Faulkner and an Undergraduate
By Gerald L. Cooper (College ’58, M.Ed. Guidance ’69)
Upon graduation from Christchurch School in June 1953, I entered and quickly left Princeton University in September, disenchanted. I attended the College of William and Mary for three semesters happily, and then transferred to the University of Virginia in January 1955, to pursue a major in English. A year or so later I found myself in a small lecture hall, straining to hear a world-renowned writer-in-residence who spoke in an almost inaudible voice using an extraordinary accent. He described a mythical place with an Indian-sounding name: Yoknapatawpha. That reminded me of my own place of origin: the shores of the Rappahannock.
The speaker was William Faulkner, whom I had heard of from another native Mississippian, Robert M. Yarbrough Jr., instructor in senior English at Christchurch. Bob had introduced me to Faulkner’s novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying outside of class.
Someone in the audience that day in 1957 at the University of Virginia asked Mr. Faulkner to give his view of promising young American writers. Violating his policy against endorsing writers, he replied that one of the best was from right here in Virginia: “His name is William Styron, and his book is titled Lie Down In Darkness.” Deciphering Faulkner’s low-pitched, Miss’sippi drawl with no amplification from my seat on the back row of the small auditorium in Rouss Hall, I realized he had spoken the name of a graduate of my old school – William Styron, known to his Christchurch classmates as “Sty.” I had attended the graduation of the Class of 1942 at Christchurch, to honor my friend and mentor, Jim Davenport, a member of that class, along with Styron and about fourteen others. By 1957 I had also read Lie Down In Darkness, Styron’s first book, that he published in 1951 and that won the Prix de Rome.
Several daily newspapers reported Faulkner’s public recognition of William Styron, including the Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Thereafter I found it more comfortable to mention around the Grounds that I was a graduate of Christchurch. Both the University’s English professors and my fellow students, some of whom were graduates of well-known prep schools like Woodberry Forest, Episcopal High, and Lawrenceville, suddenly sounded respectful of Christchurch, that unpretentious school with the million-dollar view on a bank overlooking the Rappahannock River.
I completed a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Virginia in December 1957, a year after William Faulkner arrived as writer-in-residence. I had several opportunities to hear Mr. Faulkner discuss his writing between January and December of 1957. Although I was not among the favorites of the English department’s English majors, and therefore not invited to special gatherings with Mr. Faulkner, it was possible nonetheless to find “Old Bill” around the Grounds, occasionally at fraternities. I remember his quiet presence one evening in the Serpentine Club, at the back of the Quadrangle. (I knew the location of every fraternity because one of my part-time jobs was delivering beer kegs to the fraternities from Carroll’s Tea Room.)
In that setting Mr. Faulkner was less reticent than he was in small English seminars or honors classes. His painful shyness in one-to-one settings became well-known in New Cabell Hall, and not many students signed up for those uncomfortable meetings. Perhaps he was under-utilized, as some have suggested.
Even peripheral undergraduate students such as I were aware that factions within the English department – and perhaps among the entire University administration – were in disagreement over the value of Mr. Faulkner’s presence and usefulness on the Grounds. Former professor of English Joseph Blotner has captured much of the color, along with some of the political issues, of that era at the University in his autobiographical work, An Unexpected Life, published in 2005. The chapter titled “The University and Mr. Faulkner” might more accurately be titled “The Faulkner Era at the University of Virginia.”
Despite the politics and controversy, William Faulkner had a remarkable impact in the brief period of his presence in Charlottesville. His time on the Grounds is comparable to the presence of Edgar Allan Poe, who was enrolled for one academic year, beginning February 1, 1826, in just the University’s second session.
The University of Virginia’s first president, Edwin A. Alderman, wrote in 1925 a convincing essay on Edgar Allan Poe’s tenure as a student. He describes how Poe, despite a short stay and a less than exemplary lifestyle, had symbolized the presence of a “world poet” at the University. Alderman concludes that Poe “has contributed an irreducible total of good to the spirit which men breathe [at the University] as well as a wide fame to his alma mater that will outlive all disaster, or change, or ill-fortune.” Alderman defines the effect that a true artistic talent may have upon a community of scholars – even when that presence is brief and controversial.
Blotner and others have reported that President Colgate Darden was lukewarm to Faulkner’s writer-in-residence status because he questioned that the University needed the national attention that Faulkner’s visit would bring. But from my point of view, William Faulkner’s presence on the grounds had the effect of opening a window onto a larger world for UVA students in the late 1950s. It is difficult for students in the 21st century to imagine what a great gulf existed between the Grounds and the larger worlds of government, commerce and especially the arts, before the advent of mass communications. No national media coverage originated in Charlottesville, and even Washington, D.C. offered little or no live theatre, at least until the Kennedy Center opened in 1971. Thus to have a person of international stature in the world of letters – a Nobel laureate – walking the Grounds daily over a period of months and years demonstrated that the University of Virginia had not lost sight of the world-class ambitions of its founder.
I’ve had an enduring interest in the University of Virginia ever since I arrived on the Grounds some fifty-three years ago as a “transfer” from another college. Perhaps that’s why I view the University from a different perspective than does the typical alumnus of any era before the 1970s. I have devoted a chapter in my ebook to the University of today, titled “Leading to Diversity,” highlighting the changes that I see as having occurred under the leadership of President John T. Casteen III.
I am happy to observe that gone are the days of a stereotyped faculty and student body, and of a laissez faire attitude toward diverse students that I experienced when I attended in the 1950s. As Mr. Jefferson the Francophile might have said, Vive la difference!
Gerald L. Cooper divided his 43-year career as an administrator, counselor and teacher among four preparatory schools, two colleges, and finally as executive director of a college access program [501 (c) (3)] that served ten public high schools in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach. This essay derives from his book, On Scholarship – From An Empty Room at Princeton, now in a limited print edition at Amazon.com; also available in PDF format online at: http://www.rosegill.com/OnScholarship/index.html (home website of Alfred Scott, who published On Scholarship).
In it Cooper describes his personal experiences with financial aid: receiving it, granting it, fundraising for it, and finding it for needy students.
President Alderman’s remarks about Poe (cited above) can be found in “Edgar Allan Poe and the University of Virginia” (The Virginia Quarterly Review, spring 1925), reprinted in We Write for Our Own Time: Selected Essays from the Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville, 2000).
©2010 Gerald L. Cooper