That famous Mississippi Faulkner “quote”

Carl_Van_Vechten_-_William_Faulkner

Exhibit A: To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. – William Faulkner

When I saw that quote on a girl’s shirt in yoga last week, I had a hard time believing that when taken in context, Faulkner was saying something positive or slogan worthy about the state where he famously set his stories on dysfunctional families and individuals trapped by poverty, ignorance, racism, sexism, mental illness, or just plain evil. So I went in search of the quote’s context, I expected to find that Faulkner wasn’t bragging on the richness of life in Mississippi, but instead making sober commentary, unfit for posters, billboards, pillows, and Pinterest walls.

After an hour of searching, I found nothing. I contacted friends who began their own searches and who contacted their own friends who all found nothing. We followed suggestions such as his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, an interview in the Paris Review, and essays, which all led to dead ends. We contacted several Faulkner scholars including members of the Faulkner Society who too have been unable to find a single Faulkner text, essay, interview, letter, speech, or reported conversation where he has said this phrase or anything like it. What we found was that people have been looking for years with all leads ending at Willie Morris (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Morris), another Mississippi writer.

Exhibit B: To understand the world, William Faulkner once said, you have to understand a place like Mississippi. – Willie Morris, NY Times Book Review, 1996 (Full text available at http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/04/nnp/19155.html)

From what we can find, this NY Times book review from 1996 is where this quote begins. This is the first printed version, and it comes 34 years after Faulkner’s death. Appearing sans quotation marks and used as a paraphrase, the quote’s words and intent are different. “Must” versus “have to” and the omission of the catchy “first” particularly stand out. Most upsetting, nowhere in this article nor in the later books where Morris also used this quote does he ever say where or when Faulkner wrote or spoke these words. Seeing as Morris and Faulkner never met, direct conversation was impossible. Either Morris found it through a secondary source that no one else has been able to locate, or Morris, perhaps unintentionally, created the quote himself.

My current best case scenario theory is as follows: Maybe one day while conducting Faulkner research, Morris had a clever thought and not wanting to lose it, he wrote it down on a paper where he had been paraphrasing text from Faulkner. Sometime later, Morris may have found that page and mistakenly believed it was a good paraphrase of something Faulkner said instead of something he himself thought inspired by reading Faulkner. Over the years, it got muddier than a Mississippi swamp with no one verifying the quote’s validity before using it, instead people cited Faulkner via Morris, never locating the original quote, thinking “well if The NY Times published it and if Willie Morris wrote it and his publishers published it, then it must be a real quote.” That’s assuming the best of everyone involved, and it doesn’t explain the warping of the quote into slogan currently being used in everything from tourism websites to commencement speeches.

Regardless of how it happened, it seems it should be Morris’ name, not Faulkner’s, on all those t-shirts, though I’d still love someone to uncover definitive proof either way.  As is with both Morris and Faulkner gone, we can only go to the text.

Exhibit C: To understand the world, you must understand how a dubious Faulkner quote became an inappropriate slogan for Mississippi.

Proper attribution and fact checking should be mandatory for all professions, especially those involving the written word. It’s unprofessional to misappropriate and manipulate the words of others whether by accident, neglect, or so called creative license as I suspect happened in the morphing of this quote into a slogan. To that point, I ask my fellow editors and PR brethren who are often tasked with manufacturing, tweaking, and ghostwriting others’ words, stop it! If you ever like something someone said so much you want to quote them, do them the favor of letting everyone know where it came from and let them say it how they said it exactly.

17 Comments

  1. Cathy

    Well, that just stinks. I liked that he said that. A lot. It makes sense. I think understanding MS (or trying to) with its varied historical, sociological, economical, and cultural contexts would indeed help in developing an understanding of the world at large.

    • Alicia

      I understand. The quote itself is not bad. It just doesn’t sound anything like Faulkner. It also sounds pretty condemning not only of Mississippi but also the world/humanity. I don’t like it as a tourism slogan at all, but as social commentary, it’s pretty spot on.

  2. Caleb

    Being of that I am of the mud of MS, I take great pride and in the quote, actually implementing in my letter of intent for law school. Furthermore, in dealing with unwavering racism and tribulations due to the premise of that which MS is founded upon, the world or at least the US embodies these same demeaning inhibitions. Although, it may seem as though I’m globalizing, however I do not lay blame to an entire nation because not everyone is partial in their concept of the fellow man. Yet, I have survived MS because I see things clear in reality not only God can judge, on this earth at least.

  3. Brenda

    How about a Faulkner quotation that actually does deal with Mississippi, from his essay entitled “Mississippi”:

    Loving all of it even while he had to hate some of it because he knows now that you don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.

    • Alicia

      Thanks for reading. I was glad to put together information in one place. It’s hard to prove something never happened, but I’m really surprised no academics haven’t put together a response because it’s such a popular quote.

  4. Patrick

    Willie Morris was 28 when Faulkner died. Mississippi is incredibly small close knit state. I’m very surprised that two never met. But even if that is true, I don’t think it would be rare for someone to orally have shared this story to Willie Morris. For example, Eudora Welty could have easily told Morris the quote. Why would Morris have made the quote up?

    • Alicia

      I mentioned in the article that it was a possibility he found it through a secondary source. Hearing it from Welty would be a secondary source. It’s definitely possible. Just really curious and in my opinion unlikely to remain undocumented, but we will never know hence that’s why it’s important to cite sources.

  5. Juli

    This is shameful. The allegations made against Morris are repulsive. I’m sorry that I stumbled across this. It shocks me that someone would go to such lengths, simply to cast doubt in others. I will chose to believe that he said it, or that he said some variation of it. On that note, I’m going to go monogram everything I own with the quote. Absolutely everything. Hotty Toddy, y’all.

  6. Liz Cleveland

    Willie Morris’ widow is a friend of mine in Jackson, MS. I would be glad to put you in touch with her. She was one of Willie’s editors and would most likely know exactly where that quote came from. Let me know if you are interested.

    • Katherine

      I’m definitely interested in what your friend has to say if Alicia hasn’t taken you up on that offer. I stumbled on this article looking for some text written by Faulkner on Mississippi. I wasn’t familiar with this quote but for some reason it doesn’t surprise me that its origins are a bit mysterious. Regardless of who truly said it, the message still rings true, at least to me. I think this article does raise an important point, though; misattribution is problematic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts

© 2017 liciabobesha. All rights reserved.