He was a proud and aloof man whose small,
conservative community marked him from an early age as shiftless and
irresponsible, but through years of success and neglect, through personal
triumphs and frustrations, William Faulkner dedicated himself to his writing
with unlimited energy, unswerving integrity, and increasing ambition and depth
of purpose. He avoided the literary life and all the follies and distractions
that went with it, and stayed home among the places and the people in whose
stories he found universal meaning. He showed great courage in telling his
fellow Southerners truths that many of them were not prepared to accept. And
through all of this, William Faulkner became, in the opinion of millions of
readers and of an ever-growing body of commentators on his work, one of the
greatest novelists of the twentieth century.
William Cuthbert Falkner was born in New
Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, the first of four sons of Murry
Cuthbert Falkner and Maud (Butler) Falkner. The novelist himself, as a young
man, added--or, according to family tradition, restored--the "u" to
the family name. One of his younger brothers would also write and publish novels
about Southern life; another would become an aviator; the third would be a
member of the team of FBI agents who killed the bank robber John Dillinger in
Chicago in 1934. His father was an employee of the Gulf & Ship Island (later
the Gulf & Chicago) Railroad, which had been founded by the novelist's
great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner. Murry Falkner was appointed the
railroad's treasurer in 1898, but became unemployed in 1902 when his father sold
the railroad, and moved his family to the town of Oxford, Mississippi, where his
father was a prominent citizen. He attempted a series of more or less
unsuccessful business ventures, until he began to operate a successful livery
stable, where William began working when he was eleven years old.
After a promising start as a student (he
had skipped the second grade), Faulkner began to lose interest and to do poorly
in school when he entered his teens. It was at this time that he began to write
poetry and short stories. In high school, he was more interested in sports and
extracurricular activities than in his studies. He was on the verge of quitting
school--which he would finally do the following year--when, in 1914, he began a
friendship with Phil Stone, a young man with literary inclinations who was four
years his senior, under whose guidance Faulkner began to read such poets as
Keats and Swinburne, as well as current writers like Conrad Aiken, Sherwood
Anderson, and the Imagist poets. After dropping out of high school, Faulkner
began to work as an assistant bookkeeper in his grandfather's bank, a position
he found extremely disagreeable, preferring to spend his time on the nearby
campus of the University of Mississippi and to court a local young woman named
In 1918, although already engaged to
Cornell Franklin, a lawyer with a practice in Hawaii, Estelle indicated to
Faulkner that she was "ready to elope" with him. Faulkner, however,
insisted on her parents' consent, which was not forthcoming. As her April 18
wedding to Franklin approached, Faulkner, after having been rejected by the
United States Army because he was below minimum requirements for both height and
weight, went to New Haven, Connecticut, where Phil Jones was studying law at
Yale University. Faulkner worked for a time as a clerk at the Winchester
Repeating Arms Company. In June 1918, pretending to be Englishmen, he and Jones
were accepted by the Royal Air Force and reported to the Recruits' Depot in
Toronto, Canada, but the war ended in November, before their training was
completed. After his discharge in December, Faulkner returned to Oxford in an
RAF officer's uniform.
In August 1919, his first national
publication came when The New Republic printed a forty-line poem titled
"L'Après-Midi d'un Faune." In September, he was enrolled as a special
student at the University of Mississippi, where he published poetry in The
Mississippian, the campus newspaper; he withdrew from the University in
November 1920. He continued to see Estelle Franklin during her occasional
extended visits home. In 1921, he gave her an eighty-eight-page typescript of
poems entitled Vision in Spring. Later that year, he lived briefly in New
York's Greenwich Village while working in a bookstore. More settled employment
came in December 1921, when Faulkner became postmaster of the university post
office in Oxford, a position that he held for nearly three years, despite
complaints of inattention to his duties while he used working hours for his own
writing. In 1923, the Four Seas Company in Boston accepted a volume of
Faulkner's poetry on the condition that he pay the costs of publication, which
he was neither willing nor able to do. The following year, however, he paid the
same publisher $400 to bring out another collection of his verse, The Marble
Faun. Also in 1924, complaints about his drinking forced him to resign both
from his post office job and his position as an assistant scoutmaster with the
local Boy Scout troop.
