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.”