‘Never Be Afraid’: William Faulkner’s Speech to His Daughter’s Graduating Class in 1951

By the start of the 1950s, the eupho­ria felt by Amer­i­cans after win­ning World War II had giv­en way to a per­va­sive atmos­phere of dread.

The Sovi­ets had explod­ed their first atom­ic bomb, McCarthy­ism had reared its head, and Amer­i­ca’s school­child­ren would soon be told to “Duck and Cov­er” at the first sound of a civ­il defense siren.

It was in this cli­mate of pal­pa­ble fear that William Faulkn­er was asked by his daugh­ter, Jill, to speak to her grad­u­at­ing class of 1951 at Uni­ver­si­ty High School in Oxford, Mis­sis­sip­pi. Faulkn­er was at the height of his fame.

Only a few months ear­li­er, in Novem­ber of 1950, he had trav­eled to Swe­den to accept the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. In his speech at Stock­holm, Faulkn­er said that “the basest of all things is to be afraid”:

“Our tragedy today is a gen­er­al and uni­ver­sal phys­i­cal fear so long sus­tained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer prob­lems of the spir­it. There is only the ques­tion: When will I be blown up?”

Faulkn­er expand­ed on the theme dur­ing the speech to his daugh­ter’s high school class, deliv­ered May 28, 1951 at Ful­ton Chapel on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi, or “Ole Miss.”

The occa­sion was some­thing of a home-town tri­umph for Faulkn­er, who had dropped out of high school with­out a diplo­ma. The excerpt above is from a short doc­u­men­tary released in 1952 called, sim­ply, William Faulkn­er. Two pas­sages from the speech are omit­ted in the film. You can read the com­plete text below. Faulkn­er begins with a pas­sage from Hen­ri Esti­enne’s 1594 book Les Prémices: “If youth only knew; if age only could.”

“Years ago, before any of you were born, a wise French­man said, ‘If youth knew; if age could.’ We all know what he meant: that when you are young, you have the pow­er to do any­thing, but you don’t know what to do. Then, when you have got old and expe­ri­ence and obser­va­tion have taught you answers, you are tired, fright­ened; you don’t care, you want to be left alone as long as you your­self are safe; you no longer have the capac­i­ty or the will to grieve over any wrongs but your own.

“So you young men and women in this room tonight, and in thou­sands of oth­er rooms like this one about the earth today, have the pow­er to change the world, rid it for­ev­er of war and injus­tice and suf­fer­ing, pro­vid­ed you know how, know what to do. And so accord­ing to the old French­man, since you can’t know what to do because you are young, then any­one stand­ing here with a head full white hair should be able to tell you.

“But maybe this one is not as old and wise as his white hairs pre­tend to claim. Because he can’t give you a glib answer or pat­tern either. But he can tell you this, because he believes this. What threat­ens us today is fear. Not the atom bomb, nor even fear of it, because if the bomb fell on Oxford tonight, all it could do would be to kill us, which is noth­ing, since in doing that, it will have robbed itself of its only pow­er over us: which is fear of it, the being afraid of it. Our dan­ger is not that. Our dan­ger is the forces in the world today which are try­ing to use man’s fear to rob him of his indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, his soul, try­ing to reduce him to an unthink­ing mass by fear and bribery — giv­ing him free food which he has not earned, easy and val­ue­less mon­ey which he has not worked for; the economies and ide­olo­gies or polit­i­cal sys­tems, com­mu­nist or social­is­tic or demo­c­ra­t­ic, what­ev­er they wish to call them­selves, the tyrants and the politi­cians, Amer­i­can or Euro­pean or Asi­at­ic, what­ev­er they call them­selves, who would reduce man to one obe­di­ent mass for their own aggran­dize­ment and pow­er, or because they them­selves are baf­fled and afraid, afraid of, or inca­pable of, believ­ing in man’s capac­i­ty for courage and endurance and sac­ri­fice.

“That is what we must resist, if we are to change the world for man’s peace and secu­ri­ty. It is not men in the mass who can and will save man. It is man him­self, cre­at­ed in the image of God so that he shall have the pow­er to choose right from wrong, and so be able to save him­self because he is worth sav­ing — man, the indi­vid­ual, men and women, who will refuse always to be tricked or fright­ened or bribed into sur­ren­der­ing, not just the right but the duty too, to choose between jus­tice and injus­tice, courage and cow­ardice, sac­ri­fice and greed, pity and self — who will believe always not only in the right of man to be free of injus­tice and rapac­i­ty and decep­tion, but the duty and respon­si­bil­i­ty of man to see that jus­tice and truth and pity and com­pas­sion are done.

