I first saw and heard William Faulkner just as many second-year men at the University of Virginia did during a question-and-answer class set up to discuss his novel Light In August, which was standard American Literature course material in 1961. Joseph Blotner, the U.Va. English professor who was to become Faulkner’s official biographer, introduced the world-acclaimed author with few words and took a seat. Faulkner rose from his chair and stood at the lectern, slowly surveying four tiers of students who sat in a semi-circle around him. What the students saw was a 64-year-old small-framed man with white hair and a thick mustache. There was an embarrassing silence as Faulkner made no introductory remarks, but waited for the first question. Finally, someone had the nerve to ask one.
If we expected the roar of a lion tamer’s voice, Faulkner’s soft Southern tenor with its almost prayerful intonations was a surprise. So, too, were his responses to long, complex literary questions about dark symbolism and such. His constant position was that he was just a farmer who liked to tell stories about the struggle of the human heart.
My personal introduction to the writer whom we U.Va. types referred to as Mr. Faulkner, just as we referred to Thomas Jefferson in the present tense as Mr. Jefferson, was made by George Garrett who started the creative writing program at U.Va. in 1962. George is the revered and widely beloved mentor to a thousand writers like me. George wrote at such a level of high quality in so many literary genres that no critic could fathom or contain him. He never repeated himself in fiction or in poetry and was thus a true original. His unparalleled generosity to students was demonstrated when he asked Henry S. Taylor (who was to win the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) and me if we wanted to have coffee with Mr. Faulkner.
As the writer-in-residence, Mr. Faulkner had office hours for conferences on the fifth floor of Cabell Hall, but few people were advised of them to prevent him from being bothered by autograph seekers. George would check his watch at the end of Mr. Faulkner’s office hour, and we would walk down the hall to see if the great man wanted to join us for coffee in the Old Cabell Hall “cave” which was mostly empty that late in the afternoon. Usually, we would find Mr. Faulkner dressed like us in sports coat, button-down collar shirt, striped tie, and khaki pants, sitting behind his desk reading a book.
Our conversations over coffee were far from literary, although Mr. Faulkner did tell us that the death of Ernest Hemingway was suicide and not an accident. Mostly, we talked current events and university sports. Mr. Faulkner was an official timer for the U.Va. track team, and he was an avid horseman. One day he told us that he had received an invitation to attend a luncheon at the Kennedy White House but that he wouldn’t go. Washington seemed too far to go for lunch. He must have repeated that comment to a reporter because the next day it appeared in the New York Times.
Mr. Faulkner in conversation often used an extremely subtle form of double-entendre. Often the surface meaning was humorous and its secondary meaning surprisingly deep and well conceived. Henry Taylor and I used to replay Mr. Faulkner’s coffee talk and try to unravel the layers of meaning in what we had first taken for casual remarks. Sometimes we recognized intellectual spins that went beyond three or four associations. Did Mr. Faulkner think that deep?
The spring of my third year at Virginia saw the publication of Mr. Faulkner’s last book, The Reivers. At the Corner off grounds, a few hundred hand-signed and numbered copies sold for $10 each. I never saw Mr. Faulkner sign any editions of his books when offered for autograph. He signed no books except those arranged by the publisher for special sale and those he inscribed for personal friends. I never imposed on him to sign anything for me.
In conjunction with the publication of The Reivers, the University arranged for a reading by Mr. Faulkner in the Cabell Hall Auditorium. Tickets were issued to English Departments throughout the state, and the hall was filled early by guys like me in coat and tie and by college girls in summer print dresses. Knowing Mr. Faulkner’s awkward habit of waiting for questions from the audience without prologue, George Garrett positioned Henry Taylor and me with first questions to break the ice. We became Mr. Faulkner’s performance “shills.”
Mr. Faulkner read the horse race scene from The Reivers. Part of the text was in dialect; and on the whole, he read well and with some feeling, although his voice was not very strong. When the reading ended, there was prolonged applause, and then Mr. Faulkner stood mute as was his custom. My moment had arrived, and from the podium he recognized my raised hand with a nod. My question was one that I had asked before at other readings, and George suggested that I use it for this event.
“Mr. Faulkner,” I said standing. “Hollywood has produced film versions of several of your novels. Have you seen any of these productions, and what do you think of them?”
The old gray fox smiled for perhaps the first time that afternoon.
“It is in the contract,” he said. “I am not required to see the film.”
That summer, Mr. Faulkner died at his home in Oxford, Mississippi as a result of complications from a horse-riding accident.
I can still see Mr. Faulkner pause, smile, and answer my movie question. And I will always smile back because he knew that I knew that he had written the screenplay for Sanctuary, adapted from his novel, and that he had done other movie work in Hollywood for Howard Hawks. Mr. Faulkner, all kidding aside, knew the movies.