Lot 259
  • 259

Faulkner, William

500,000 - 1,000,000 USD
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  • Manuscript on paper, etc.
Autograph manuscript and typescript of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1 page typescript with autograph corrections and 3 deleted lines on verso (11 x 8 1/2 in.; 279 x 216 mm), 5 pages autograph manuscript in pencil with corrections and deletions (4 of them on Algonquin Hotel letterhead: 10 5/8 x 7 1/4 in.; 270 x 184 mm, the fifth on plain cream-colored paper, 11 x 8 5/8 in.; 279 x 219 mm), [Oxford, Mississippi, then on board an SAS DC-6 Harald Viking en route from New York to Stockholm, and in Stockholm, late November–early December 1950]; typescript leaf with 2 horizontal folds, few tears at edges, minor spotting; Algonquin leaves with 2 horizontal folds, few very minor spots not affecting text, upper right corner of third sheet torn away with no loss to text; final leaf with 3 horizontal folds, very minor spotting and tears at edges of folds not affecting text.

With: carbon typescript of the acceptance speech in its final form, 2 pages (on onion-skin paper, 11 x 8 1/2 in.; 279 x 216 mm) [np, December 1950–January 1951]; 2 horizontal folds, small tears at edges of some folds and in margins (not afffecting text), three small holes in upper margin of second leaf, again not affecting text.

William Faulkner's Nobel Prize Medal for Literature, gold medal by Erik Lundberg, bust of Alfred Nobel facing left; ALFR•NOBEL in left field; NAT• / MDCCC / XXXIII / OB• / MDCCC / XCVI in field right; signed lower left edge (incuse) E•LINDBERG 1902, reverse, draped Muse standing right playing lyre to partially nude laureate young man seated left beneath laurel tree, writing on sheaf of papers on right knee, sun rising behind Muse, legend INVENTAS•VITAM•IUVAT•EXCOLUISSE•PER•ARTES around; in exergual area, WILLIAM FAULKNER / MCML engraved on plaque, to either side of plaque, ACAD—SUEC•, signed to left of Muse's foot, ERIC / LINDBERG; rim marked MJV•GULD•1950 (Kungliga Mynt och Justeringsverket [Swedish Royal Mint]) diameter 67 mm (2 2/8 in.), weight 206.3 grams (23 carat); a few edge knocks and test cuts, with rubbing at high spots. Housed in maroon morocco gilt case, gilt dentelles; suede and satin interior; some wear to extremities.  Gray felt drawstring pouch; a few small holes — William Faulkner's Nobel Prize Diploma, 2 vellum leaves (each 13 3/4 x 9 3/4 in.; 348 x 248 mm) with calligraphic inscriptions in Swedish and pictorial scenes in ink, gouache and gilt by Berta Svensson-Piehl, laid down in a green morocco binding (signed in gilt "S. Hedberg. Stockholm") with gilt-tooled border on covers, intertwining monogram "WF" encircled by laurel wreath on front cover, elaborate gilt dentelles surrounding vellum panels of diploma; some light fading and wear to edges of binding.  Protective gray buckram clamshell case; some wear, splitting at spine — 4 glossy news photographs (one a dulpicate) from the presentation ceremony (each 7 1/4 x 9 1/2 in.; 184 x 241 mm).


Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (1984 edition), pp. 523–535; Faulkner (ed. Meriwether), Essays, Speeches & Public Letters (2003 edition), pp. 119–121

Catalogue Note

The autograph manuscript of William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "the best speech ever given at a Nobel dinner," accompanied by his Nobel medal and diploma.  One of the most important pronouncements ever made by a twentieth-century author and a strong affirmation of faith in mankind in the uncertain years immediately following the Second World War.

