything to do with his own belief in himself. I don't think that—that whether the writer believes he can't communicate or not, he can and he does. I imagine that there's really nobody that—that doesn't communicate. It may be he'll—he—he won't want to, that he'll think that—that he's sufficient, can be an island to himself, but he can't. Whether he wants to or not, he belongs to mankind, too. And in the very fact of belonging to mankind, he communicates with mankind. He may not be able to do it articulately. He may not have the—the quality of—of rhetoric, but there's—there's more to communication than speech, you know.

Unidentified participant: That's what I meant. I meant just the characters that couldn't seem to get to know people in Winesburg, Ohio. There're quite a few characters in that book that are sort of isolated and frustrated because they couldn't seem to get to know other people. I didn't mean [writing or speech].

William Faulkner: Oh, I see. I think that was—was out of Anderson's own nature, that he himself didn't believe that communication was—was more difficult. I think maybe that he expected more of people than he ever found in people, and these characters in his book, because of what they thought was a lack of—an inability to communicate was, they simply couldn't find the—the—the fine virtues in mankind that Mr. Anderson himself believed were there. They're not there. Man is capable of anything, of everything, but of no particular virtue, no particular evil. He's —

[end of recording]