Visitors from Other Colleges, tape 1

DATE: 12 May 1958

OCCASION: Representatives from Other Colleges, 4 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-145a

LENGTH: 33:02

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Joseph Blotner: [...] to share with them our good fortune in having as Writer-In-Residence at the University of Virginia the world's greatest living novelist. He began our program last year by reading from his works, but the question and answer period that followed was so lively and so prolonged that we thought that this year we would skip the appetizer and begin with the steak. Mr. William Faulkner. [applause]

William Faulkner: Any question? Somebody must have at least one. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, during our formal education we are—are taught to adhere to certain grammatical rules, punctuation rules, sentence structure and so forth. Do you think that if a writer attempts to adhere to such rules that his style is restricted or cramped in any sense?

William Faulkner: No, sir. I don't think so. It may be that his opportunities for experimentation are cramped. I think that—that any language must continue to be alive. That is, it must continue to change or be susceptible to change, and—and grammar, punctuation are—are part of that fluidity. If by experimentation you—you find out if the old ways were the best or maybe the old ways might be subject to change. I wouldn't say that it restricts your style because style could be a part of the—the fluidity of—of the change. Style, if it's a—like anything else to be alive it must be in motion too. If it becomes fixed, then it's dead. It's just rhetoric. The style must change according to what the writer is trying to tell. What he is trying to tell, in fact, compels the style.

William Faulkner: If I'm not speaking loud enough, would you let me know?
Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you feel that the traditional values of the South have been endangered by increased industrialization [...]?

William Faulkner: They couldn't be. The—the values of any thing, to be of any importance, must be alive, too. It may be that you won't like to see industrialization. You won't like to see the old customs change. But the only alternative to change is—is to cease, to die. And I think that—that any culture that's worth its salt is going to cope with any change. That industrialization is not going to destroy anything of value in the South. The things of value which are—are obsolete will be remembered, and they will be the—the material for—for writing, for—for art, even though they no longer exist as a—a motivating quality in the present culture. They will exist as a—well, the—the jeweled casket to hold the fine traditions. In the sense that—that there's no such thing as "was" really, that—that every man is—is the sum of his past, of his ancestry, and so there's nothing ever ends in that sense. As long as somebody remembers it, it still exists. The good of it will still exist, still be available.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, this is a little bit more specific, but is there any redemption within the Snopes family of itself? Will that come or is that going too far [into your next novel]?

William Faulkner: Possibly. I think that—that in time evil will—will exhaust its own tools. That is, the—the Snopes will vanish. There will be some Snopeses named something else. [audience laughter] And it's not really necessary to redeem Snopeses. Snopeses are an infinitesimal part of the human race of man, and man is—is, I think, pretty good. That he's—he's doing all right. That he can—can take on a tribe of Snopeses and can get rid of them, and they will not have done any great harm to the—to the record of man's endeavor. That they are not really a—a problem. They are a problem of the moment. And there's always someone that will—will cope with Snopeses or will—will outlast Snopeses. The—the good, the people that are against what Snopeses represent will last longer than the family of Snopeses will.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What influenced your humor most? Your—did you read a—a lot of Mark Twain or something like that? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: That's a good question. That is, it's a question I'm—I'm happy to try to answer. I think that—that humor is not influenced by what anyone reads. It—it's a—an attitude of optimism toward man's predicament. That if—if you take man's predicament, the dilemma, too seriously, that's not too good for anybody. But if you are capable of seeing that man with all his folly, all the—the harm [and the shoddiness] he does, that even in his—at his worst, he is capable of doing things in a comical way that he himself didn't intend to do. I don't think you need to—to ape Mark Twain or—or Leacock or any other humorist to write humor. It's a point of view toward man in his dilemma, which is to me a very healthy point of view. If you can—can laugh at what man does, then you—you agree that what he does is not going to endure long enough to do a great deal of harm.

Unidentified participant: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you think that the southern attitude towards the Negro is the same today as when you pictured it in your book Intruder in the Dust?

William Faulkner: No, sir, I think it has changed. I think it has got to change because that was a part of a living culture, and as I just said, the only alternative to motion is death. So the culture, the Negro's position in the southern culture, will alter for the better. I—I believe that there are enough people in the South that realize that whether the Negro is now capable of equality with the white man, he will have to have the chance to try to find out, simply because the Negro is also a human being. And there's no position for a second class human being in a culture opposed to another antipathetical culture as the world is today.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you've had a number of novels made into movies, and I—I know you've written some screenplays, and I wonder if you think a novelist, any novelist, if one jeopardizes his position as a novelist by allowing Hollywood sometimes to do a bad job [...]?