On 10 November 1950, Sven Åhmen, New York correspondent for a Swedish newspaper, reached Faulkner by phone at Rowan Oak, gave him news of the award and asked if he was looking forward to going to Stockholm.  After a long pause, Faulkner said, "I won't be able to come to receive the prize myself.  It's too far away.  I am a farmer down here and I can't get away."  Later that day, he informed the secretary of the Swedish Academy in the same terms that he would not come to the ceremonies.  Needless to say, the US State Department, the American Embassy in Stockholm, the Nobel Committee, and Estelle Faulkner were all displeased by this decision, but Faulkner remained adamant.  Estelle hit upon the idea of telling her husband that he must make the trip for the sake of his daughter Jill, as this would be an unforgettable experience for her.  It was then that Faulkner acquiesced.  Arrangements would be taken care of by Random House, the State Department, and others.  The one thing left for Faulkner to do himself was write his acceptance speech.  He began work on the speech in Oxford, dictating to his step-daughter's husband, Bill Fielden.  The speech was a compact three paragraphs.  This typescript, with numerous corrections in Faulkner's hand, is of immense interest.  It shows Faulkner beginning his speech on a very personal level, introducing himself to the audience: "It just happens that William Faulkner is my name tonight.  It could be any one of a hundred others—Scandinavian, Latin, Briton—anywhere.  Because I hold that this award was not made to me as a man, but to a work—a life's work, thirty years of the anguish and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory but to make out of the material of the human spirit something which wasn't there before."  Faulkner goes on to declare that he is not a literary man, and is ignorant of Scandanavia's great writers, Bergson, Strindberg, and Ibsen.  He then turns to American literature, saying "The only literary people I have known are the few Americans who are my coevals—Hemingway and Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe and [Erskine] Caldwell, all of us children of Sherwood Anderson and all of us failures since the failure of one, like the success, is the failure of all."  This tribute to Sherwood Anderson is in striking contrast with the treatment Anderson received from another acolyte, Ernest Hemingway.  The tribute reflects the peace Faulkner had made with his old mentor and may have been intended as a sharp rebuke to the less-charitable Hemingway. The speech ends in this first version with, "I don't feel any different from what I did before this award.  I am no wiser than I was two days ago; I don't think I know anymore about the world or man's place in it or his destiny—if any.  But in his immortality I do believe.  He will not just survive; he will prevail.  When the last dingdong of doom clangs and fades on the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, there will still be one more sound.  It will be his voice: his tiny voice, puny and human and inexhaustible, still talking."  Here Faulkner ends the speech, sounding much like Samuel Beckett, a later Nobel laureate, who would shun the Nobel ceremonies in 1969.  It was not till later that Faulkner would add the coda: "I refuse to accept this" and go on to end his speech on a more optimistic note.

William Faulkner and Jill stopped in New York en route to Stockholm, staying at the Algonquin Hotel for a few days.  Their time was taken up with dinner parties, visits to Random House, fittings for a rented suit for him, and shopping trips for Jill.  (Faulkner liked the rented suit so much that his publishers later purchased it for him).  Apparently Faulkner did not work on the speech during this interlude.  It was not until just after take-off of the Harald Viking DC-6 that Jill Faulkner noticed her father take out a few sheets of blank Algonquin Hotel stationery and begin a revised version of the speech in pencil.  Most of this resounding speech was formulated over the North Atlantic.  It is interesting see Faulkner pruning away personal and sometimes vindictive asides from the speech.  In the passage in which he urges young writers to "learn the old verities and truths of the human heart," Faulkner pauses to to take aim at a place he had come to loathe, Hollywood: "A few years ago I was taken on as a script writer at a Hollywood studio.  At once I began to hear the man in charge talking of 'angles', story 'angles', and then I realized that they were not even interested in truth, the old universal truths of the human heart without which any story is ephemeral—the universal truths of love and honor and pride and pity and compassion and sacrifice."  This, like the references to individual American writers, was excised from the final text. 

