Monday, July 26, 2010

My Journey Back To Faulkner's Mississippi

The Lincoln Statue At Bascom Hall,
University of Wisconsin-Madison.

(Image Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison)

One of the most important tools of a great teacher can't be learned, doesn't come with practice, and won't ever be found on a resume or a list of publications. It is a passionate love for the subject matter he or she teaches. I was lucky enough to have a teacher like that, and it happened purely by chance.

Long before the advent of online registration, students (at least at the Midwestern university I attended) had to walk all over campus, and sign up for classes in the main building of each and every department. This was no mean feat on a huge campus (933 acres!) in the bone-chilling cold of a Wisconsin winter, especially for undergrads who usually took classes in four or five different departments.

A Student Enjoys
Wisconsin's Winter Wonderland.

(Image Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Registration times were decided based on a random drawing of the first letter of the student's last name. Coming in last, as I did one unlucky year, meant it was almost certain my first-choice classes would already be full before I even began that bone-chilling journey. That all-important fact was something I couldn't find out until I walked several miles on frozen feet. When I learned I had to figure out a whole new class list, I bravely buttoned my coat, pulled on my hat and mittens, wrapped a scarf over my cheeks, chin and nose, and started my refrigerated trek all over again. I backtracked and signed up for my second choice science class, and another in history. Then it was on to the English Department, to choose classes in my major.

Madison's Winter Only Lasts
From Late October until Late April.

(Image Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Finding out every English class I wanted to take was closed was just too much for me. My disappointment, despair, and frozen fingers and toes collaborated to produce a meltdown. I was overcome by an uncontrollable crying jag. As I collapsed in a heap in the hallway of the department, a miracle happened. A Teaching Assistant--a grad student given the lowly task of assigning students to classes--stopped and asked if I needed help. Boy did I ever! Within five minutes my knight in shining armor had chosen three classes for me and signed me up. I didn't know or care what they were--my registration was done. I could go home and thaw out.

Professor Betsy Draine and her husband,
Professor Michael Hinden.

(Image Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison)

One of the classes my savior chose for me was "American Novelists 1914 to 1945," taught by Professor Betsy Draine. Her unabashed passion for Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Djuna Barnes was topped only by her out-and-out romance with William Faulkner. Faulkner may be greatest novelist of that era, and he is certainly the most difficult. But Professor Draine magically made The Sound And The Fury and Light In August as accessible as oxygen. She somehow transported her Wisconsin classroom directly to Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi. It may have been below zero outside, but during those three hours a week, a professor and twenty students were languid from the steamy heat of a Southern summer. I never again felt so entirely within a fictional world as I did then. Faulkner's Mississippi is a place I've never been, but I know every inch of it like a native.

William Faulkner at
the University of Virginia, 1957.
(Image Courtesy of University of Virginia)

All of these memories came rushing back to me when I read about a man I'm willing to bet takes his Virginia classroom to Yoknapatawpha, too. University of Virginia (UVA) professor Stephen Railton has just completed a new website Faulkner at Virginia: An Audio Archive. He has created digitized, streaming audio files of the lectures and speeches given by the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author when he served as the first Writer-in-Residence at the university in 1957 and 1958.

Faulkner in the
Classroom at UVA.

(Image Courtesy of University of Virginia)

Over the course of those two years, Faulkner spoke at 36 different public events and answered over 1,400 questions from audience members, according to the UVA collection. His speeches were recorded on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, carried most often by two members of the English department, Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner. Thanks to these two teachers and Professor Railton, anyone with an Internet connection has access to over 28 hours of Faulkner’s softly lilting Southern drawl. In the collection, Faulkner reads excerpts form his novels, and the complete text of several of his short stories, as well as discussing the creation of his body of work.

A Caricature of Faulkner From The Cover
of the University's Literary Magazine.

(Image Courtesy of University of Virginia)

Professor Railton has also painstakingly transcribed every audio file, so that nearly every word can be understood by the listener, despite the sometimes poor quality of the decades old reel-to-reel tapes. Also on the website are several revealing essays written by teachers and students who vividly recount their time in and out of the classroom with Faulkner. Dozens of photographs and newspaper articles from Faulkner's two year tenure at the university round out the archive.

William Faulkner Enjoying His
Pastime (Besides Drinking) In Virginia.

(Image Courtesy of University of Virginia)

Listening to the tapes, reading the essays and articles, and gazing upon the photos will take any online visitor deep into the unique world of William Faulkner. For me this was a true remembrance of things past. For I have already walked down the dusty roads and through the tall grass of Yoknapatawpha County. I visited Mississippi from a desk in a Wisconsin classroom. Professor Betsy Draine took me there in the palm of her hand.

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