While most his of classmates quickly claimed Hemingway or Steinbeck as their subjects, Claxton wanted to take another path, and accepted a teacher’s suggestion that he profile Nobel-prize winning Southern author William Faulkner — even though Claxton had not yet read any of Faulkner’s stories or novels. Just weeks later, during spring vacation, Claxton showed up on Faulkner’s doorstep in Oxford, Mississippi, requested, and was granted an interview with the famously cranky and reclusive writer. Surprised, honored, and feeling slightly unprepared for the task, Claxton sat down with Faulkner at his home, reading his questions and taking notes on the back of two sheets of paper on which the young student had retyped an article on Faulkner from LIFE Magazine.
This week, Claxton returned to Cate for the first time since his graduation 50 years ago, and told his story to current students and faculty, which he noted stemmed from “an ordinary Cate assignment.” The audience was entranced as he recounted his solo travels from Carpinteria through Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis, and Natchez, and finally to Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s crumbling estate in Oxford. Claxton read the full interview, later published in the Cate Review, in character, imitating Faulkner’s southern accent and switching seamlessly to a dramatization of his 17-year old British-accented voice.
He began with the well-crafted description of the aging writer he had penned in 1962.
“Faulkner is a short, small man, with, for instance, tiny feet. However though he may not be very physically big, he radiates enormous strength as a character. His face has a set serious expression, which many would call hard and cruel. He rarely smiles. His whole person is centred (sic) on the face, and especially the eyes which are steady and small and black, and terribly strong, and one feels, all-seeing.”
Faulkner, Claxton recounted, answered all of his questions, some with surprising candor, covering the author’s writing process, his thoughts on reviews and the reception of his books, and offering advice to aspiring writers.
“Read a lot,” Faulkner told Claxton, “and of everything-fiction, biography, history, law.”
“I read all the law books of my father and grandfather. Because they were dealing with Man in his human dilemma. Wherever man is involved, he becomes a victim of the writer’s will. Secondly, don’t worry about the reception of your books. Maybe one day a badly received book will be an acclaimed masterpiece.”
Faulkner died just months after the interview, rendering it nearly his last, and its content has been examined by scholars and biographers ever since. Claxton went on to study at Cambridge University and became an English teacher, working at British schools for 46 years.
Claxton closed by describing the lifelong impact of what he called a “modest drama” between a “young boy and a wise old man”:
“As you can see, I was immensely privileged to be given, out of blue, a few minutes with a colossus of world literature, who reacted to my kindness and naïve and impertinent questions with the greatest kindness and patience. The wonder of it has been that I hardly knew what I was doing at the time, but the memory has grown and matured within me ever since.”
Claxton will remain in the U.S. for several weeks, delivering lectures in California, Louisiana, and Texas for the English Speaking Union exchange program and ending with a talk at the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society meeting in New Orleans. He spent several days on the Cate campus, meeting with students, faculty, and administors, including visits to English and creative writing classes.
When asked by a current faculty member if he remembered his grade for the now-historic assignment, he readily replied. “I got an 85–is that good?
A video of Claxton’s talk is available at click here
ABOUT CATE SCHOOL:
Founded in 1910, Cate School is a grade 9-12, coeducational, college preparatory boarding school in Carpinteria, California. What began as a group of twelve boys and a few teachers has expanded into a 265-student, 65-teacher, deeply academic and talented community with the most diverse student body of any boarding school of its size in the United States. The faculty are experts in their fields: 74% hold advanced degrees, 18% of these have PhDs. Cate is one of this nation’s most selective boarding schools, accepting only 20% applicants each year. 52% of Cate’s most recent graduating class attend the 25 top-ranked colleges and universities in the country. The Cate experience combines academics, athletics, art and co-curricular activities in a close-knit, community setting where students are enriched by their relationships with their teachers and each other. When students leave Cate, they have the tools and the conviction to seek out lives of purpose and meaning.