At the beginning of 1925, Faulkner went
to New Orleans, where he published a series of colorful prose sketches in the Times-Picayune
newspaper and in a recently founded literary magazine called The Double
Dealer, which also printed the early work of such writers as Hart Crane and
Robert Penn Warren. In May, he sent the manuscript of his first novel, Soldiers'
Pay, to the New York publisher Boni and Liveright, and spent the second half
of the year touring Europe. The book appeared in February 1926, to largely
positive reviews. A second novel, a rather heavy-handed satire called Mosquitoes,
appeared in April 1927, to weaker notices. After these false starts, Faulkner
began to draw seriously on the material, a compound of Southern history and
family legends, that would be the basis for his major works of fiction over the
next several decades, works that would establish him in the eyes of most readers
and critics as the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century.
The year 1929 was one of the most
significant in William Faulkner's life. In that single twelve-month period, he
published two novels, wrote another two, and finally married the woman he had
pursued from near and far for more than a decade. The two novels published that
year were major works, the first two of his books to describe the people and
places of his fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha--although the name
would not appear in print until the publication of As I Lay Dying the
following year. The first of these was Sartoris, published at the end of
January, after being edited down and rewritten from a more ambitious novel
called Flags in the Dust. It is a family chronicle whose central
character is based on the novelist's great-grandfather William Clark Falkner,
who had come to Mississippi from Tennessee; had been a lawyer, a planter and
slave-owner, and a Confederate colonel during the Civil War; had published a
successful romance called The White Rose of Memphis, among other books;
had founded a railroad and been elected to the state legislature, before being
murdered by a former business partner in 1889. To Faulkner, his
great-grandfather had been the prototype of the Southern gentleman, representing
a nobility that had been crushed by historical forces and supplanted by boorish
In October 1929, Faulkner published The
Sound and the Fury, the first of his works to employ radically experimental
narrative techniques. Each of the first three of its four sections was narrated
through the sensibility of one of the three Compson brothers: the retarded Benjy
(hence the Shakespearean allusion of the title), the romantic and doomed Quentin
(in whose monologue came the first extended instance of the wild and passionate
prose that would become Faulkner's trademark), and the calculating and
materialistic Jason. At the novel's center, but seen only through their eyes, is
their sister Caddy. Although very difficult to read in its first half, it is a
brilliant achievement, and one of Faulkner's finest works. Although well
received by reviewers, it sold poorly.
Faulkner had several years earlier
courted a young woman named Helen Baird, who, like Estelle Oldham, ultimately
married another man, but on June 20, 1929, less than two months after her
divorce from Cornell Franklin, Faulkner and Estelle were married. The marriage,
which lasted the rest of his life, was difficult from the start: Estelle even
attempted--motivated at least in part by feelings of entrapment--to drown
herself during their honeymoon, and in 1935 Faulkner would begin the first of a
series of lengthy, if sporadic, relationships with young women, a pattern that
would also last for the rest of his life. Like Faulkner, Estelle was plagued by
pervasive difficulties with alcohol.
No matter what changes and pressures
there were in his personal life, however, he continued to work prodigiously. In
the first few months of 1929, he had written the lurid but compelling Sanctuary,
which would bring him notoriety when it appeared two years later, and $6000 (a
great deal of money during the early years of the Depression) when its film
rights were sold the year after that. In the meantime, despite his position as a
husband and the stepfather of two young children, and the author of four
published novels, Faulkner demonstrated an almost deliberately perverse attitude
toward the opinion of his community when he took a job in late 1929 as a night
watchman at the university's power plant. His primary motivation was the
opportunity to have long periods of uninterrupted time for his own work. He
wrote As I Lay Dying while on the job, during a six-week period at the
end of the year. In that same amazing year, he also wrote a good deal of short
fiction, including "A Rose for Emily," which became the first of his
stories to appear in a national magazine when it was published in Forum
in April 1930. Two years later, it became the first of his works to appear in
translation in France, where Faulkner would be acclaimed a great writer even as
he was being ignored in his own country, and it would go on to be by far his
most frequently anthologized story.
Beginning with Sartoris, Faulkner
continued through 1942 to publish a series of books--both novels and collections
of shorter fiction--that are the basis for his permanent reputation, and that
constitute perhaps the most sustained manifestation of genius in American
literary history. In addition to As I Lay Dying (1930), these included Light
in August (1932), a novel considered by many to be his masterpiece, which
exposes the moral rigidity of an entire community; Absalom, Absalom!
