On one ironic and one inspiring lesson to take away from the famous conversations.
For two years, between 1957 and 1958, William Faulkner served as the University of Virginia’s first Writer-in-Residence. He did quite a bit with his time in Charlottesville, but most famously and significantly he gave a series of public readings from and lectures on his career and works, including question and answer sessions with UVA students and members of the community. A few years ago, my Dad Stephen Railton and a team of digital scholars and designers produced an online, digitized archive of those public conversations, and I encourage any Faulkner fan—or anyone interested in American literature and culture and history, the craft of writing, or public performance, among other relevant topics—to spend some time losing yourself in that archive.
Before you listen to or read those lectures and conversations, however, it’s important to note that one of the ironic but central ideas I would take away from them is that artists cannot be entirely trusted when it comes to talking about their own works. Time and again, Faulkner says things about his works and career that, at best, feel drastically over-simplified, and at times feel (to this reader and FaulknerStudier, at least) blatantly inaccurate. That’s perhaps most true of his famous statements about The Sound and the Fury (1929), a novel that’s already plenty difficult enough to read and interpret without having to contend with some serious authorly misdirection. To be more generous to Faulkner, he was making those statements thirty years after publishing Sound, and so at the very least we have to treat all of his 1950s perspectives and ideas as just as another collection of primary texts to analyze, no more authoritative and certainly no more absolute than the complex works about which he’s talking.
But if we step back from the content of the conversations—which again is very interesting and well worth your time—and consider the basic fact of their existence, it’s hard not to be hugely inspired. Here was one of America and the world’s most famous artists, a Nobel Prize winner toward the end of his legendary career, coming to a university not just for the recognition or a stipend or the like, but instead to engage, deeply and extensively, with members of its community—including, indeed especially, some of its youngest members. That Faulkner did so at all is extremely impressive; that he did so numerous times over the course of two full years is unique and striking; that we now have so many ways to access, engage with, and become part of those conversations is a bit of a 21st century miracle.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Hometown stories you’d share?
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