William Faulkner: No, sir, not at all. I think the writer has done the best he could, the best he possibly could with that book, that nothing done to that book later can change it—change what he did and the—the movies can take that book and if they want to, if he wants to let them take that book for—for any reason other than the belief that they're going to improve on it, then they won't hurt it. If he's going to—when the book is finished, and it is done the way he wants it done, then some movie picture company says, "If you'll rewrite this to please us, then we'll give you money for it," and he says, "All right, I will—I will rewrite this book before anybody—I will destroy this book and write it to suit you," then he has betrayed his own talent and his own trust, whatever it is that the artist functions under. Integrity, call it what you like. But if he has finished the work, done the best he can with it, then nothing can hurt it, in my opinion.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I'm interested in Intruder in the Dust, too, in the last part there, that Gavin—you have the lawyer uncle in that say that "It would be better if the North, the outsiders, left the South alone to settle its own problems and sins." Do you still hold that theory, or am I right in thinking that you meant that [to start]?

William Faulkner: I still hold that opinion, I think that—that no one can be saved by an outsider. He must be saved from inside himself. That is, the South must correct that evil, as it applies to the South, ourselves, that it can't be done by—by laws or philosophical or political theories compelled on us from the outside.

Unidentified participant: Well, I was interested in what then should be the outsiders' point of view, from outside the South. In worrying about the South, what if the South did not pull itself up by its own bootstraps? They would be worried about the effect upon the rest of the states.

William Faulkner: Well, in my opinion, the South will have to pull itself up by its own bootstraps for the reason I just stated, that the only alternative to motion, progress, is death. It's a condition which we have realized much further back than 1954 was—was an impossible situation. Our forefathers that fought the—the Civil War knew that. Mr. Jefferson knew that a hundred and fifty years ago. There were people even before Mr. Jefferson that realized that slavery was an—an impossible condition in this country that would have to be remedied. I think that—that the—the outsider who is doing it because he's a do-gooder serves some purpose in keeping a certain pressure on. But nobody knows when to let well enough alone, and if he could just keep the constant, faint pressure and let be at that, he would serve his purpose, but he gets too enthusiastic with changing overnight a—a condition which is emotional according to a pattern of morality which he can't do.

Unidentified participant: Well, he might not be a do-gooder exactly. He—he might be a person worried about the effect upon the country at large, foreign policies or problems that come up out of traditional southern attitudes, and then I wonder whether a Senator from Oregon, for instance, would suppose—would do [what position could he take that would be acceptable, that would consist of] certain rules and regulations to impose for the whole country.

William Faulkner: Well, of course, he would do what he thought the people that elected him would expect him to do to get elected [audience laughter] next time, but he would still be working on a—a—to—to compel a system of economic morality on an emotional condition. He—I'm not saying that he's wrong. I'm saying he's impractical.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Speaking of the character of Gavin Stevens in the book, did you have a real life figure that you based him on?

William Faulkner: I think a writer writes from three sources. One is his own personal experience, which would include, of course, the books he reads, has read, his observation, and his imagination. I doubt if he himself can say just how much of each source he has drawn from for this particular page or story or book. I believe, though, that he is convinced that he can create much better people than God can. [audience laughter] That he will never be satisfied to take anyone he has seen from real life, put into a book, because he would improve on it. I think that maybe a writer is incapable of actually sticking to the truth, that he is a congenital liar, and he is going to change, alter, anything that he—he touches to put down on paper. So he himself can't say just how much of the character he actually saw, how much he heard about, how much he imagined. To him that's not too important. His—what he wants to do is to create characters of his own, yet are so close to life, so life-like, that the people that read the books will say, "Why yes, that's—that man could be so. In fact, I know somebody a good deal like him." Though, actually, the character that he put down is—is not what he ever saw. He's added something to it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What do you think of the Thomas Wolfe sort of writing [in which some things are] autobiographical and yet other [things are just set in the background, in personal observations]? What do you think [...]?

William Faulkner: I think that any writer is—is autobiographical in the sense that he is writing from those three reservoirs which I just spoke of. That he is writing a man in terms of himself. That is, he—he is writing a man as he saw it. And I—I wouldn't know, probably Mr. Wolfe don't know how much he was writing of what he himself saw. He is writing mainly of what he himself believed he saw and heard and imagined, that what he believed is truth as he knows it. But he would be, even if he were writing his own life, he probably couldn't stick to the truth. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: To what factors do you believe the success of your work has been what you hoped it would be?

