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Watch Tony Kushner perform William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech.

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November 8, 2021, 1:50pm

Today in 1950, William Faulkner accepted his 1949 Nobel Prize for his “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” In his acceptance speech, he discussed the perils of post-war writing and working through fear, and argued that problems of the spirit had taken a backseat to a sustained hum of physical fear:

There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever . . .

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. 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.

Faulkner’s recitation of the speech is only available with just audio, but happily, if you’d like your viewing experience to be visual as well, the great Tony Kushner performed Faulkner’s speech at Lapham’s Quarterly Decades Ball: The 1950s in 2013. Take a look if you’d like to celebrate Faulkner today, or if you’d simply like to see the fun opening gag Kushner does up top:

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