(1936), in which Quentin Compson tells the violent story of Thomas Sutpen and
his family, in response to a Harvard classmate's desire to learn about the
South; and Go Down, Moses (1942), a group of stories, including the
celebrated "The Bear," that examines the tortured and bloody history
of black-white relationships in the South. These were also years of great
personal highs and lows for Faulkner. In January 1931, Estelle gave birth to a
daughter, who lived only a few days. Jill, their second daughter and only other
child, was born on June 24, 1933. In November 1934, Faulkner's brother Dean was
killed in a plane crash, and Faulkner undertook the responsibility of caring for
his pregnant widow.
Between 1932 and 1945, Faulkner went to
Hollywood eleven times for extended stints as a studio scriptwriter. This was
assignment writing that gave no scope for real artistic expression, and was
undertaken purely for financial reasons. Despite his election in January 1939 to
the National Institute of Arts and Letters, by the end of the 1930s Faulkner's
books were mostly out of print, and his career was stalled. It was not until
April 1946, with the publication of The Portable Faulkner, edited by
Malcom Cowley, that interest in his work began to revive. At the end of that
year, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying were published in
one volume in the Modern Library. In September 1948, Faulkner published Intruder
in the Dust, the story of a black man falsely accused of murder. While not
one of his best novels, it became his greatest commercial success, and the film
rights were quickly sold to MGM for $50,000. The high point of his revival came
in November 1950, when he was belatedly awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for
In 1954, Faulkner published A Fable,
a novel on which he had worked for years, a heavily symbolic book about a
Christ-like French soldier accused of mutiny during the First World War. It went
on to win both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award, but,
like many another uncharacteristic work that is close to its author's heart, it
is now regarded as an honorable failure. The Town (1957) and The
Mansion (1959), the concluding parts of a trilogy begun with The Hamlet
in 1940, are more highly thought of, but are not usually ranked with his finest
accomplishments. In the last fifteen years of his life, Faulkner grew more and
more liberal on the subject of race relations, making public pleas for
tolerance, urging his fellow Southerners not to resist integration, and using
part of his Nobel money to establish a scholarship fund for black
students--actions which provoked hostility and even threats. The Reivers,
a lighthearted novel drawing on reminiscences of his boyhood, was published only
a month before Faulkner's death, from a heart attack, on July 6, 1962.
* all are novels unless otherwise
Marble Faun (poetry). Boston:
Four Seas, 1924.
Pay. New York: Boni and Liveright,
New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.
New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929.
Sound and the Fury. New York:
Cape and Smith, 1929.
I Lay Dying. New York: Cape and
New York: Cape and Smith, 1931.
Thirteen (short stories). New
York: Cape and Smith, 1931. Contains "A Rose for Emily."
in the Desert (short story). New
York: Random House, 1931.
Zilphia Gant (short story). Book
Club of Texas, 1931.
in August. New York: Smith and
(early essays and poems). Milwaukee: Casanova Press, 1932.
Green Bough (poetry). New York:
Smith and Haas, 1933.
Martino and Other Stories. New
York: Smith and Haas, 1934.
New York: Smith and Haas, 1935.
Absalom! New York: Random House,
Unvanquished (short stories). New
York: Random House, 1938.
Wild Palms. New York: Random
Hamlet. New York: Random House,
Down, Moses and Other Stories.
New York: Random House, 1942.
Portable Faulkner (omnibus
volume). Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1946.
in the Dust. New York: Random
Gambit (short stories). New York:
Random House, 1949.
Stories. New York: Random House,
1950. Contains "Barn Burning."
on a Horsethief (short story).
Greenville, MS: Levee Press, 1951.
for a Nun. New York: Random
Fable. New York: Random House,
Woods (short stories). New York:
Random House, 1955.
Orleans Sketches (early essays
and stories). Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1955.
Town. New York: Random House,
Mansion. New York: Random House,
Reivers. New York: Random House,
Prose and Poetry. Ed. Carvel
Collins. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.
Wishing Tree (juvenile). New
York: Random House, 1966.
in the Dust. New York: Random
Marionettes: A Play in One Act.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.
(short story). University of Notre Dame Press, 1978.
Stories. New York: Random House,
A Courtship" and "Mississippi Poems"
(poetry). New Orleans and Oxford, MS: Tulane University Press and Yoknapatawpha
in Spring (poetry). Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1984.