March 26, 2008 — When University of Virginia English professor Stephen Railton teaches a course on William Faulkner's work, "It fills up faster and generates more e-mails than any other course I teach," he said. Students know that climbing 'Mount Faulkner,' as we call reading 12 or so of his novels, is often hard work, but that the views are terrific."
The territory of Faulkner's life and literature about the slow demise of the Old South, and what “Faulkner in the University” means now are the subject of an upcoming symposium at the University of Virginia on April 4, as well as an accompanying exhibition at the U.Va. Library, on display until Aug. 2.
Faulkner had a special connection to the University of Virginia. This spring marks 50 years since the great American author served two terms as writer-in-residence at U.Va. He moved to Charlottesville in 1957 to be near his daughter and her family, and divided the remaining few years of his life between Virginia and Oxford, Miss., where he was raised.
Faulkner left most of his papers to U.Va.. They are housed in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and include the handwritten manuscript of “The Sound and the Fury,” as well as holograph and typescript material from 19 published novels and two unpublished novels.
The exhibition, on display on the first floor of the Small Special Collections Library, is free and open to the public. It features letters, manuscripts, the typewriter from his office in Alderman Library and a map of Yoknapatawpha County (the fictional Mississippi county where Faulkner set much of his work).
The exhibition also features an interactive kiosk that enables visitors to listen to audio clips of Faulkner reading his fiction and answering questions at U.Va. in 1957-58 or to view films related to Faulkner.
Faulkner attended the University of Mississippi in Oxford for a few semesters, but never graduated from high school or college. He supported himself with odd jobs early on and later, when he had a family, mostly by publishing short stories and screenplays. His novels were not popular bestsellers at publication time, and many went out of print until he was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The symposium will be held in the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture, above the Small Special Collections Library. Railton, who organized the symposium with Michael Plunkett, Harrison Institute Fellow and director emeritus of the Small Special Collections Library, will moderate a panel discussion by four noted Faulkner scholars. Noel Polk, Thadious Davis, Judith L. Sensibar and Grace Hale will talk about the ways interpretations of Faulkner’s work have changed since the late 1950s.
Railton said, "The way literature is studied in the university has changed a lot in the half century since Faulkner was here as writer-in-residence." While the writer's stature is as impressive as ever, the way scholars, teachers and critics interpret his significance in literature and history, including the current fields of African-American, women's and cultural studies, has continued to make his work new for each generation.
Railton's graduate seminar students are also working on the exhibit, adding materials they select from the Faulkner collection that reveal aspects of the author and his work that are being explored in the academy today. Each student group covers a certain time period and two of his novels.
In the exhibit, graduate student Georgia Chaconas and her group are focusing on the mid-1940s, reviewing screenplays in addition to letters and photos. Of the 53 screenplays he wrote, Faulkner worked on seven films directed by Howard Hawks, including "The Big Sleep" and "To Have and Have Not," both starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
"I'm not sure he enjoyed it, but it helped him financially," she said, calling his style "cinematic."
Chaconas said reading Faulkner more closely in Railton's seminar has given her a better appreciation of his nostalgia for the Old South and the issues about race that he tried to overcome in novels such as "Absalom, Absalom."
"One measure of his achievement is how much his work still has to say to us, no matter what kind of questions we want to ask it," Railton said.
For information on the 50th anniversary of Faulkner’s University residence:, visit www.lib.virginia.edu/press/faulkner/. For background on the library's Faulkner collection, visit www.lib.virginia.edu/small/collections/faulkner/. For library hours and other information about the Small Special Collections Library, go to www.lib.virginia.edu/small.
“Faulkner in the University” Symposium Participants
• Noel Polk, English professor at Mississippi State University, is the principal editor of "The Corrected Text" editions of Faulkner's novels. He also has published concordances to Faulkner's novels, written several book-length critical studies of Faulkner's works and co-edited several more.
• Thadious M. Davis, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of "Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner's 'Go Down, Moses'" (2003). Recently, she delivered a paper in Tokyo at an International Faulkner Symposium, sponsored by the Faulkner Society of Japan.
• Judith L. Sensibar, English professor emerita at Arizona State University, has applied her interests in gender studies, feminist and psychoanalytic theory and the problems of modern literary biography to Faulkner. Her books include, "The Origins of Faulkner's Art" and "Faulkner's Poetry: A Bibliographic Guide to Texts and Criticism." Among her most recent essays are "Faulkner's Racialized Aesthetics" and "Estelle and William Faulkner's Imaginative Collaboration." Her forthcoming book, "Faulkner and Love: The Women Who Shaped His Art" will be published by Yale University Press in Fall 2008.
• Grace Hale, associate professor of history at U.Va., concentrates on 20th-century American cultural history and the American South. Author of the book, "Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940," Hale recently published the article, "'We're Trying Hard as Hell to Free Ourselves': Southern History and Race in the Making of William Faulkner's Literary Terrain,” co-authored with Robert Jackson, in the 2006 "Blackwell's Companion to William Faulkner." Her forthcoming book, "Rebel,
Rebel: Why Middle-Class Americans Love Outsiders and the Effects on This Romance on Postwar Culture and Politics," will be published in early 2009.