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William Faulkner: “On Privacy”

In the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson helped define a uniquely American brand of individualism and personal liberty when he wrote “Self-Reliance”, an ode—in essay form—to the man who “in the midst of the crowd” was able to maintain his unique sense of self. Just over a century later, William Faulkner, in his 1955 essay entitled “On Privacy,” would all but declare that man swallowed whole by the masses around him. His essay, part elegy, part indictment, is a full rendering of the rapidly decaying state of privacy in mid-twentieth century America, and it is through this that Faulkner traces and attributes the decline of the “individual” and her ability to embrace the freedoms once laid at the bedrock of the “American dream.”

That Faulkner’s essay so closely interweaves notions of privacy and freedom, as Alan Westin does in his book entitled just that, is not surprising. Astutely, he recognizes privacy not only as its own freedom, but as a prerequisite for all others. If privacy did not make the man, for Faulkner, it certainly creates the sacred individual, allowing opportunity for a person to grow distinct from the rest of society in a way of their own choosing. It is this self-definition that Faulkner holds in such high esteem and he places it at the center of a quintessentially American possibility: in a country rid of “old arbitrary hierarchies,” self-invention was and remains an integral component of the American dream.[1] He goes on to describe an inviolable “individuality” in every man whose existence is both contingent on individual privacy (“lacking which [man] cannot be an individual”) and necessary for any life worth living in the first place.[2] Most simply, for Faulkner then, privacy comprises the conditions necessary for man to reach and maintain his fullest potential. Yet, as he argues in his essay, those conditions were scarcely apparent in mid-century America.

Faulkner’s first argument to this effect cites a years-long personal anecdote in which he is politely hounded to grant permission for the writing of a magazine profile on himself. Steadfastly resistant to divulging any part of his private life for public consumption, Faulkner here mirrors Westin’s info-centric view that defined privacy as the “claim of individuals […] to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”[3]  Not only does he declare it his right to decline but the duty of the public respect his wishes—“since one man’s liberty must stop at exactly the point where the next one’s begins.”[4] This attitude calls to mind Daniel Solove’s discussion of the view of privacy as a “constitutive element of a civil society,” an argument Faulkner undoubtedly would have agreed with.[5] For when the next magazine finally refused to obey his wishes, Faulkner does not consider himself alone the victim, but also the publisher and writer, all suffering from the same “mores of the hour” that had seen “bad taste […] converted into a marketable and therefore taxable and therefore lobbyable commodity.”[6] Harshly critical of a Freedom of the Press gone amok, Faulkner identifies an internecine industry struggle that satisfied both reader and publisher temporarily but eroded at the core elements of humanity in both.
Through this lens then, it is far more difficult to minimize Faulkner’s concerns over a seemingly insignificant magazine profile—from a friendly acquaintance no less—given the fact that he was already a renowned literary figure known the world over. He recognized, just as Solove does, that disclosure fundamentally undermines “democratic self-governance,” and its normalization in modern society left all parties victim to its consequences.[7] For an American society that so prized the individual—or at least claimed to—Faulkner highlights the vital function of the self-ownership necessary for making such claims anything more than mere platitudes.

Faulkner, of course, does not limit his examination of privacy to his own experiences, and in expanding his to view to consider the plight of a grieving Charles Lindbergh or a beleaguered J. Robert Oppenheimer, he exhibits a cannier understanding of the topic than merely one concerned with the transfer of information. On the former, Faulkner is especially piercing, describing a nation more eager to violate a man’s privacy than protect it, one “which assumed an inalienable right to abrogate to itself the glory of his renown yet which had neither the power to protect his children nor the responsibility to shield his grief.”[8] Here, he recognizes what Solove defines as exposure in the form of the needless amplification of a man’s personal anguish. Lindbergh was denied not only the dignity to grieve in private but the ability to properly do so at all. Westin describes the “protective function” of the “emotional release” afforded by privacy in such trying times, a benefit conspicuously stripped from Lindbergh until he fled to Europe.[9]

Faulkner’s consideration of Oppenheimer and the Anti-Communist hunt during the 1950s speaks to other privacy problems, including: surveillance, interrogation, and identification. But it also, perhaps more significantly, speaks to the general attitudes of the American populace at the time and the blanket immunity granted to any action “provided merely that the act be performed beneath the aegis of the empty mouth-sound of freedom.”[10] The irony, of course, as Faulkner points out, is that the very privacy stripped of Oppenheimer—“by the means of such catch-phrases as ‘Freedom’ and ‘Salvation’ and ‘Security’ and ‘Democracy’”—is the same privacy, the untampered space to think and explore and examine, that enabled his and all other scientific and artistic contributions in the first place.[11]

Faulkner’s criticisms and arguments are ultimately all the more compelling because they are rooted in a distinctly American brand of individualism that understands the essential link between freedom and privacy, and the existential risks of separating the two. While he reiterates many of the same concepts discussed by Solove and Westin, Faulkner’s main concern is ultimately the continued existence of the individual…the man who could exist within the crowd without being reduced to an “identityless integer in that identityless anonymous unprivacied mass” he feared the nation was hurdling towards.[12] Regardless of whether our nation has worsened in this regard since the essay’s publication, Faulkner’s worries remain equally troubling in what remains an individualistic society that continues to face many of the same privacy problems today.

[1] William Faulkner, “On Privacy: the American dream / what happened to it?,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1955, 33.

[2] Faulkner, 36.

[3] Alan Westin, Privacy and Freedom (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 7.

[4] Faulkner, 34.­

[5] Daniel Solove, “A Taxonomy of Privacy,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 154 (2006): 488.

[6] Faulkner, 35-6.

[7] Solove, 530.

[8] Faulkner, 36.

[9] Solove, 36.

[10] Faulkner, 36.

[11] Faulkner, 37.

[12] Faulkner, 36.

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