Arts & Life


This weekend, scholars of William Faulkner gather in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi to remember his writing. The event is called Faulkner and - well, the next word begins with a Y and it's the name of a mythical county he created.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. WILLIAM FAULKNER (Author): If you break it down into syllables, it's simple: Y-O-K-N-A-P-A-T-A-W-T-H-A, Yoknapatawtha. It's a Chickasaw Indian word meaning water runs slow through flat land.

KELLY: Now, that's William Faulkner himself speaking during lectures that were recorded at the University of Virginia in the 1950s. A current professor there digitized those long-forgotten tapes on a new website. Good morning, Professor Stephen Railton.

Professor STEPHEN RAILTON (University of Virginia): Good morning.

KELLY: So I am guessing most Faulkner readers never knew how to pronounce the name of that mythical county. I'm still not sure I want to attempt it myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. RAILTON: Or at least wondered about it.

KELLY: Or at least wondered about it. And so fun to hear him saying it the way he meant it to be said.

Prof. RAILTON: He even teaches you how to spell it.

KELLY: One of his defining traits, as anybody who's read him knows, was that he loved writing long sentences. This was a man who could fill two or three pages with a single sentence. And he was asked why he wrote that way, and you've captured that on these tapes. I loved his answer - we're going to hear it now. He talked about man as the living sum of his past.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. FAULKNER: And, you know, it's a way he is attempting to write the whole history of the human heart on the head of a pin because he thinks he may not last long enough to put it down on anything as big as a piece of paper.

Prof. RAILTON: That was one answer that he gave to the question, which he was frequently asked while he was here. The answer goes on to talk about how, for Faulkner, there is no such thing as was, that the past is always with us. And so he talks about how in those long sentences any given moment in somebody's life has a long history behind it. I know readers sometimes feel as if they're hearing that whole history before they get to the end of the sentence.

KELLY: Putting aside the writing for a minute, do these tapes yield any insight into the man himself?

Prof. RAILTON: To me the most interesting thing: this is the late-1950s, he's won the Nobel Prize for literature - that was in 1949 - he's no longer the young genius trying to remake modern literature like Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein. And it's clear that in these sessions at the University of Virginia, he's trying to reach out and make his work and his vision of the human condition accessible.

KELLY: I can't let you go without hearing Faulkner reading Faulkner. What can you tell us? We have a section here from his novel "The Town." What can you tell us about it?

Prof. RAILTON: This is the second of the three volumes that he put together called the Snopes Trilogy. One of the characters in the novel, Gavin Stevens, drives out of Yoknapatawtha - as he taught us how to pronounce it - and looks back on the town and the county. And at the same time that the character is doing that, it's impossible not to feel Faulkner himself, 30 years after he began creating this mythical county, looking back on his achievement as a writer.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. FAULKNER: They're all here - (unintelligible) stratified and (unintelligible) and durable with a frail dust and the phantoms. The rich (unintelligible) river bottom land (unintelligible) the wild Chickasaw king with his numerous slaves and his sister's son called Doom who murdered his way to the throne and...

KELLY: That's William Faulkner with the last word. And we've been talking about him with Stephen Railton. Professor Railton, thank you.

Prof. RAILTON: Thank you.

KELLY: Stephen Railton is professor of American literature at the University of Virginia. You can hear more from William Faulkner at

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