Combined Literature Classes, tape 1

DATE: 8 May 1958

OCCASION: Joseph Blotner's Introductory Class in Types of Literature, Frederick Gwynn's Graduate Class in American Literature, 4 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-144c

LENGTH: 32:49

Play the full recording:

Moderator: I think I'll take the moderator's [privilege and ask the first question,] if I may. I'd like to know a little bit about the circumstances of the composition of "The Bear." Can you remember when it was that you first thought of it and put it down [...]?

William Faulkner: I couldn't—couldn't say. That story is probably a summation of—of my whole experience from the first time I was big enough to go into the woods where bears were with a gun until I became a man. Probably—that story may be autobiographical, in the sense that it was that little boy's confrontation with something big and important, for he himself to find how he would meet it, to—as Hemingway says, "to meet it with grace." What I mean is, probably I was composing that story from the first moment I went into the—what we call the big woods and—and realized what it was. There would be bigger animals, wilder animals than the rabbits and possums and things that I had experience with when I was not big enough yet to carry a gun into the woods.

Unidentified participant: You really began composing it when you were Isaac's age?

William Faulkner: I think so, yes, or remembered it, and then when I had acquired some skill in the craft of writing, to write my own biography against something which was a—a fine pleasure to me, a worthwhile pursuit, which is probably a part of any boy's life, any American boy, unless he has—was bred and lived all his life in the city. I imagine there are not many of you here who haven't hunted. When you first have a gun, rabbits, possums, and then you got big enough to hunt bigger game than that.

Unidentified participant: [Have you] written anything else about Boon Hogganbeck, after "The Bear"?

William Faulkner: He is one of my stable of people that I consider myself the owner and proprietor of. [audience laughter] I think I have used him occasionally at need. I don't recall now specifically what stories or books, but I—I believe I have used him. But he hasn't been the central character in a—a story, like he was there, or one of the central characters.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, since you put such meaning into the hunt, could you tell us just why you hunted when you were a young boy or—or what meaning the hunt has to you?

William Faulkner: The hunt was simply a—a symbol of pursuit. Most of—of anyone's life is a pursuit of something. That is, the only alternative to life is immobility, which is death. This was a—a symbolization of the pursuit which is a normal part of—of anyone's life while he stays alive, told in terms which were familiar to me and—and dramatic to me. The protagonist could have been anything else beside that bear. I simply told a story which was a—a natural, normal part of anyone's life in a familiar and, to me, interesting terms, without any deliberate intent to put symbolism in it. I was simply telling something which was, in this case, the child, the—the need, the compulsion of the child to adjust to the adult world. It's how he does it, how he survives it, whether he is destroyed by trying to adjust to the adult world or whether, despite his small size, he does adjust within his capacity. And always to learn something, to learn something of—not only to pursue but to—to overtake and then to have the compassion not to destroy. To—to catch, to touch, and then let go because then tomorrow you can pursue again. If you destroy what you caught, then it's gone. It's finished. And that, to me, is—is sometimes the greater part of valor, but always it's the greater part of pleasure, not to destroy what you have pursued. The pursuit is the—is the thing, not the reward, not the—the gain.

William Faulkner: Yes ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you explained to us that Ike—the story of Ike in "The Bear" is, in a manner of speaking, autobiographical. Does Ike's theory of a curse on the land in any way reflect your feeling of a curse on the land?

William Faulkner: No—well, if—if it—if it should, it would not be, maybe, as strong as Ike's. I think that any author should—should put on the—a full page in his book that he is not responsible for the ideas expressed by any of his characters, their ideas or political convictions or—or religious beliefs. I—I think that Ike probably carried that a little further than—than I might have because it was necessary for my story that he should. That he was a—he was a poet, in his way, an idealist, which I probably am not or, anyway, not as good a one as Ike.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, a central theme of Absalom, Absalom! is that Sutpen will not or cannot acknowledge Charles Bon as his son. Why does he not do this, why—why—why does he leave it to Henry? It—it seemed to me it would have been more in keeping with Sutpen's character [to] [...] [confession of it to Bon or if he had even destroyed Bon so that he]

William Faulkner: Well, he didn't acknowledge Bon for the reason that—that Bon was part Negro. To have acknowledged Bon as his son would have destroyed the very dream, the drive, which had compelled him to go through hardship and—and suffering to begin with. He couldn't acknowledge Bon as his son.

