Revel in The William Faulkner Audio Archive on the Author’s 118th Birthday


There was once a time that I intend­ed to make a career out of writ­ing about and teach­ing the work of William Faulkn­er. Plans—and economies—change, but my admi­ra­tion and enthu­si­asm for the U.S.‘s fore­most mod­ernist nov­el­ist has not dimmed one bit as time goes on. There’s some­thing about the breath­less urgency of Faulkn­er’s prose—combined with its thick haze of obscu­ri­ty, seem­ing to rep­re­sent the mists of time, and time­less­ness, itself—that nev­er fails to entrance me. Despite his com­mit­ted region­al­ism, Faulkn­er’s themes nev­er slip from rel­e­vance, his arche­typ­al char­ac­ters rarely seem dat­ed, and even his less­er works, like Sanc­tu­ary, reach sub­lime heights of tragi­com­e­dy few con­tem­po­rary writ­ers can scale.

Like all great writ­ers, Faulkn­er had his flaws and blind spots. Many of his per­son­al atti­tudes and writer­ly quirks might be called quaint or provin­cial. And yet, as Toni Mor­ri­son once told The Paris Review, incred­i­bly dizzy­ing nov­els like Absa­lom, Absa­lom! also reveal “the insan­i­ty of racism…. No one has done any­thing quite like that ever.” What­ev­er atti­tudes Faulkn­er inher­it­ed from his fam­i­ly and cul­ture, he nev­er sat com­fort­ably with them as a writer, nor shrunk from inter­ro­gat­ing the per­verse con­tra­dic­tions of white suprema­cy and the pseu­do-his­tor­i­cal, fever-dream fan­tasies of the “The Lost Cause.” These themes have found res­o­nance in near­ly every cul­tur­al milieu. Faulkn­er’s “meta­physics” pro­voked Jean-Paul Sartre, and his very pres­ence gave rise to an Oedi­pal strug­gle in writ­ers like Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez; he is read in Japan, Mar­tinique, the Ivory Coast…. This is but a tiny sam­pling of the Mis­sis­sip­pi nov­el­ist’s glob­al reach.

Even before Faulkn­er was an aca­d­e­m­ic indus­try or an Ever­est so many ambi­tious writ­ers feel the need to con­quer, he became a nation­al trea­sure in his life­time, win­ning the Nobel Prize for lit­er­a­ture in 1954 and serv­ing as an (often drunk) cul­tur­al ambas­sador for his coun­try. In 1957, Faulkn­er began his year as writer-in-res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. Though he joked at the time that he was “just the writer-in-res­i­dence, not the speak­er-in-res­i­dence,” he nonethe­less “gave two address­es, read a dozen times from eight of his works, and answered over 1400 ques­tions from audi­ences made up of var­i­ous groups, rang­ing from UVA stu­dents and fac­ul­ty to inter­est­ed local cit­i­zens.” A major­i­ty of these moments were cap­tured on tape, and the UVA Library’s “Faulkn­er at Vir­ginia” project has them all avail­able online. You can search for spe­cif­ic ref­er­ences or browse the entire archive, and each page has a full tran­script of the audio.

You can hear, for exam­ple, Faulkn­er instruct his audi­ence on the cor­rect pro­nun­ci­a­tion of “Yok­na­p­ataw­pha,” the fic­tion­al coun­ty set­ting of his Mis­sis­sip­pi fic­tion (top). You can hear him read his sto­ry “Shin­gles for the Lord” (mid­dle), and hear (above) his humor­ous answer to a ques­tion about Jack Ker­ouac’s On the Road. (He con­fess­es he has­n’t read it yet, then con­cludes, “I con­sid­er writ­ing my hob­by, not my trade. I’m a farmer, actu­al­ly, and the peo­ple I know are not lit­er­ary peo­ple, and I don’t keep up with [these] books.”) He gives many more live­ly answers about fel­low writ­ers and talks about his time in Hol­ly­wood (“It was a—a pleas­ant way to make some mon­ey.”)

Faulkn­er also touch­es on social issues, albeit reluc­tant­ly. In a tense moment dur­ing a ses­sion at Vir­gini­a’s Wash­ing­ton and Lee Uni­ver­si­ty (above), he gives an ambiva­lent response to a ques­tion about Brown vs. Board of Ed:

That’s sort of got out of fic­tion, has­n’t it? [audi­ence laugh­ter] I would say it was some­thing that—that had to—to come. There was a—the dean of the law school at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi said ten, twelve years ago that in time the Supreme Court would—would hand down that opin­ion. Nobody believed him. It’s—it’s our fault. If we had—had giv­en the Negro a chance to find whether or not he can be equal, there would­n’t have been any need for it. It has set rela­tions between the races back for some time, but it had to come. It’s our fault. [We could have pre­vent­ed it.]

Like most of Faulkn­er’s respons­es to the bur­geon­ing Civ­il Rights move­ment, this answer is halt­ing and non­com­mit­tal, offer­ing both sup­port for “the Negro” and an oblique endorse­ment of seg­re­ga­tion. It’s a moment that well rep­re­sents Faulkn­er’s con­tra­dic­tions; he was a writer who posed for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges to the South’s ethos, and yet he was also—in his pose a gen­tle­man farmer and his devo­tion to tradition—a self-con­scious rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the region in all its stub­born­ness and fear of change. “We are liv­ing in a time of impos­si­ble rev­o­lu­tions,” wrote Sartre in 1939, “and Faulkn­er uses his extra­or­di­nary art to describe our suf­fo­ca­tion and a world dying of old age.”

Whether you agree with this crit­i­cal assess­ment or not, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any­one who dis­agrees that Faulkn­er’s was an “extra­or­di­nary art.” The “Faulkn­er at Vir­ginia” audio archive gives us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get to know the man behind it, with all his self-effac­ing good humor, plain­spo­ken wis­dom, and, yes, South­ern charm.

If you’re new to Faulkn­er and won­der­ing which nov­el to start with, take Faulkn­er’s advice below. (The answer, in short, is Sar­toris.) And if you want to know what book Faulkn­er con­sid­ered his best, click here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vin­tage Audio: William Faulkn­er Reads From As I Lay Dying

William Faulkn­er Reads His Nobel Prize Speech

Guide­lines for Han­dling William Faulkner’s Drink­ing Dur­ing For­eign Trips From the US State Depart­ment (1955)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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