Four Minutes with William Faulkner

William Faulkner‘s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was only about four minutes long.

“This award was not made to me as a man, but to my work,” the writer from Oxford, Mississippi began on a late Sunday afternoon during the Cold War. His accent was southern and deep, his mouth too far away from the microphone.

My work, he told the audience of dignitaries and leaders, was “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

Mr. Faulkner had revised his speech on hotel stationery while flying over the Atlantic Ocean to Sweden.

It was not a flight he wanted to take. Too far away, he said. But the State Department, the US Embassy in Stockholm, and his wife, Estelle, wouldn’t hear of it. Take our daughter, Mrs. Faulkner told him, go for her. And so he did.

“The human heart in conflict with itself,” his speech continued, “can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.”

Mr. Faulkner wore a rented tuxedo. White tie, black tails. Back at the hotel he and his daughter were staying at, the waste basket was filled with drafts of his speech.

“Man will not merely endure: he will prevail,” he told the dignitaries, the leaders, and the whole world under Cold War strain. “He is immortal…because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

After the ceremony was over, people would say it was one of history’s best Nobel speeches. Mr. Faulkner would say he was glad all the “hooraw” had subsided.

And he would return to his writing. The aim of which he described in the last seconds of his four-minute speech:

“The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

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