Unidentified participant: Did he acknowledge Clytemnestra as his daughter?

William Faulkner: No. Well, that would not have mattered because Clytemnestra was a female. The important thing to him was he should establish a line of dukes, you see. He was going to create a dukedom. He'd have to have a male descendent. He would have to establish a dukedom, which would be his revenge on the white Virginian who told him to go to the back door. And so he—he—to have a Negro—half-Negro for his son would have wrecked the whole dream, so he couldn't. If he had thought that—that it would ever be exposed that Bon was his son, he may have killed Bon himself. If it'd ever come to that point, he would destroy Bon, just as he would destroy any other individual that got in his way.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you said that you, as the author, are not responsible for what your character is saying. How about the language that they use? I noticed that some of the dialogue in "The Bear" was a little bit above [the level of] the average southerner, speaking as someone who has [...] [audience laughter]. Did you mean that to be realistic or is that just [poetic license]?

William Faulkner: I think that's a license that the writer should be permitted. He is—is trying to—to take an instant in man's struggle within the—the human dilemma and isolate it in some dramatic form, and he hasn't got the time to do it that—that living people would—would have. They would have days and weeks to tell this story, but he has got to tell it in thirty minutes or two or three hours or, at most, two days. He has got to emphasize, over-emphasize at times. He's got to under-emphasize at others. So that is his—the privilege of his craft to—to put a sort of poetry into the mouths of people that in real life would be incapable of speaking poetry. He sticks just enough to the natural and to dialect to make what they say believable, even though you say, "Well, he couldn't have expressed this idea in this way." You say, "Well, anyway, he would have expressed it in [this] language." That's one of the—the privileges that you must give the writer, that he is sticking to the fundamental truth, but he can distort fact just a little if—in order to—to get his story told in a moving, dramatic way.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, how did you happen to choose Old Ben [...]?

William Faulkner: He was the—the biggest untamed creature in the woods at that time. The—the other—the Indian was gone, the—the—the buffalo, the—the other big, wild creatures had been eliminated by that time. Only the bear remained. He was the biggest wild thing to be a protagonist in the—the story of this little boy's adjustment to the adult world.

Unidentified participant: Then—so I think that maybe Old Ben was a non-fictional character then?

William Faulkner: No, there's no writer ever will be satisfied to take any character from real life, put him in the book, because he's convinced he can do a much better at that than God can. He's going to improve and warp and distort no matter how much he concentrates on trying to tell—stick to facts. A writer simply couldn't stick to facts. The truth really is not in him. That's why they call it fiction. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I'd like to go back to Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom! I have the impression that [up until] very near the end of the book that he did not realize that he was Sutpen's son. Because he's several times mentioned wondering what the secret was that his mother kept and worried about. And yet about twenty or thirty pages from the end of the book he says to Henry that "It's the miscegenation and not the incest that [you fear] in my marriage to Judith." So at what point did—did he find this out and how did he find out?

William Faulkner: I think that Bon knew all the time that—that his mother was part Negress, but during Bon's childhood that was not important. He grew up in—in the Indies and New Orleans where that wasn't too important. His mother was a wealthy woman. She could have called herself a Creole, whether she had Negro blood along with the French or not. It became important only when Bon realized that it was important to his father. I think that Bon got into that business—well, of course, because he formed a friendship with Henry and felt that he—that Henry, the—the ignorant country boy had given him a sort of worship, an admiration and a worship, which—which he enjoyed. Then when he saw the sort of stiff-necked man that Henry's father was and knew that that was his father too, he, in a way, had given his father a chance to say, "I will acknowledge you, but if you—if I do [openly and you stay here], you will wreck what I have devoted my life to and so take my love and go," I think Bon would have done, but this old man was afraid to do that. And Bon tempted him, to hold him over the coals in partly—in revenge on his treatment of his—Bon's mother, until Bon got involved too deeply. No, Bon knew that he was a Negro, but until he found it was important to Sutpen, that wasn't important to him, that he was a—a gentleman, had been well bred, cultured, much better bred and cultured than Henry himself was.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Did Bon love Judith [or was he just using her] [...]?

William Faulkner: I think he loved her. I think that he loved her. He knew that—that if she knew that he was part Negro, with her training and background, it would have destroyed her too.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Returning to "The Bear," Mr. Faulkner, why did you put Part Five after Part Four?

