Faulkner Speaks: U.Va. Launches Audio Archive of Author's Time at University

William Faulkner Deliberating on His Impressions of Virginians:

July 22, 2010 — By the time he became the first Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in 1957, William Faulkner was not a stranger to Charlottesville. His daughter, Jill, was married to a U.Va. law student, and Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, would come to visit her and their grandchild.

Steve Railton, who teaches American literature in the College of Arts & Sciences, believes that Faulkner's views on desegregation – progressive for the time – made him a pariah in the Deep South and may also have influenced his decision to move a bit north and accept the job. 

Whatever the reason, the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author fulfilled his U.Va. commitment admirably. Between February and June 1957 and February and May 1958, at 36 different public events, he gave two addresses, read a dozen times from eight of his works and answered more than 1,400 questions.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

Fortunately, two English department faculty members had the presence of mind to preserve those conversations, which have now been compiled into "Faulkner at Virginia: An Audio Archive."

Though news of the site had already trickled out, Railton officially introduced it this week at the 37th Annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference.

The tapes owe their existence to English professors Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, who carried a reel-to-reel tape recorder to most of Faulkner's appearances. (Most of the sessions took place in Rouss Hall in a windowless room that Faulkner called "the black hole of Calcutta.")

About 40,000 feet of tapes were archived, first by the English department and then by the U.Va. Library. More than a decade ago, the library staff began digitizing the tapes, which were in danger of deterioration.

The archive is the result of years of work and a fortunate confluence of forces. Railton and Michael Plunkett, a fellow of the library's Mary and David Harrison Institute for History, Literature and Culture and former director of special collections, received support from two library-based groups dedicated to digital scholarship at U.Va.: SHANTI, which focuses on advanced technologies in the sciences, humanities and arts; and the Scholars' Lab, which provides consultation on digital humanities and social science projects. Members of the Faulkner family also supported the project.

Plunkett said the project combined the traditional functions of a library with modern technology. "We maintained and preserved the tapes, but they were virtually unusable," he said. "So it was the modern technology of digitization and the Internet that made this possible."

Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship, said that preservation of the recordings is only part of the archive's value. All of the audio is transcribed and presented in small, searchable segments, providing what she calls "persistent access" to scholars and students. Users are able to bookmark and point to specific clips.

"It's a great tool for reaching into classrooms," she said. "We hope to see a lot of educational use."

And the architecture of the site "is an approach we can use in the future," she said, crediting Wayne Graham, head of research and development for digital research and scholarship, and the Scholars' Lab staff.

Besides recordings and transcripts, the site contains a trove of photos, documents and scholarly articles by Railton providing context on Faulkner, the U.S. and Virginia in the late '50s. Stories from the Cavalier Daily and Charlottesville Daily Progress are augmented by essays, including one written by Blotner in 2001 in which he recalls that U.Va. President Colgate Darden was not overjoyed by the prospect of Faulkner's arrival, owing to the author's propensity for drink:

"'The University of Virginia,' said Darden, 'has sufficient prestige without William Faulkner.'"

But Plunkett believes that Faulkner's residency has had a lasting impact on the University. "Special Collections has the most complete collection of William Faulkner manuscripts and books," he said. "It was a decision by Faulkner himself to place it here."

Nowviskie added, "Perhaps also it gave impetus to the University to acquire its splendid Faulkner collection."

Railton said he's already heard from Faulkner fans "asking us to add this or add that" to the site.

"An electronic project is never done," he said. "I'm already making a list of what I want to add. We can keep improving it."

— By Marian Anderfuren