By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Agony and the Sweat’ is the title sometimes given to one of the most memorable Nobel Prize acceptance speeches: the American novelist William Faulkner’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature at Stockholm in 1950. In his speech, Faulkner makes his famous statement about the ‘duty’ of writers: that they should write about ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’, as well as emotions and themes such as compassion, sacrifice, courage, and hope.
You can read Faulkner’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in full here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the speech below. (The speech takes around five minutes to read.)
William Faulkner begins his speech by stating that the award has been given to him for his writing, which he produced in ‘the agony and sweat of the human spirit’. He sought to create something out of this ‘agony and sweat’ which did not exist in literature before. In a memorable phrase, Faulkner states that his award is only his ‘in trust’: that is, he is merely keeping hold of the award on behalf of other people, in this case the whole human race.
Faulkner sees the Nobel Prize acceptance speech as an opportunity to use his profile, and the media attention that is being focused on him at that moment, to address the young writers who are currently undergoing the same ‘anguish and travail’, or hard work, every writer goes through.
He asserts that present problems in the world – such as the threat of being ‘blown up’ by nuclear war – has eclipsed the real subject matter which writers should dedicate themselves to: namely, ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’. This subject, and this subject alone, is worth the agony and the sweat of writing, which is hard work.
Faulkner then draws a contrast between the writer who sets themselves the task of writing about this topic – the human heart in conflict with itself – and the writer who settles for other subjects. The latter kind of writer will only ever produce ‘ephemeral’ or fleeting works, if they do not address the conflict within the individual human heart. It is like writing about lust rather than the deeper emotion, love, which humans are capable of.
Faulkner ends his speech by declaring that he refuses to accept that humankind is doomed to die out – but man will only survive if writers relearn the importance of writing about deeper things. Indeed, humankind will not merely continue to exist, but will prevail and thrive. It is not the ‘voice’ or invention of language which guarantees that man will prevail, but the ‘soul’: that spirit which is capable of compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.
The writer’s ‘duty’ is to write about these things: to remind those who read their work that courage, honour, hope, pride, and compassion, among other things, have always been a feature of the human race.
William Faulkner (1897-1962) delivered his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at Stockholm, Sweden on 10 December 1950. AMAZON tells us that Faulkner bought his first dress suit specially for the occasion because he wanted to travel to Stockholm, the home of the Nobel Prizes (except for Peace, which is awarded at Oslo).
By 1950, when Faulkner was awarded the prestigious award, he had published many of the works which most clearly define him: the novels The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom! Absalom! (1936) had all helped to establish him as one of the leading writers of twentieth-century American literature.
In addition to this, he is widely considered the greatest writer of Southern literature, and Southern Gothic, a genre he helped to create through his work – see, for example, his short story ‘A Rose for Emily’ – is a defining feature of his writing.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner makes several key points about writing as a profession and a career. These may be summarised as follows:
First, writing is hard work. The phrase he uses twice in the speech, with slightly different wording, is ‘the agony and the sweat’: if an author wishes to make a significant contribution to the field of literature then they must be prepared to put in the labour (‘sweat’) but also undergo the suffering (‘agony’).
Second, writing is about what it means to be human. Setting, landscape, and other local detail are important to a work of literature, but fundamentally Faulkner sees literature as being about people, and specifically, about ‘the human heart’. In a memorable phrase, Faulkner sees the human heart as in conflict with itself: we may disagree or fight with other people, but most people are also far more divided inside themselves than they usually care to admit. This makes human beings emotionally and psychologically complex and this is subject matter is the stuff from which great literature is made.
Third, writing is about reminding people about what makes humankind so glorious. Faulkner was giving his speech against the backdrop of the growing threat of nuclear war: the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union was becoming the dominant global political narrative of the time (just four years earlier, Winston Churchill, in another memorable speech, had used the phrase ‘iron curtain’ to describe the partition between the Eastern and Western blocs), and it was just five years earlier, in 1945, that the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing an end to the Second World War.
This may have given many people, especially writers, pause for thought. Was humanity all that humane, when it was capable of creating an atomic bomb that could kill thousands and potentially millions of people? Faulkner’s reference to people worrying about when they might be ‘blown up’ is an allusion to this worrying new global threat.
And yet it is the indomitable nature of the human spirit – our potential to be courageous, to hope for a better future, to exercise compassion for others, and to experience love – that most impresses Faulkner about the human race. And so, finally, writing is a duty: the writer’s duty is to remind readers that such things are possible and achievable.