Vintage Audio of William Faulkner

Photo by Ralph Thompson (undated but c1957). [Print# 0135; Digitization# 000005732_0009].

Photo by Ralph Thompson (undated but c1957). [Print# 0135; Digitization# 000005732_0009].

I present to you an audio blast from the past!

William Faulkner (1897 – 1962) was a renowned writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi. He served as the the first Balch Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in 1957 and 1958, and many of his lectures, readings, and question and answer sessions were recorded during his tenure there.  This website is an archive of 1690 minutes (over 28 hours) of those recordings. As an added bonus, the site also has photos of Faulkner, letters, articles from the student newspaper, and articles from the local newspaper.

Faulkner embraced his role as Writer-in Residence, and seemed anxious to connect with his listeners. He was patient and tried to make himself and his work appraochable.

“…it’s important to point out that what Faulkner says on these tapes doesn’t always agree with what he said in the past – or with what biographers and scholars have learned about the facts of his life and career. One way to think about what you’ll hear is as Faulkner performingFaulkner, presenting the version of himself and his work that he may already, at age sixty, have been thinking of as a legacy. As he himself notes almost a dozen different ways on these tapes, writers are “congenital liars”. After listening several times to the recordings, however, I’d also say that there is nothing insincere about his desire at this point in his career to reach the people in his audiences.”

I always find it fascinating to learn about the life and personality of a great artist. Perhaps here and there I’ll glean some further insight into their work (i.e. why they chose a certain motif or topic, why they developed their writing style, etc.), but ultimately I think the “why?” question pales to the “how?”.  How an artist lives their life, how they approach their medium, how they create their work…peppered in the answers are useful tools for the aspiring artist.

You should take a little time to listen to these wonderful vintage recordings, but here are a few quotes I particularly enjoyed.

General Public, tape 1
DATE: 15 May 1957
OCCASION: Session with the General Public, 4:00 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall
TAPE: T-129
LENGTH: 31:46


William Faulkner on the Lawn at the University of Virginia, 15 February 1957. Photograph by Ralph Thompson. [Digitization #000004470_0012]

William Faulkner on the Lawn at the University of Virginia, 15 February 1957. Photograph by Ralph Thompson. [Digitization #000004470_0012]

William Faulkner: The story commands its own method of telling it. Some stories can be told quite simply and objectively, like this little boy’s reactions to the adult world that he had to cope with. Other stories demand more probing into what makes men and women tick. That is, this little boy could show—could show what made him tick by his simple speech and actions. There are other times when the action and the speech won’t show that, so the craftsman’s got to dig around to find some other method to use to—to show what he hopes to tell. And it’s not that—that the ones I like are the ones in which I’ve done the—in which I’m obscure. They’re the—they’re the ones that have caused me the most trouble. I think none of the books that any writer does are quite good enough. That’s why he writes another one. The ones that he labors the hardest over or worries the most about, he develops this—the same affection for that the parent does for the—for the unfortunate child, the sick child, or the—the mentally unbalanced child, but they—they all are failures in his opinion because they’re not as good. He don’t want to be as good as his—his coevals or even just as good as Shakespeare. He wants to be better than Shakespeare and Homer. He knows he can’t, but that’s—that’s what he works for. That’s what makes a—a writer’s life such a happy one. He always has something to get up tomorrow that he’s anxious to do, which is to—to attain the impossible, never to—to reach satiety, always to have something a little beyond his reach but still to jump at it, to try for it.


Unidentified participant: You said a writer knows when he succeeds or fails, and I gather you don’t use the critics’ opinions as a guide. What gives you the sense of having failed or succeeded in a book?

William Faulkner: That would probably be the worst day the writer ever—ever faces, because then nothing remains but to cut his throat. I think that he would[audience laughter]—the only way to express it is—is what Hemingway means by saying “to feel good.” He finishes the—the job, and—and there’s nothing that is still dangling, nothing more he wants to do to it. It’s finished. It’s complete. As long as it’s failed, there’s always something you think, now, if I could just go back and do this over, I could do it better. But you know that’s a waste of time. The best thing is to take a new story. […]


Local and UVA Communities, tape 1
DATE: 30 May 1957
OCCASION: Local Public and University Community
TAPE: T-135
LENGTH: 31:48
READING: From The Town


Cover from the "Writer-in-Residence Issue" of the Virginia Spectator monthly magazine (April 1957; vol. 118, no. 7).

