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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With us now is Donald Kartiganer, Professor of English at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and organizer of the annual Faulkner Conference there, and Lee Smith, who has written 14 novels. Her latest book is News of the Spirit. Thank you both for being with us. Lee Smith, in your view, what makes Faulkner great?
LEE SMITH, Novelist: Well, I think the use of language primarily for me and also his willingness to take on the great themes, the–of history, to take on the relation between history and art, and I think he’s really truly the greatest American writer, at least for me, and I keep reading and rereading his work over and over. And I’m always finding new things in even novels that I have thought were familiar to me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Donald Kartiganer, do you agree with that?
DONALD KARTIGANER, University of Mississippi: Oh, absolutely. I think that his–as a stylist, as one of the creators of the modern imagination, and one of the–
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me interrupt you. What do you mean, “one of the creators of the modern imagination?”
DONALD KARTIGANER: Well, one of the writers, who along with people like Joyce and Elliot and Pound were simply breaking away from much of what had constituted poetry and fiction in the 19th century, trying new strategies, in Faulkner’s case the long sentence, the looping chronology, the different narrative perspectives, the constant moving back between past and present, but also I’d like to continue what Lee was talking about, his sense of the past.
This was a writer with a great historical imagination, and part of his greatness is the way in which he brings together that historical imagination and his, you might say his innovativeness as a stylist.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Smith, was that particularly Southern, that sense of the past?
LEE SMITH: Yes. I think it is particularly Southern. I think it’s particularly Southern that his sense of the past is often a tragic sense because, unlike the rest of the country, the South has had a history that could be viewed in that way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Lee Smith, one critic said he was so exquisitely specific in writing about his place and his town and yet he made it universal. How do you do that?
LEE SMITH: I think through the use of specific detail and specifically through language. I think it’s important, though, to remember that for me at least, anyway, all really great literature is regional literature, whether we’re talking about Joyce’s Dublin, or Dickens’ London, or Madam Bovary in provincial France.
And I think his Yoknapatawpha is so very specific, but I think it goes to show us, you know, who we are, what forms us, how should we live, what kind of small responsibility do we take for our lives, and all this really comes out as people and their relationships to the place that formed them. And these are universal questions, which are cloaked, I think, and presented by Faulkner in a very specific regional way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Donald Kartiganer, do you have anything to add to that in how he makes it so universal while being so specific?
DONALD KARTIGANER: Well, I think one of the interesting things about Faulkner is that he is very much reliant on a whole bundle of Southern stock situations, stock characters, even stereotypes from the Southern imagination, as well as the Northern imagination of the South. And if you look at his characters, for example, the aristocrats, the poor whites, the spinster, for example, Emily Grierson in Grows Friendly, the black mammy, or the menacing black males, the potential rapist and murder, these were all part of that tradition, but he of course takes them and makes these characters into full flesh and blood, three-dimensional beings whose complexities and conflicts clearly have something to do with us all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Lee Smith, speaking of the black characters, wasn’t he one of the first writers to really write deeply about the relationship between black and white?
LEE SMITH: Oh, absolutely. And specifically in Absalom, Absalom! and in Intruder in the Dust and Light in August, that–the race question is addressed head on and in a more frank and even brutal way than anyone else was writing about it, I think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Smith, you still read Absalom, Absalom! regularly, right? Is it something you carry with you?
LEE SMITH: I read it all the time. I read it the way other people read the Bible.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why?
LEE SMITH: Well, it is huge. I mean, it is a novel which is enormous in its concerns. Basically, of course, the plot is–it tells the story of Thomas Sutton, who is a larger than life character, who was determined to create a dynasty out of what is referred to in the novel as “a hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth,” but it is how he was undone by his pride and by his own sons. There’s a kind of a Lear-like quality to it. But it is enormous in its concerns.
It is enormous in–you know, it deals with three races, characters of both sexes, the sweep of history. It’s about history. It’s about art. It’s about storytelling, and the relation that storytelling has to the story and how the story changes, depending upon who the teller is. And I think anybody who is trying to write fiction, for me, particularly, it’s just like a kind of a touchstone. It’s something I have to keep coming back to, and, you know, every time I read it I’m a different age, and it seems like I get something different out of it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Donald Kartiganer, some people find Faulkner hard to read. They find him even verbose and try and then put him down, try and then put him down. What do you say to those people?
DONALD KARTIGANER: Well, I could take Faulkner’s tact. When some said I tried to read The Sound and the Fury three times and I can’t get through it, and Faulkner very helpfully suggested read it a fourth time. I think I tried to do a little bit better than that with my students.
I think there are certain adjustments you have to make and a certain understanding of what he’s trying to do. He once said, “I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one cap and one period.” In a sense, the whole narrative strategy of his work is to try to collapse all time.
And I think this is where his historical consciousness comes into play. He never believed in a radical distinction between past and present. He felt that the past coexists with the present, and that in writing one has to capture that phenomenon. He said a story in a story is never just himself at a particular point in time, he is everything that created him.
And so in the fiction these–the constant digressions, the qualifications, the moving backward and forward in time, he’ll take a character up to an event and then suddenly in the next chapter you’re 30 years back, going–in a sense approaching that event again. And the effect of this is to show us this unity of present and past and that if the writer is going to depict reality, he has to capture this phenomenon of the oneness.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Smith, in the few seconds before we go, what about his humor. Eudora Welty, the writer, called it “the wisdom of his comedy.” He was humorous too.
LEE SMITH: He was very funny. I think The Reivers, which, in fact, was his last novel, is enormously funny, but even in the most–some of the most tragic work you will have these deadpan characters off of the–the Snopses or the more low life characters who were found among the hifalutin Constance and Sartorises, as well, who are very, very funny. It’s this real ability to mix comedy and tragedy and all kinds of modes of speech, I think, which indicate the greatness of the writer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much.