William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. His family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, just before he was five. Faulkner belonged to a once-wealthy family of former plantation owners. He spent his boyhood hunting and fishing in and around Lafayette County. He grew up listening to the stories and myths of the region, and he was especially impressed by the legendary life of the great-grandfather who was his namesake. He was a high school dropout, but he nevertheless developed a passion for literature, originally planning to be a poet. After working briefly as a clerk for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, he reported to a recruiting station to sign up for World War I. He hoped to become a pilot and fight the Germans in the skies over France; however, they rejected him for being too small. He later signed on with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to train as a pilot, but the war ended before he saw any combat.
After the war ended, Faulkner worked in a bookstore in New York, where he met Elizabeth Prall Anderson, the wife of noted writer Sherwood Anderson. His apprenticeship as a serious writer began when he traveled to New Orleans and lived among a group of writers and artists, including Anderson, who encouraged Faulkner’s vision. Although he originally dreamed of being a poet, he ultimately found his voice in fiction. His invention of the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, gave him an almost endless source of colorful characters and stories. His greatest novels and short stories are set in Yoknapatawpha.
Faulkner used pieces of his own life and family history in his fiction. His great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner (Faulkner added the “u” to the spelling of his name when he joined the RCAF so that it would appear ‘‘more British’’)—who was also known as the Old Colonel—served as the inspiration for Colonel Sartoris. Colonel Sartoris, who plays a small but important role in “A Rose for Emily,’’ is also a major character in the novel Flags in the Dust. Faulkner based part of the character of Emily on a cousin, Mary Louise Neilson, who had married a Yankee street paver named Jack Barron. More importantly, the character of Miss Emily is the town eccentric—Faulkner certainly understood eccentricity, having made it a lifelong practice. For example, when he was in his twenties taking language classes at the University of Mississippi, he was known as “Count No Count” for what many considered to be an aloof, arrogant, and foppish manner (though his poetry, essays, and sketches were in all of the student publications of the time). Like Emily, Faulkner was often frowned upon in his own home town. He became a pariah in Oxford in the fifties when he spoke out publicly against racism and segregation.
Faulkner published almost twenty novels, several volumes of short fiction, and two volumes of poetry. He wrote many screenplays, essays, and articles for magazines and newspapers. He traveled widely, giving lectures at American colleges as well as foreign universities. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, the same day his great-grandfather, the Old Colonel, had been born on 137 years earlier.
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