Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner spent much of his final years working at the University of Virginia, which later received the bulk of his papers and which will soon celebrate the relationship with a new exhibition.
In the late 1950s, when Interstate 64 was still in the planning stage, a military veteran drafted a letter to the editor, full of sound and fury. Curator Molly Schwartzburg reads:
“They tell me this highway will be a vital factor in national defense in case of war. They may be right, though it doesn't seem very smart to me to have three lines of communication-- old 250, the C&O Railroad, and the new highway-- all concentrate through one gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where one enemy mine or bomb can immobilize them.”
The author was William Faulkner, who typed this upon a scrap of paper that, on its reverse, held a draft page of “The Mansion.”
“That’s a novel that he wrote, while he was in residence, actually on his UVA-issued typewriter,” said Schwartzburg.
Here, in the underground vault of the special collections library, Schwartzburg is choosing items from the world’s largest Faulkner archive which stretches far beyond Charlottesville and Yoknapatawpha, his fictional southern county. The collection includes such items from Hollywood as hand-written pages of silver screen dialogue and Faulkner’s Warner Brothers ID card.
“He needed money all the time, and so he ended up working as a screenwriter under contract to big Hollywood studios,” said Schwartzburg.
Schwartzburg says Faulkner's financial struggles fueled a voluminious output--at least a dozen screenplays, 19 novels, and well over 100 short stories. Plus reams of letters to agents and editors. All this leads to curatorial questions.
“The problem with Faulkner is there is so much,” said Schwartzburg.
As Schwartzburg chooses what to exhibit, one English professor traces the success of UVA’s creative writing program to Faulkner’s arrival.
“You can imagine the impact on the University of having a Nobel Prize winner walking around the grounds. He brought a kind of high seriousness to the place,” said John Casteen.
That’s John Casteen, who was an undergraduate and part-time library clerk when he first saw Faulkner. Later, he became the university president but never forgot Faulkner's contributions to the school and to readers.
“Mr. Faulkner’s prose reshaped American discourse. Those periodic, densely written, wonderful sentences began to be in people’s heads. You read a Faulkner novel, from say the thirties, and it sticks in your head; it changes the way you hear for a while,” said Casteen.
While scholars typically focus on Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, his final years were largely spent in Charlottesville.
“I think he loved Charlottesville. One of he big reasons he came up here was us, his grandchildren,” said Paul Summers.
The speaker is Paul Summers, who recalls how much his late grandfather enjoyed riding horses in the surrounding countryside.
“He believed in the value and the importance and the value of unspoiled nature,” said Summers.
The curator reads from an ID card:
“This is certify that Mr. William Faulkner is entitled to wear the colors and buttons of the Farmington Hunt.”
But after a lifetime already punctuated by bouts with alcohol abuse, Faulkner suffered several falls from horses and died at the age of 64 in the summer of 62. By, he had already confessed his appreciation to a University audience:
"I would like like to say to the people of Charlottesville, too, how much pleasure this has been for me. It’s been so much pleasure that I am a little concerned about whether it could have done any good or not--that anything this much fun must be bad somehow.”
The exhibition opened Monday (2/6), 60 years after Faulkner’s arrival.