William Faulkner: I have to ask you what you mean by success. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Popularity or the sale of the book, perhaps.

William Faulkner: Well, I would—I'd say that—that came from the fact that I have always kept myself an amateur. I've never thought of myself as a professional. I've done this for fun, and it didn't really matter to me whether anybody read it or not. Success is—is feminine, and quite often if—if you—if you beg and plead, she scorns you. If you show the back your hand to her, she clings to your knees. [audience laughter] But I think it's because I have tried to—to be an amateur, and I've done it just for fun, not to get rich, not to make money, nor to be famous, but because it was fun. It was something I found to do that was the most fun of anything I'd tried yet. I never could quite do it, and so I'd never be bored with it. That each time I finished a book it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be, but I still had some more paper, so I'd write another one tomorrow, and maybe that one would be. [audience laughter] If any of you think of being writers that's the first advice I would give you, is to keep it amateur, do it for fun. It's hard work, I grant you, but do it for fun because you like to do it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: [...] [for example, in Pylon, you touch on the city of New Orleans, where—was that in a way true to life] [...] [you had your observations] [...]?

William Faulkner: That was a mixture of all three. That New Orleans wasn't quite the New Orleans I lived in at one time. That airport wasn't quite the airport that I have operated aircraft out of at various times. But just how much of it was true, how much of it was lies, I would have to go back over the book with a pencil and—and postulate as I went along. But the writer is—he is—he is too busy. He is not interested in facts, you see. He is interested in truth, the fundamental truth, of mans' struggle within his—his predicament, his dilemma. That he will—will be as—as strict as he can to the standards of integrity regarding the truth of—of man's passions and hopes and fears and aspirations. But he'll pay very little attention to physical facts. He won't care whether it is Tuesday, 1958 or Tuesday, 1956. Or whether New Orleans is in Louisiana or in Oregon. It don't matter to him.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Joseph Blotner: In the novel—that novel Pylon, could the title, could the title refer to the girl Laverne, the marker or beacon around which all the other, all the men gravitate?

William Faulkner: Now, there's some more of this erudite, professorial symbolism [gets into everything]. [audience laughter] I'm sure that you're quite right, I just hadn't thought of that. I'm—I'm glad to know it. I'll remember that. I'll use that sometime probably. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What about this matter of symbolism, Mr. Faulkner? Are you ever conscious of some of the symbols you've been accused of using?

William Faulkner: The writer's like a carpenter. He has a—a—a grab bag, a barrel full of odds and ends, of boards and nails, and—and the sort of things that he might possibly some day need, and when he's busy in the heat of writing his story, he needs something, so he reaches back and scrabbles around in his barrel until he finds something that fits. Of course, the—I think that—that one reads from the same background that the writer writes from. That is, the culture. The culture contains this symbolism which has been established and described by the—the experts, the psychiatrists and psychologists, and since the—one man writes from it, another reads from it, it's natural that the symbolism should appear. And since the—well, in our case now, we both read and write from a culture we call the culture of the Christian culture, and naturally symbols will be identifiable because they are part of the very air that both the writer and the reader have breathed through education, and the experiences of being a child, of being taught to be a Christian child, or the child of cultured parents. But I don't think the writer has got time to say "Now I'm going to write—get a few symbols into this one." [audience laughter] He's too busy. He's writing about people, you see, writing about human beings and the individual people in their struggles inside the human condition. He's trying to tell that story in the most dramatic way he can, and when he realizes by instinct that a symbol will help him, he reaches back in his carpenter's catch-all and gets out a symbol. But he's not deliberately writing symbols.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: You said you didn't deliberately write symbols, but you are [doing that], I think, and I would like to ask you [audience laughter] if you saw the symbol in the bear, in the short story "The Bear"?

William Faulkner: Since I've been up here and discussed it I see lots of symbolism that I was too busy at the time, at the time—

Unidentified participant: [I wish you'd tell me one, so I can tell my class.] [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: The—well, the one symbol was the bear represented the—the—the vanishing wilderness. The little dog that wasn't scared of the bear represented the indomitable spirit of man. I'll have to—have to dig back and get up some more of those symbols but I have—have learned around an even dozen that I've put into that story without knowing it. [audience laughter] But they are two pretty good ones that you can hold to.

