How important is fear? Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Faulkner bio photo


Through the miracle of Audible, I have listened several times in the last few days to the speech William Faulkner delivered when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He was awarded the prize in 1949, although he did not receive it until 1950.  You can read the short speech in its entirety on the Nobel Prize site by clicking here.

Those of us born in those years shortly after the invention and deployment of the atomic bomb remember well the mood of the times about which Faulkner spoke in his provincial Mississippi accent. But his words were in no way provincial.  Rather they swept up the great universal principles of humanity and thrust them front and center, not just for writers, but for anyone who dared take the time to reflect on our common plight.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

I have to admit that as a youngster, when they made us sit in the hallways of the school, our heads pressed against our bent knees, I often wondered when the bomb would come, and if sitting in the hall of the elementary school would somehow protect us from the blast and the radiation of its aftermath. Mutual assured destruction did not lend itself to coffee table banter, and writers who would be serious about their craft must certainly find their way to the idea that underpinned the zeitgeist.

So we can see how Faulkner was swimming against the tide when he called out those obsessed with the notion of our soon coming obliteration.

But call them out he did.

What then was worthy of the writing pen?

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Like I said, there was nothing provincial in those remarks.  Faulkner may have written about his own small corner of the American South, but he did so with the human race in mind.

Is there a lesson here for us?

Do we write not of the heart but of the glands?

Listening to Faulkner’s remarks has served as a navigational correction for the course of my writing, whatever it may be as I move forward. “Love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice,” as he chronicled the eternal verities of the soul, remain the only things worth exploring.

I encourage all of you to take a minute and listen to Faulkner deliver his remarks.  Just click on the cover below, which will take you to the book page on Audible.

William Faulkner


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