William Faulkner Reads His Nobel Prize Speech

faulkner nobel

Today is the 50th anniver­sary of the death of William Faulkn­er. To mark the occa­sion, we bring you a 1954 record­ing of Faulkn­er read­ing his Nobel Prize speech from four years ear­li­er. “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man,” Faulkn­er says on the tape, “but to my work–a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spir­it, not for glo­ry and least of all for prof­it, but to cre­ate out of the mate­ri­als of the human spir­it some­thing which did not exist before.”

In clas­sic nov­els like As I Lay Dying, Absa­lom, Absa­lom! and The Sound and the Fury, Faulkn­er cre­at­ed his own cos­mos, com­bin­ing his knowl­edge of the peo­ple and his­to­ry of Mis­sis­sip­pi with his gift for spin­ning tales. He called his cos­mos Yok­na­p­ataw­pha Coun­ty. “I dis­cov­ered,” Faulkn­er said in his 1956 Paris Review inter­view, “that my own lit­tle postage stamp of native soil was worth writ­ing about and that I would nev­er live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sub­li­mat­ing the actu­al into the apoc­ryphal I would have com­plete lib­er­ty to use what­ev­er tal­ent I might have to its absolute top.”

Faulkn­er died at Wright’s Sana­to­ri­um in Byhalia, Mis­sis­sip­pi in the ear­ly morn­ing hours on July 6, 1962, which also hap­pened to be the birth­day of the great-grand­fa­ther he was named for, William Clark Falkn­er, the flam­boy­ant rail­road builder and nov­el­ist who was remem­bered as the “Old Colonel.” Faulkn­er had been suf­fer­ing from back pain due to an ear­li­er fall from a horse. His pre­ferred way to deal with pain was to drink alco­hol. After a binge he would typ­i­cal­ly go to the sana­to­ri­um to recov­er. This par­tic­u­lar vis­it had seemed rou­tine. Joseph Blot­ner describes the scene in Faulkn­er: A Biog­ra­phy:

The big clock ticked past mid­night and July 6 came in–the Old Colonel’s birthday–with no promise of a let­up in the heat. Insects thumped against the screens while elec­tric fans hummed here and there. Faulkn­er had been rest­ing qui­et­ly. A few min­utes after half past one, he stirred and then sat up on the side of his bed. Before the nurse could reach him he groaned and fell over. With­in min­utes Dr. Wright was there, but he could not detect any pulse or heart­beat. He began exter­nal heart mes­sage. He con­tin­ued it for forty-five min­utes, with­out results. He tried mouth-to-mouth resus­ci­ta­tion, again with no results. There was noth­ing more he could do. William Faulkn­er was gone.

When Albert Camus died two years ear­li­er, Faulkn­er was asked by La Nou­velle Revue Française to write a few words about his fall­en friend. What Faulkn­er wrote of Camus could be his own epi­taph:

When the door shut for him, he had already writ­ten on this side of it that which every artist who also car­ries through life with him that one same fore­knowl­edge and hatred of death, is hop­ing to do: I was here.

NOTE: To fol­low along as Faulkn­er reads his Nobel address, you can find the text at the Ole Miss Faulkn­er on the Web site. (The page will open in a new win­dow.) The Ole Miss page also includes  a par­tial record­ing of Faulkn­er giv­ing his speech in Stock­holm on Decem­ber 10, 1950, along with film footage of the cer­e­mo­ny. (Faulkn­er won the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture for 1949 but it was­n’t pre­sent­ed until 1950, the year Bertrand Rus­sell won the award. So Rus­sell and Faulkn­er can both be seen in the film footage.) To hear more of Faulkn­er’s 1954 Caed­mon record­ings, vis­it Harp­er Audio. You can also hear over 28 hours of lec­tures by Faulkn­er at the audio archive of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, where he was writer-in-res­i­dence in 1957 and 1958. The archive con­cludes with a half-hour press con­fer­ence giv­en by the Eng­lish Depart­ment fac­ul­ty 50 years ago today, as they react­ed to the news of Faulkn­er’s death.

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