Unidentified participant: [Thank you.]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: May I ask what you think of James Joyce?

William Faulkner: James Joyce was one of the—the great men of my time. He was electrocuted by the divine fire. He, Thomas Mann were the—the great writers of my time. He was probably—might have been the greatest, but he was electrocuted. He had more talent than he could control.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, a great deal of attention in recent years has been devoted to the idea that perhaps man's life as he lives it from day to day is speeded up rather tremendously, and that this has had effects on his thinking. I'm wondering first of all if you believe this is true, and if you do believe it's true, if this has had an effect on what he wants to read or what he wants to be told?

William Faulkner: I don't believe it has had any effect on what he wants to read and what he wants to be told, as it's inside him. The effect has been on—on what he has been told he wants to read. That's the pressure to—to conform, to belong to groups, to read the book of the month, or to own the same Cadillac, or to have the same two children, or to have a house that—that has everything in it that all the other houses on the street have. But basically he—he—he—he is puzzled over the same fundamental problems that he has always been puzzled over ever since he found that he had a soul and stood up out of the mud. I think the other's ephemeral and on the surface and—and will pass away. That it's nothing to be concerned about. There's a great deal of pressure on him to—to let somebody else decide for him what he shall read, what he shall think, what he shall do. But I don't think that will last. I don't think that he pays any attention to it, actually.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, just what do you consider man's dilemma?

William Faulkner: I mean by that his—his situation. He wants to live in a—a world that's peaceful, where he can have the—the simple things he wants, and yet he's—he's always involved with overproduction in one place and underproduction in another, and the threat of wars and atom bombs, and he still—instead of giving up, he still tries to do something about that, he still struggles within that dilemma to make it the one he wants, in which all people can be happy, in which little children won't have to suffer, in which the weak would be protected. His dilemma is simply to make it work. There's a—story's from the Chinese, I think—at one time, you may know this, cats were the first form of life on earth. They had tried to make civilization work, to get rid of wars and poverty and pestilence, and it didn't work, so they summoned all the wise cats to a congress, and they said that we will choose some other form of life that is optimistic enough to believe that man can live in peace and plenty, but foolish enough not to believe that he will fail again. So that's why the cat lives with you, and he won't work, and he don't love you. Maybe that's why the cat looks [at us] the way he does. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Sir, what do you think will aid the South in pulling our boot—bootstraps up?

William Faulkner: Education. Better education than we've got.

Unidentified participant: And do you think that—that education will [...] [up ] the people [in time before] [...]?

William Faulkner: It—

Unidentified participant: [...]

William Faulkner: Well that's a good question. The—the trouble is the—the South has got to be educated better in order to educate the inferior southerners, regardless of what color they are. The problem now is of whether the—the inferior, the uneducated southerner will wait that long anymore. But I don't know of anything better to do than to alter our system of education so that the best can get the best of education. I don't know of anything else that will help us or save us.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you believe that—do you feel optimistic about the enduring values in current American fiction by the younger writers, say under forty-five? Do you see any potential change in trends that will be of lasting literary value.

William Faulkner: I can't give a good answer because like my most writers as I get older I read less and less. It's been a long time since I have read my coevals. But I'm convinced that that is the strongest motivation in man, is to—to create, to produce literature, music, art. That's most enduring thing he has created and I think that nothing, not even the atom bomb, is going to stop him. I would say that now the—the young writer is subject to that same pressure to conform, to belong to something, which I spoke of. But I think that—that by the time he is thirty, if he has a first rate talent, he will have outgrown that. And I'm convinced that the good work will still be produced. It's comforting for a lazy man to say, "Well, I would have been a good artist, if I'd been born—if I hadn't been so unlucky as to be born in this time." I think that's nonsense. That the good man is going to produce no matter when he's born, what age he is in. That he will use that age as his material just as—as a part of the reservoirs of observation and experience. And that he will produce the work, too, if he has the talent and works, that nothing will stop him. And I—I used to think that it—talent was important. I think maybe all he needs is ruthlessness, industry and insight. That is to—to throw away anything that seems to him untruthful or shoddy, to work hard, to be always curious as to know why man does what he does. I think that if the young writer has those three qualities he can write.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I'm curious as to when—why [...] I wonder how the modern writer justifies using violence in his work. I've been struck by it and sometimes upset by it.

William Faulkner: I think that is—

[end of recording]