Cover from the “Writer-in-Residence Issue” of the Virginia Spectator monthly magazine (April 1957; vol. 118, no. 7).

Unidentified participant: Do you write in regular hours or do you write in irregular hours?

William Faulkner: No, sir. By nature I am completely disorderly. I never have learned to—to hang up anything or put anything back where I got it, and so I work when—well, as the—the athlete says, when I’m hot. [audience laughter] And I don’t like to work. I’m by nature lazy. I will put it off as long as I can. Then when I get started it’s—it’s fun. I think the reason anyone writes is because it’s fun, and you like it. That’s just your cup of tea. And so I will write until I have to make myself stop because I’ve found that—that the only rule for writing I have is to—to leave it while I’m still hot—while I’m still looking good, as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes puts it—so that I can take up again tomorrow. But I’ve have never had any order. Some people are orderly. They—they lay out a plot or synopsis first. They make notes, which is valid and satisfactory for them but not for me. I would be completely lost. Probably if I’d begun to make a few notes, I could say, “Oh well, that’s all, you don’t need to work anymore,” and I’d quit. [audience laughter] So I think I put off working as long as possible and do as much of the research and the note-filing up here, and then begin to write.


Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, […] how do you […] advantage to being pessimistic?

William Faulkner: Well, I think the—the writer’s aim is not deliberately to be pessimistic. His aim is to—to show people, human beings in the human condition, faced with the tragedies and the aspirations, the hopes, which all people are faced with, in the most moving way he can. If his outlook is—is pessimistic, it’s simply because—that is not—not his—his intention to be pessimistic. It’s—it’s because having watched people in their confusion and their aspirations that are—what—what he gets is an immediate feeling of pessimism, though the very fact that he keeps on trying to write about people implies that that he has some hope for man, that he sees man as trying to do better than he does, to be more honest than he is, to be braver. That the pessimism is a—a matter of the moment. Maybe the writer does want to do his—his bit toward making man better, and maybe he thinks if he shows man in his moments of baseness, it may be—be a lesson to someone, either don’t do this or—or a reminder even when people do do this, at other times they do good things, fine things. That they will do things that other people shan’t suffer.


Department of Psychiatry, tape 1
DATE: 7 May 1958
OCCASION: Department of Psychiatry
TAPE: T-144a
LENGTH: 32:09


Unidentified participant: Is the writer’s motivation then simply just a portrayal of that which most people see but perhaps don’t take in?

William Faulkner: Did you say the writer? No, I think that his aim is—is maybe more specific. He simply wants to make something which wasn’t here yesterday. There’s not much that he can do. He can take only the—the old struggles of man within the human predicament, and by showing it slightly awry or with some faint new light from an individual perception, make something which was a little different from what was here before. That is, what—what the writer ahead of him did. There’s nothing new he can write about. I think that’s maybe the—the writer’s denial of—of mortality, of death, that he’s going to write on the wall, “Kilroy was here.”


Department of Psychiatry, tape 2
DATE: 7 May 1958
OCCASION: Department of Psychiatry
TAPE: T-144b
LENGTH: 31:28


William Faulkner in a Cabell Hall classroom at the University of Virginia, probably February 1957. Photograph by Ralph Thompson. [Digitization #000004470_0016]

William Faulkner in a Cabell Hall classroom at the University of Virginia, probably February 1957. Photograph by Ralph Thompson. [Digitization #000004470_0016]

Unidentified participant: But now what we [see] about something depends on how we have had our experience. I mean, I can see to the same thing, you will see different things [and everyone else is] going to see different things. Anything that we use, our imagination, our observation, is just based on our previous experience.

William Faulkner: Surely. It—it won’t chase—change the basic fact we look at. I mean by the verities the people that—that—the facts that—that young people fall in love and want to sleep together, that man wants certain things, and he knows if he gets it, the police may get him. He knows that—that the weak should—should be protected by the strong, that he should have com—be capable of compassion, of pity, of courage, of honor. I grant you that—that everyone, in looking at these instances, will see them from a slightly different point of view, with a slightly different illumination on it, but it’s basically the same truths which he looks at.