William Faulkner: That story was part of a novel. It was—the—the pursuit of the bear was simply, what you might call, a—a—a dangling clause in the description of that man when he was a young boy. When it was taken from the book and printed as a short story, the publisher, who is very considerate, has a great respect for—for all work and for mine in particular, he would not have altered one word of that without asking me. And he didn't ask me. If he had—had told me he was going to print it separately, I would have said, "Take this out. This doesn't belong in this [as] a short story. It's part of the novel, but not a part of the story." But rather than to go ahead and do that without asking me—I—I wasn't available at that time—he printed it as it was. It—it doesn't belong in there [as] a short story. The way to read that is to skip that when you come to it. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In Absalom, Absalom! is any one of the people who talks about Sutpen have the right view, or is it more or less a case of thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird with none of them [getting it] right?

William Faulkner: That's it exactly. I think that—that no one individual can—can look at truth. It—it—it blinds you. You look at it, and—and you—you see one phase of it. Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of it, but taken all together, the truth is—is in what they saw, though nobody saw the truth intact. So—so these are—are true as far as—as Miss Rosa and as Quentin saw it. Quentin's father saw what—what he believed was truth. That was all he saw. But the old man was—was himself a little too big for—for people no greater in stature than Quentin and Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson to see all at once. It would've taken, probably, a wiser or more tolerant or more sensitive or more thoughtful person to see him as he was. It was, as you say, thirteen ways looking at a blackbird. But the truth, I would like to think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of that blackbird, which I would like to think is the true one.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Coldfield, in Absalom, Absalom!, retreats into the attic when the war between the states starts. Now, why did he do that? Was it because he was sort of a conscientious objector, or was he all or part coward?

William Faulkner: No, he—he was probably by religious scruples a conscientious objector. Also, he was very likely a Unionist, that he hated that threat to the dissolution of the Union. That he hadn't enough courage to do anything about it except to hide his head in the sand. But I—I think that he was probably a Unionist. He probably came from—from eastern Tennessee, where the people were Unionists at that time. His background was a—a tradition of—of fidelity to the United States, as it was. He had no agrarian tradition behind him in which slavery was—was an important part of it.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Was Mr. Coldfield an honest man or was he [...]?

William Faulkner: He was probably honest in a—a timorous sort of way. He was a man probably without a great deal of courage. He was honest simply because that wasn't very risky. That he was cold, and I imagine, selfish, but—but in his dealings behind the counter of his store, he was probably honest because that was less trouble and less risk. He was not rapacious. He had no driving desire to amass a lot of money.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, why does Major de Spain stop the railroad when the bear is—the small bear is [stuck in] the tree?

William Faulkner: The bear would have stayed up the tree and starved until the train stopped running and it got quiet. Then he would come down again. But he would stay up the tree, and then when he decided things were quiet and would start down, another train would pass. He would go back up the tree and stay there until he starved. That was the reason.

Unidentified participant: Sir—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Are there any real life Sam Fathers left?

William Faulkner: Well, in the sense that too much time has passed, there could be nobody half Negro slave and half an Indian chief. He might be one-eighth an Indian chief by now, but he couldn't have been the son of an Indian chief and a Negro slave anymore. And so he would be changed, warped, softened a little by a—a different—a tamer environment than Sam Fathers grew up in.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In the creation of "The Bear," were you in any way influenced by Melville?

William Faulkner: A writer, I have said several times this year and last year too, is influenced by everything he ever reads. He—he himself doesn't bother. He knows—he doesn't think it important enough to say, "I was influenced at this moment by so and so." He is omnivorous, voracious, and completely amoral. He is influenced by everything he ever reads. He will rob and steal, right and left, with complete impunity, because he's not only perfectly willing, but he's flattered when people after him rob and steal from him, that if it's good enough for another writer to steal from him, it must have been pretty good. [audience laughter] So, if anything, he's flattered. I'm sure I was influenced by Melville, influenced by Flaubert, by the Old Testament, by everything that I ever read in the days when I read voraciously with no judgment.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: How did you happen to start using this particular means of communication, your style? [How did you hit on this] [...]?

