"Everybody knows we can't read," said Dr. Porter Fortune, chancellor of the University of Mississippi, "but some say we can write." (Laughter).
Laughter indeed from the crowd at the reception given by the Mississippi congressional delegation in the Rayburn House Office Building to honor a new film about the novelist William Faulkner, a writer of renown and a diligent reader as well.
"Never met Faulkner," said Joseph Duffrey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, "but once I did a bit of research, and a couple of things stick in my mind.
"You know President Kennedy once asked him to dinner here in Washington but Faulkner declined:
"'Too damn far to eat with a lot of people I don't even know,' Faulkner observed."
On another occasion, Duffey said, Faulkner was fussed at for the bad habit he had (when working at the post office in Oxford, Miss.) of throwing mail in the fire.
"Damn if I'm going to be at the beck and call of every idiot that's got two cents," he said.
Duffey was asked whether Faulkner was the prototype of the post office bureaucrat we all know and love, but declined to speculate.
Duffey's endowment, the Mississippi delegation and the state educational television system are sponsors of the film, which will be shown nationally on Dec. 17 on public TV stations, Raymond Burr is narrator. In two hours it will tell more than anybody ever knew about Faulkner, drawing on rare sources.
A great din (most of the guests were Mississippi types) could be detected from the reception room early on.
Evans Harrington, Faulkner authority from the University of Mississippi, had dandy stories to tell about Willie Morris, Larry King and Norman Podhoretz, but they take time and real space.
Novelist Joan Williams, one of Faulkner's friends interviewed for the film, had been peering at the TV sets that were running off a preview of the documentary.
"They interviewed me for three hours," she said, so of course I'd like to see how I turned out, but so far I haven't seen or heard anything."
This may have been because she fell to talking with a succession of people just about the time she started to watch the TV set.
"Funny thing," she said. "Somebody once said Faulkner didn't seem to smile much, but I remember him only as smiling. At the time I knew him he was very famous, but it meant nothing to him. I think of him as giving, always giving. It was the only thing that mattered to him, and that's the way I remember him."
Governor-elect William Winter attended the party, and there were plenty of other Southerners all telling each other stories.
John Fargason of Westport, Conn., was down for the occasion with his wife, Joan Williams. He grew up at Clover Hill Plantation, which is right out from Lyons, Miss., which is right out from Clarksdale which is an hour south of Memphis.
Once they had a squirrel crisis down there. His daddy was fond of squirrels. You'd have thought he was head of the conservation union or something; he never would let anybody shoot a squirrel.
Young Fargason -- young then, and not all that old now, actually -- decided to improve the Clover Hill pecan grove, where for years cattle had pastured beneath the towering vaults of the magnificent nut trees. He furrowed the land, got rid of the rough pasture grass, rolled the earth and wound up with turf like a putting green beneath the trees.
The first fall after that, young John showed his father the tons of green pecan hulls the squirrels had chewed up.
For a million years the squirrels had been eating tons of the Clover Hill pecans, but nobody knew it because of the rough pasture grass, but it was apparent on the new fine turf.
Old Mr. Fargason said nothing, or nothing printable, but the next morning the family awoke to the sound of gunfire.
Running downstairs, they found John's daddy with a rifle and a telescope sight. Still in his pajamas, he had got six squirrels in a little pile, and was fixing to stand there till the squirrels were all out of his trees.
Thus ended the immemorial Fargason fondness for squirrels.
Elsewhere in the room other stories were going round. They cleared the joint out eventually. Somebody said (maybe feeling guilty that no human had paid the least attention to the documentary preview buzzing along on the fringes of the party) that Faulkner would have approved. You can see television later. But life is short, and this may be your only chance to learn of the Clover Hill squirrels.