William Faulkner

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.

Early Years

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 Estelle Oldham.

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.

Literary Career

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 upstarts.

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 Literature.

Last Years & Legacy

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.

Faulkner was, to say the least, a very uneven writer. He was a master of prose style, but at times he seemed overmastered by his own rhetorical flights. A brilliant experimenter, he was capable of what strike many readers as perversely obstructionist narrative devices. But at his best, which is where he was more often than not, he was unmatchable. Few other American novelists have attempted as much as he did--to tell the story of his region and of his nation, to demonstrate the often tragic inextricability of past and present, to show the human capacity for baseness and for nobility, to search for truth and meaning in a world where values seem constantly to shift and to erode. No other American novelist has succeeded so well.

Primary Works

* all are novels unless otherwise indicated

The Marble Faun (poetry). Boston: Four Seas, 1924.

Soldiers' Pay. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926.

Mosquitoes. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Sartoris. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929.

The Sound and the Fury. New York: Cape and Smith, 1929.

As I Lay Dying. New York: Cape and Smith, 1930.

Sanctuary. New York: Cape and Smith, 1931.

These Thirteen (short stories). New York: Cape and Smith, 1931. Contains "A Rose for Emily."

Idyll in the Desert (short story). New York: Random House, 1931.

Miss Zilphia Gant (short story). Book Club of Texas, 1931.

Light in August. New York: Smith and Haas, 1932.

Salmagundi (early essays and poems). Milwaukee: Casanova Press, 1932.

A Green Bough (poetry). New York: Smith and Haas, 1933.

Doctor Martino and Other Stories. New York: Smith and Haas, 1934.

Pylon. New York: Smith and Haas, 1935.

Absalom, Absalom! New York: Random House, 1936.

The Unvanquished (short stories). New York: Random House, 1938.

The Wild Palms. New York: Random House, 1939.

The Hamlet. New York: Random House, 1940.

Go Down, Moses and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1942.

The Portable Faulkner (omnibus volume). Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1946.

Intruder in the Dust. New York: Random House, 1948.

Knight's Gambit (short stories). New York: Random House, 1949.

Collected Stories. New York: Random House, 1950. Contains "Barn Burning."

Notes on a Horsethief (short story). Greenville, MS: Levee Press, 1951.

Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House, 1951.

A Fable. New York: Random House, 1954.

Big Woods (short stories). New York: Random House, 1955.

New Orleans Sketches (early essays and stories). Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1955.

The Town. New York: Random House, 1957.

The Mansion. New York: Random House, 1959.

The Reivers. New York: Random House, 1962.

Early Prose and Poetry. Ed. Carvel Collins. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

The Wishing Tree (juvenile). New York: Random House, 1966.

Flags in the Dust. New York: Random House, 1973.

The Marionettes: A Play in One Act. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.

Mayday (short story). University of Notre Dame Press, 1978.

Uncollected Stories. New York: Random House, 1979.

"Helen: A Courtship" and "Mississippi Poems" (poetry). New Orleans and Oxford, MS: Tulane University Press and Yoknapatawpha Press, 1981.

Vision in Spring (poetry). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Father Abraham. (unfinished early novel). New York: Random House, 1984.