In this preliminary draft, Faulkner tried out two alternative endings to his speech.  In one, he addresses the writers of the future: "I would say to them, get themselves back to the old verities, the old truths."  In the second ending, likely written after arrival in Sweden, he expands upon these "verities" (adding "pity" to the list) and ends with, "Until he does so, he labors under a curse.  He writes not."  A suitable ending was found later in a draft which apparently does not survive: "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." The final version of the speech is present in this lot in the carbon typescript which corresponds to the text printed in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 14 January 1951. 

The speech was given at the Konserthuset in Stockholm late on the afternoon of 10 December before a distinguished audience.  Else Jonsson, soon to become a close friend and confidante of Faulkner's, recalled "a small elegant figure, very far away."  He stood too far from the microphone, his delivery was rapid and his Southern accent was difficult for most of the audience to understand.  It was not until the next day when the text of the speech was released that the audience members realized they had heard one of the most memorable speeches they would ever hear.  As Joseph Blotner recounts, "Then, the impact of the of the hurried words was tremendous.  Later one scholar would say that each year at Nobel time it would be recalled as the best speech ever given at a Nobel dinner.  It was a stirring statement. …"  A live recording of the speech exists in the Nobel Committee's collection.  In 1954, however, Faulkner made a much more satisfactory recording of the speech for Caedmon Records in New York.

At the ceremony, Faulkner was presented with the Nobel medal by King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden.  The reverse side of the medal is engraved with the inscription "Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes," which is taken from the Aeneid, sixth song, verse 663 ("And they who bettered life on earth by new-found mastery").  Of more interest visually and anecdotally is the morocco-bound vellum diploma, which cited Faulkner "För Hans Kraftfulla och Självständigt Konstnärliga Instats i Amerikas Nya Romanlitteratur" and was signed by Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Anders Österling. The Swedish artist Berta Svensson-Piehl created on the left panel of the diploma a large, vivid, and stylized interpretation of one of Faulkner's greatest novels, Absalom, Absalom!  In an ornamental landscape, Judith Sutpen stands before the plantation house at Sutpen's Hundred as Charles Bon, the man she loves (and, unknown to her, a mulatto and her half-brother), rides up on a white horse.  The would-be lovers are separated by a line of slaves picking cotton, one of whom is a bare-breasted woman and one a small child.  In the more subdued, right-hand panel, a dreamy poet in a blue coat stands poised between mythological warriors brandishing swords in a flame-colored sky and the Three Graces frolicking on the green earth, alive with small gilt flowers.

Credit for the survival of the present manuscript and the Nobel medal itself must be given to Geoffrey Button.  Button was an English valet employed by US Ambassador Walton W. Butterworth in Stockholm.  During the 1950 Nobel festivities, Button was assigned to look after William Faulkner, and proved himself on more than one occasion to be up to the challenge.  On the day before the Nobel ceremony, Button found Faulkner in his room in an agitated and depressed state.  After tending to the writer himself, Button sorted out the room.  He discovered in the wastebasket all of Faulkner's unopened mail (including an invitation from the King of Sweden) and the pencil drafts of the Nobel acceptance speech.  He retrieved these and returned them to Faulkner. On the day Faulkner and Jill were to leave Stockholm, the Nobel medal was nowhere to be found. Bags were unpacked and re-packed.  After a search of the Ambassador's residence, the resourceful Button at last found the medal buried in the dirt of a potted palm.  Faulkner expressed his gratitude to Button and promised to return to Stockholm.  Father and daughter went on to Paris where Faulkner showed Jill the Luxembourg Gardens and other places dear to his heart in his favorite of all cities.  After brief stops in London and New York, the two returned to Mississippi for Christmas, always an important holiday at Rowan Oak.  Faulkner expressed satisfaction that all the "hooraw" had died down and he could return to his writing.

The importance of this manuscript, the subsequent speech derived from it, and the medal and diploma themselves cannot be overestimated in the history of American literature.  These items represent American literature in general—and William Faulkner in particular—at the apex of its prestige and influence, a position it soon lost and has not since recovered.  This revealing speech set down terms by which mankind would have to reformulate ideas of hope and faith in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, making this a key document of the Cold War era.