Unidentified participant: Don’t you think that these are the basic experiences that the culture gives to us? I mean, to a certain extent we have all the same ideas, to a certain extent, because the culture [has incultured them] to us? If you go to another culture, they won’t do the same. They won’t feel the same, maybe. The basic areas are going to change, to a certain extent.

William Faulkner: Well, they are ephemeral changes, unless we mean different things by culture. To me, a part of—of our American culture is the pressure of everybody to throw his old car away every year and buy a new one. It’s the pressure of—not to read, but to listen to the television, to the radio. That is what I mean by our culture. I don’t mean that the—the tradition of—of—of wisdom that we could get from—from solitude or from—from reading books. [Because] if we mean different things by culture then we are at slightly cross purposes.


Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, maybe this sounds like a stupid question, but why does the writer write? Is it just to depict people in action or what they’re doing? Why would you be motivated to write if you don’t particularly have a point to prove or a sermon to preach? Is it just to put down what you observe and [see how it works out or—]? Could you comment on that?

William Faulkner: Yes. First, you are demon driven. You can’t help it. Also, it’s fun. It’s the one occupation you have found which is fun because you’re never bored by it, because you can’t do it. There’s no such thing as satiety. You never can write the book which you want to write. It will never quite match that dream, so you always have something to get up tomorrow to do. In the last analysis, as I said a while ago, you know that you’re here for a specific time, which is comparatively very short, that someday you’ll pass through the wall into what you don’t know, and you will have left on that wall simply, “Kilroy was here.” It’s not especially for—for glory nor fame, but to just leave a scratch on it. It’s that it was me that made that scratch. It wasn’t anybody else but me. Just old Bill Shakespeare or whatever his name is. [audience laughter]


General Public
DATE: 23 May 1958
OCCASION: General Public, 4 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall
TAPE: T-145c
LENGTH: 33:04
READING: From The Sound and the Fury


Photo by Ralph Thompson of Faulkner beside South Lawn at UVA. Caption on back: "Faulkner at U of VA circa 1960. Photo by Ralph Thompson." [Print# 0186; Digitization# 000005733_0013].

Photo by Ralph Thompson of Faulkner beside South Lawn at UVA. Caption on back: “Faulkner at U of VA circa 1960. Photo by Ralph Thompson.” [Print# 0186; Digitization# 000005733_0013].

William Faulkner: Well, I’m glad you stopped there. Thank you. [audience laughter] Did—I think I know what you mean by the stimulus. It’s—you’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. [audience laughter] The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them, not individually but—but as a race. He endures. He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose. That as frail as he is, he—he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest. The writer is—is so interested, he sees this as so amazing and—and you might say so beautiful. Anyway, it—it’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man—frail, foolish man—has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way. Anyway, some gallant way. That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s—it’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.


Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, are there things you can know about the world that scientists can’t, you as an artist?

William Faulkner: No, I think that—that the sort of facts a scientist knows no artist is really interested in. That his interest is in the simple, eternal, fundamental truths of man’s behavior, not the facts of—of his behavior nor the facts he lives among. That the—the writer is—is—has no concern with facts. He’s a congenital liar to begin with. That’s why they call it fiction. [audience laughter] That he makes his own facts just to suit whatever phase of—of the eternal truth he is trying to make dramatic.


Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you would—do you prefer to create a mood rather than a plot when writing?

William Faulkner: I am simply writing about people. I have taken man in one of his amazing victories and have tried to put it down on paper. If it takes plot to do that, then I will—will borrow a plot from somebody. There ain’t but two or three plots, you know. [audience laughter] If—if it takes a mood, then I will hunt around to where somebody’s written the sort—in memory, I mean—where somebody has portrayed that mood, and I will borrow from him.


Unidentified participant: [Then] you are writing an emotion, not—?

William Faulkner: I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting, and that is the reason I think any writer writes. He’s not trying to write[style]. He’s not trying to—to uplift, to deliver a message. He is simply writing about a man in the infinite mutations of—of man’s capacity.


Source for all Images and quotes:

Faulkner at Virginia, © 2010 Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia; Author Stephen Railton.



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