“So, nev­er be afraid. Nev­er be afraid to raise your voice for hon­esty and truth and com­pas­sion, against injus­tice and lying and greed. If you, not just you in this room tonight, but in all the thou­sands of oth­er rooms like this one about the world today and tomor­row and next week, will do this, not as a class or class­es, but as indi­vid­u­als, men and women, you will change the earth; in one gen­er­a­tion all the Napoleons and Hitlers and Cae­sars and Mus­soli­n­is and Stal­ins and all the oth­er tyrants who want pow­er and aggran­dize­ment, and the sim­ple politi­cians and time-servers who them­selves are mere­ly baf­fled or igno­rant of afraid, who have used, or are using, or hope to use, man’s fear and greed for man’s enslave­ment, will have van­ished from the face of it.”

When he was fin­ished, Faulkn­er gave his copy of the speech to the edi­tor of the local news­pa­per. At a par­ty after­ward he reportedly said, “You know, I nev­er knew how nice a grad­u­a­tion could be. This is the first one I’ve ever been to.”

To watch the full film from which the speech is tak­en, see our ear­li­er post: “Rare 1952 Film: William Faulkn­er on His Native Soil in Oxford, Mis­sis­sip­pi.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Faulkn­er Reads His Nobel Prize Speech

Sev­en Tips From William Faulkn­er on How to Write Fic­tion

7 Nobel Speech­es by 7 Great Writ­ers: Hem­ing­way, Faulkn­er and More

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Comments (6)
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  • Alex says:

    I under­stand the point made by the author, about Faulkn­er giv­ing a high school grad­u­a­tion speech at Ole Miss after receiv­ing a great inter­na­tion­al dis­tinc­tion, despite his own pre­ma­ture matric­u­la­tion.

    But.… is this his daughter’s grad­u­a­tion from high school or a tes­ti­mo­ni­al for the Ayn Rand fan club? I know that eigh­teen year olds have changed a lot in sev­en­ty years, but nar­cis­sis­tic un petit peu?

  • isguntme says:

    First of all, love the site.

    It’s hard not to notice the tone the site is increas­ing­ly focus­ing on a spe­cif­ic spec­trum of human ideas. This arti­cle could­n’t be more apro­pos of that tone. Can an indi­vid­ual not assert their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty through coop­er­a­tion? In fact, how does one begin to know one’s indi­vid­u­al­i­ty except by con­m­par­ing their thoughts and actions against those of oth­er peo­ple? We are, after­all, a very social ani­mal.

    The notion that the indi­vid­u­al­i­ty is some­how dis­tinct from our com­mon human­i­ty seems, well, to harkin back to some notion that the indi­vid­ual is dis­tinct from nature. This atti­tude is often result­ed in whole­sale destruc­tion of the envi­ron­ment and often of oth­er cul­tures.

    Post­ing an arti­cle which rails against so-called free stuff being post­ed on a site that adver­tis­es free stuff is …

  • It Starts & Ends @ The D.A.'s Office, Ya'll says:

    What pre­med­i­tat­ed, man­u­fac­tured, melo­dra­mat­ic garbage. Faulkn­er makes some wind­bag speech like this at the request of his daugh­ter? GIMMEABREAK! How many high rank­ing pointy hats did it take to dream it all up, I won­der? Faulkn­er was a cre­at­ed social sub­ver­sion TOOL if there ever was one. Every­thing he (most­ly his team) sup­pos­ed­ly wrote had some kind of slant to it. And, not long after that glob­al race bait­ing kan­ga­roo tri­al… Willie McGee was elec­tro­cut­ed and the horny white-trash crazy lady’s mouth final­ly shut for good after that con­ve­nient staged car wreck — Faulkn­er slith­ers up from the moral, intel­lec­tu­al south­ern ooze to pon­der the heady sig­nif­i­cance of God and satan? The ‘sent’ Bel­la Abzug LOST right on cue. How did she even retain any cred­i­bil­i­ty or have a career after that pub­lic boon­dog­gle? TaDa! All of it was staged ‘the­ater’ on both sides. Six­ty years lat­er- these con­trived “author” pro­pa­gan­dist com­mies still don’t know when enough is enough — do they? The Only One Who Will Stop these infest­ed, socio­path­ic, demo­ni­ac liars now is- GOD. Every knee shall bow.

  • bartek says:

    I would love to know what your opin­ion of his work is?
    Per­son­al­ly I liked this speech,and think his book as I lay dying is descent.

  • bartek says:

    I would love to know what your guys opin­ion of his work is?
    Per­son­al­ly I liked this speech,and think his book as I lay dying is descent.

  • bob says:

    You illit­er­ate.

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