William Faulkner: That just happened so. I—my opinion is that the book creates its own style. The writer is too busy to bother with style. He's too busy to bother with grammar, even, or standard punctuation. Get it down, and somebody in the publishing office will correct it for you. [audience laughter] The main thing is—is to get it down, and the exigencies of the story, the people in it, compel and create the style. That if you begin to write style then that implies that you ain't got very much to put in it, and so you begin to write prose and rhetoric, which is all right and pleasant enough, but it's hardly worth anybody's trouble to read. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in Sartoris, did you make Simon, the Negro house man, a tricky or comic character, or did something corrupt him to make him [...]?

William Faulkner: That was just what the white folks saw in him because his training, his—his environment, had taught him that that's what the white folks look to see in Negroes, and Negroes got along better if they act like black-faced comedians when white people were looking at them. That's one of the Negro's tragedies. No, that was just Simon's Sunday suit, you might say.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in "The Bear," who is your favorite character?

William Faulkner: Well, I never—never thought about that. [audience laughter] I probably haven't one. I like all of them. I—I—I admire the fyce dog very much. [audience laughter] But I had—I never thought which one was my favorite character.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: [Getting back to] your style, do you find that [at first in] your writing that you manipulated [a good many things] and then it became easier and easier and—and probably no longer seems to worry about such things as revising, [and send it directly to the publishing house]?

William Faulkner: No, it never has got any easier. If anything it's harder.

Unidentified participant: But do you manipulate and change words [...]?

William Faulkner: Sometimes until it comes right. Sometimes I don't have to. I never have to change a word. Sometimes I work the thing six and seven and eight and nine years. But I never know. That's part of the charm of writing to me, is the—the absolute uncertainty of it.

Unidentified participant: Yes, but at any rate it's not just a spontaneous thing, now [...]?

William Faulkner: Well, sometimes it is, yes.

Unidentified participant: [...] not always.

William Faulkner: Not always.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You said [that] in Absalom, Absalom! there were thirteen ways of looking at it. What is your way? How do you feel about Thomas Sutpen?

William Faulkner: That the truth about Thomas Sutpen came out of all the thirteen different people that looked at him.

Unidentified participant: I mean— I mean, like you said about Caddy, you said that Caddy was the darling of your heart. [Is he the darling of your heart]?

William Faulkner: Well, I said only that I worked hardest and anguished and suffered more over that book, over The Sound and the Fury. It—I—I feel toward that as—as the parent does toward the—the afflicted child, maybe. That I worked the longest and the hardest over it, and it still is not as good as it should be. So did I—so is Absalom, Absalom! not as good as it should be, but then I didn't have to anguish over that as much. I could bring myself to the point of saying, "I've done the best I can with it and write something else now. Let it alone." It took a long time with The Sound and the Fury for that.

Frederick Gwynn: Sir, speaking of those two books, as you read Absalom, Absalom!, how much can a reader feel that this is the Quentin, the same Quentin, who appears in The Sound and the Fury, that is a man thinking about his own Compson family, his own sister?

William Faulkner: To me he's consistent, that he approached the Sutpen family with—with the same ophthalmia that he approached his own troubles, that he probably never saw anything very clearly, that his was just one of the thirteen ways to look at Sutpen, and his may have been the—one of the most erroneous. Probably his friend, McCannon, had a much clearer picture of Sutpen from what Quentin told him than Quentin himself would.

Frederick Gwynn: It's still Sutpen's story, not Quentin's story.

William Faulkner: No, it's—it's Sutpen's story. But then every time any character gets into a—a—a book, no matter how minor, he is actually telling his biography. That's all anyone ever does: he tells his own biography, talking about himself. In a thousand different [terms], but himself. Quentin was still trying to—to get God to tell him why. In Absalom, Absalom! maybe he was in The Sound and the Fury.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Sir, I'd like some help on understanding the—what I call the bedroom scene in the fourth section of "The Bear." You made one statement, "She is lost. She was born lost." Can you help me to understand what you meant by that?

William Faulkner: Who does that refer to?

Unidentified participant: That refers to Ike McCaslin's wife. In—in that section [...]

William Faulkner: Yes, I—I think I remember now. She—from her background, her tradition, sex was—was something evil, that it had to be justified by acquiring property. She was, ethically, a prostitute. Sexually she was frigid. I think what he meant—he knew that—that there was no warmth that he would ever find from her, no understanding, no—no chance ever to—to accept love or return love because she was incapable of it. That's probably what he meant.

Unidentified participant: And I wondered why she laughed [...]?

[end of recording]