This episode of the Maine Humanities Council’s ‘Humanities on Demand’ podcast series is a recording of William Ferris’s talk, “Memory and Sense of Place: William Faulkner and the American South.” This was recorded at Bowdoin College on March 6, 2015, as part of Winter Weekend 2015 with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
A widely recognized leader in Southern studies, African American music, and folklore, Dr. Ferris is the senior associate director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South and also the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In his career, Ferris has conducted thousands of interviews with musicians ranging from the famous (B.B. King) to the unrecognized (Parchman Penitentiary inmates working in the fields). He has also written or edited 10 books and created 15 documentary films.
In this podcast, Ferris discusses Faulkner’s influence on writing and the importance of his novels in understanding America. “Faulkner is America’s greatest novelist, and Absalom, Absalom! is his greatest work,” he says. “The novel embraces Southern history from slavery to the 10th century. It wraps its literary arms around the central issues of race through the lens of Sutpen’s black and white families, of gender through Sutpen’s black and white wives, of class through Sutpen’s rise from a poor white child in West Virginia, sent to the back door of a mansion by a black butler, to achieving his flawed dream as owner of a mansion and slaves on Sutpen’s Hundred, a hundred square miles of land in Mississippi.
“What he did with the English language and the literary genre of the novel is unsurpassed. You’re dealing with someone who literally spent his life crafting language. Through stream of consciousness, la comédie humaine, Yoknapatawpha County, you are carrying language into a whole new territory that is bringing along the American South and the American literary world with it.”