Analyzing William Faulkner’s voice

William Faulkner was famous for long sentences, some over a page long. We can’t imitate his voice without parody, but let’s analyze it for devices. This passage begins his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, 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. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Forget what you know about how Faulkner looked (tiny, elegant) and sounded (deep soft Southern) as we ask what personality speaks from this paragraph. I would call it tricky and witty, alternately simple and complex, idealistic, alternately humble and aloof, and deeply authoritative. What devices create this persona?

First, he uses no qualifiers, but speaks with the absolute assurance of a person who knows who he is and what he is talking about, which is maybe not that hard to do if you’ve just won the Nobel Prize. His sentences are either long and simple, or short and simple. The flanking sentences (“I feel….” and “But I would like….”), each 56 words long, open to the right after the subject and verb, and put new things end to end, not inside something else. He uses fairly simple diction, with only a few longer words: “commensurate,” “significance,” “pinnacle.” He includes slang, “the money part,” and some archaic terms: “anguish,” “travail,” “agony,” “acclaim.” He mixes ordinary imagery, such as “sweat” with abstractions: “human spirit” and “glory.” And he repeats words and phrases and images.

Finally, it’s very down to earth about how to win the Nobel Prize: work and suffering and determination. As he achieved this honor, all his books were out of print.

Published in: on December 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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