- Faulkner on Omnibus : A Portrait of the Artist as a Cultural Ambassador in the Making
When the popular television series Omnibus aired late in the afternoon of December 28, 1952, the episode featured a short film with an unlikely leading man: William Faulkner. Appearing on national television marked a dramatic turn for Faulkner in more ways than one. For most of his career, he had shown a chronic aversion to the public-facing duties associated with being a literary celebrity. By the midcentury mark, however, Faulkner was becoming somewhat more willing to step into the public spotlight. A key factor precipitating his change of heart was winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1949 and garnering the acclaim that comes with the most prestigious literary prize in the world. The post-Nobel Faulkner was much in demand. Among the earliest and most prominent of his suitors were officials from the U.S. State Department, who recruited him to serve as a cultural ambassador. In the mid-1950s, he traveled on junkets to Latin America, Europe, and Japan to promote U.S. concerns through public readings, lectures, and press availabilities. Although Faulkner’s role was ostensibly diplomatic, he performed at times as a cold warrior on the cultural front. In that capacity, he fiercely defended individual liberty and self-reliance as deterrents to the oppressive forces of subjugation and fear under totalitarian regimes. This rhetorical stance became part of the stock remarks that Faulkner delivered while carrying out his official duties during a time of great urgency for the cause of democracy.
The narrative of Faulkner’s dramatic change in fortunes—rising from relative obscurity in the late 1930s to esteemed Nobel Laureate by the early 1950s—is now a familiar account in Faulkner studies.1 Only in recent decades [End Page 7] has the story of Faulkner’s concomitant development into a Cold War-era writer-diplomat gained traction. Largely neglected by scholars, the Omnibus profile of Faulkner—a short film in which he plays himself—is an unusual but instructive document of this post-Nobel transformation in progress.2 As such, it preserves in an encapsulated form a juncture at which Faulkner was becoming an actor in a geopolitical theater of cultural Cold War routinely staged in mass media.3 The production of Faulkner’s big TV moment employed the ascendant medium as an instrument for rendering the local and global domains the author now inhabited as a writer of international renown.4 The magnitude of the appearance for Faulkner is apparent when taking into account that Omnibus regularly drew a viewership in the range of seventeen million.5 By this measure, it was by far the largest audience that Faulkner was ever able to reach at once. In presenting Faulkner to the viewer, the production renders what he famously dubbed his “postage stamp of native soil” in Mississippi fertile ground for the cultivation of personal convictions and literary achievements presented as testaments to the generative possibilities afforded by American democracy.6 Faulkner on Omnibus took shape from a combination of televisual image-making and trademark self-fashioning that helped to refine the persona that the writer-diplomat would carry with him to the far-flung places and people he sought to address in the interest of advancing U.S. interests amid a heated ideological conflict on a global scale.
Omnibus Origin Story
The Faulkner profile aired on Omnibus in the eighth episode of the show’s inaugural season. A blend of cultural affairs and informational programming comprised the standard Omnibus format. The programming content was instrumental in establishing the television news magazine as a fixture on the broadcast landscape for years to come. In fact, it was so influential that it became a model for the development of PBS at the end of the 1960s. The shared DNA between the two enterprises was evident when in 1971 PBS launched Masterpiece Theater featuring as the host Alistair Cooke, the erudite and affable former host of Omnibus, which had aired its final season a decade earlier. Over the course of the show’s run, Omnibus resided at each of the three major networks and occupied afternoon and...