RICHMOND, Va. — Southern literary icon William Faulkner wrote detailed portraits of life in Mississippi’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, often using long, winding sentences in densely packed paragraphs.
Newly available recordings at the University of Virginia allow people to hear Faulkner’s soft drawl, and to listen to him talk about his writing, his career and current events. Listeners can also hear him explain to students how to pronounce “Yoknapatawpha,” the setting for his numerous works, including “The Sound and the Fury,” ”As I Lay Dying,” and “Absalom, Absalom!”
Faulkner spent 1957 and 1958 as the school’s first writer-in-residence, giving lectures and readings and chatting with students and members of the community. Two professors at the Charlottesville school recorded his talks on reel-to-reel tapes, and after a 15-year effort led by English professor Stephen Railton, the result is now online.
Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his first Pulitzer Prize in 1955 thrust the shy and largely reclusive writer into the public eye. The university recordings show that Faulkner takes pleasure in reaching a wider audience, Railton said Friday.
“I think he’s come to see that the artist needs to be in contact with the larger public,” he said. “It’s good for the art and good for the public.”
“Faulkner at Virginia: An Audio Archive” contains about 28 hours of the author’s speeches, readings of his works and his answers to more than 1,400 questions. All of the audio is transcribed and presented in small segments that are searchable by keyword, and users are able to bookmark specific clips.
While Faulkner is gracious and candid in answering audience questions, he’s sometimes unwilling to explicitly define the themes and ideas readers discovered in his books.
“I didn’t know about all these things and so I’m quite interested to hear that they were in there,” he tells one student. “They must’ve been in there for people to find them.”
Faulkner didn’t want to come between his writing and the readers; he wants them to interpret stories on their own, Railton said.
He also discusses other writers’ works, expressing admiration for Ernest Hemingway and telling students that he sympathizes with the alienation felt by Holden Caufield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.”
Of Tennessee Williams, he says “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” focused on the wrong characters: “The story was the old man’s story,” he said. “I think that the anguishes of children ain’t worth three acts.”
A talk at Virginia’s Department of Psychiatry in May 1958 reflects Faulkner’s concern with the prevalence of materialism and what he called “the economy of waste.”
“We clutter the earth up with the automobiles and washing machines we turned in in order to buy a new one, and that may create jobs, and maybe the scientists will invent some way to vaporize all these things,” he said.
Jay Watson, an English professor at the University of Mississippi and a Faulkner scholar, said abridged transcripts of Faulkner’s time in Charlottesville have long been available, but hearing him speak and interact with the audience paints a fuller picture of the early civil rights era.
“Someone asked him about the Supreme Court decision — no one has to ask which one,” Watson said of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. “You’re in a room of educated and entitled white southerners in the audience, and someone has brought up an uncomfortable subject. It’s a revealing interview.”
Advances in technology have made it possible to give more depth to American literature, said Railton, who also has compiled digital collections of author Mark Twain and the role of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in American culture.
Railton and Watson both think that hearing Faulkner will lead people back to reading Faulkner.
“This is where I want people to end up, lost in Faulkner’s fiction,” Railton said. “When they read the books, it’ll mean more.”
Faulkner at Virginia: An Audio Archive: http://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/
Zine Chen Sampson/The Associated Press