That famous Mississippi Faulkner “quote”
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.