Preservation Services Liberates the Voice of William Faulkner

From the archives…

April 2008 

Preservation takes care of more than just books these days. Some of the most vibrant, content-rich  materials in the University of Virginia Library are available only via imperiled, inaccessible media formats. Recently, an endangered collection of unique audio recordings featuring author William Faulkner was on the verge of irreversible deterioration—until Preservation Services, through a generous gift of Jill Faulkner and Paul D. Summers—came to the rescue.

William Faulkner served as writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia during the 1957-1958 academic year. On several occasions during this time, in classes and for selected groups, Faulkner read from his catalog and answered audience questions. The Department of English audiotaped the extraordinary proceedings.

Forty-five reels of tape include Faulkner reciting brief works, such as “The Town” and “Spotted Horses,” or sections of his novels, such as The Sound and the Fury. In most cases, the question and answer session following the reading was also recorded. In these conversations, Faulkner discusses his unforgettable characters, his writing style, contemporary authors, Southern culture, and American literature.

Such content is matchless, and it was in danger of being lost. The gradual decomposition of the audiotapes, an unfortunate but typical circumstance for reel-to-reel tapes made of cellulose acetate, had advanced to a point where decay would accelerate rapidly. For this reason, and in celebration of Faulkner’s term at U. Va., Preservation Services led a project to digitize the tapes. Jill Summers, Faulkner’s daughter, and her husband Paul understood the urgency of the situation and funded the entire project, including the production of transcriptions of the recordings. CDs, reformatted from the tapes, are available for listening via the Robertson Media Center in Clemons Library.

“Anyone with a connection to U. Va. is going to be especially grateful for the chance digitally to share part of the experience the university had fifty years ago, when Faulkner first spoke the words we can now hear for ourselves,” said  U. Va. Department of English Professor Stephen Railton, who specializes in American literature.

In fact, this spring, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Faulkner’s residency, Railton and the Harrison Institute plan an exhibit in the Harrison Institute/Small Library that includes a multimedia kiosk where visitors may hear Faulkner himself.

“All of us who teach Faulkner will be better off because of the materials that the Library has digitized.  He won’t ever get the last word on the meaning and achievement of his fiction, but being able to let students hear what he himself had to say will give teachers many great ways into his novels and stories,” added Railton.

The collection also includes two lectures by Faulkner, one on integration and one offering advice to young writers, as well an audio gem—Faulkner’s appearance on Charlottesville’s WCHV “What’s the Good Word?” radio show with Professors Frederick Gwynn and Atcheson Hench.

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