Faulkner, William (Cuthbert)
William (Cuthbert) Faulkner 1897–1962
(Born William Cuthbert Falkner) American novelist, short story writer, poet, scriptwriter, and essayist. See also William Faulkner Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 18.
Faulkner is a seminal figure in modern American literature. Specifically, his works reflect the distinct heritage of the American South. The northern region of Mississippi where Faulkner lived all his life provided the geographical and cultural background for the Yoknapatawpha County of his novels and short stories. But only in a superficial sense can Faulkner be considered a regional writer: through their radical stylistic innovations and moral depth his works achieve a universality which places him among the major figures of world literature. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in literature for 1949. In his acceptance speech, Faulkner stated that his basic theme was "the human heart in conflict with itself," and his exploration of this theme resulted in a variety of highly original, often difficult literary techniques expressing the full spectrum of human experience.
While Faulkner's importance rests almost solely on his fiction, his first ambition was to be a poet. His poems were published in various periodicals and collected in The Marble Faun (1924), Faulkner's earliest full-length book. Although the collection drew scant notice at the time, it is now considered of interest as an early display of the stylistic qualities Faulkner later developed in his fiction. For example, pastoral imagery and frequent use of symbol and image are characteristic of both his poetry and his prose. The Marble Faun was followed by the publication of Faulkner's first two novels, Soldier's Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), neither of which received much critical response. Soldier's Pay is categorized as a "lost generation" novel because it centers on a physically and emotionally scarred young soldier who returns home from war and finds only further trauma and disillusionment. Mosquitoes features a character type that reappears throughout Faulkner's work—the individual who lives a life of unfulfilled hope but strives to endure, even in grief. The necessity to struggle and to endure is central to Faulkner's view of human existence. In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he stated: "I believe that man will not only endure: he will prevail."
With the publication of his third novel, Sartoris (1929), Faulkner won greater critical attention. Sartoris is considered by many to be the first "typical Faulkner novel," primarily because it is set in Yoknapatawpha County and displays a full array of storytelling techniques, but also for the tragic fate of its protagonist, Bayard Sartoris. Many of Faulkner's later works develop stories that he touched upon in Sartoris. In 1929, Faulkner also published The Sound and the Fury, a novel about the disintegration of the Compson family. The story is told through four separate points of view in a seemingly disjointed narrative that gradually reveals its meaning. Critics were impressed by the complicated structure of the novel, especially the opening section told from the viewpoint of the idiot man-child Benjy. However, the difficulty of fathoming Faulkner's narrative tactics turned many readers away. Through characters like Benjy, whose memories of past events mingle with present experiences with no distinction between the two, Faulkner was able to give a more complex rendering of char-acters and events. This technique was further developed and refined in subsequent works.
With critical recognition established, Faulkner sought greater financial rewards from his writing. With an eye on the commercial market, he began composing what he called "the most horrific tale I could imagine." The result was Sanctuary (1931), a novel which had to be revised before final publication due to its graphic violence and the extravagant depravity of its characters. An objective study of human evil, Sanctuary, even in its revised form, caused a minor uproar. While it became Faulkner's best-selling novel, a number of critics disparaged the work for its sensationalistic depictions of violence. Critical studies of Sanctuary often focus on the character Popeye, particularly because he embodies the philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of humor—that we laugh at people who act rigidly and mechanically rather than at those capable of expressing diverse emotions. Faulkner himself acknowledged an interest in Bergson's ideas, including his theory of the fluidity of time. Faulkner stated: "There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity."
Faulkner's work grew increasingly complex during the 1930s, making even greater demands upon readers and eliciting mixed critical response. As I Lay Dying (1930), for example, is a novel composed of fifty-nine interior monologues: by this use of constantly shifting, contrasting points of view, Faulkner gradually and methodically reveals his themes and characters. In Light in August (1932), Faulkner examines the origins of personal identity and the roots of racial conflicts. Light in August begins by introducing a few characters and then turns to the plight of Joe Christmas, who is trying to uncover his true identity by piecing together bits of hearsay information. Because this story is told in an extended flashback, many critics felt that the novel suffered from faulty structure. However, defenders of the novel claim that this structure is intentional and serves to enhance the thematic scope of the narrative.
Faulkner's next major novel, Absalom! Absalom! (1936), has been called the work in which he is most in control of his experimental narrative techniques. At the center of this novel is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a tragic character with a monomaniacal passion for creating and controlling a self-contained world. Many of the "facts" regarding Sutpen, as well as other characters and events in the novel, are based on unreliable information, and the novel thus questions the human capacity to know the truth about anyone or anything. Upon publication of Absalom! Absalom!, many critics hailed Faulkner as a great artist, while others felt that his abstruse method of storytelling was confusing and ultimately ineffective. After publishing two subsequent novels that received lukewarm critical response, The Unvanquished (1938) and The Wild Palms (1939), and following a brief stint in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, Faulkner published The Hamlet (1940). According to some critics, this novel concludes Faulkner's "major period." The Hamlet, along with two later novels, The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), are collectively known as the "Snopes Trilogy." These novels center on Flem Snopes, whose single ambition in life is to acquire more and more property, and are a blend of tragedy and comedy. While some critics view the tragedy in these novels as both heightened and made more tolerable by its juxtaposition with comedy, others feel that the humor is detrimental to a basically tragic theme. The Snopes trilogy also highlights another prominent theme in Faulkner's work—exploitation of land and people as a source of human misery.
In the opinion of some critics, Faulkner is most effective as a short story writer. He often used short stories to fill gaps in the historical development of Yoknapatawpha County as depicted in his novels. Many characters who appear in the novels also appear in the short stories, while new characters are also introduced. Even in isolation from his novels, Faulkner's short fiction provides the complete chronological development of Yoknapatawpha from the coming of white men, who introduced the concept of private property, up to the twentieth century, when the automobile becomes a common fixture in American society. Go Down, Moses (1942) is a short story collection that can also be considered as a novel, with a thematic unity binding the separate sections of the work. Though Faulkner himself referred to this collection as a novel, many critics view "episodes" such as "The Bear" as fully realized short stories which are more concise and complete than many of Faulkner's novels.
During the 1950s, Faulkner spent much time traveling and lecturing both abroad and at American colleges. His novel A Fable (1954) won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the National Book Award, but received mixed reviews because of its rigidly structured prose. After completing the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner wrote his final novel, The Reivers (1962), which was published shortly before his death. The Reivers provides a final glance at Yoknapatawpha County. Although written as a tall tale in the manner of the nineteenth-century Southwestern humorists, this work, like most of Faulkner's fiction, can also be read symbolically as a moral tale. Since his death, Faulkner's work has been extensively analyzed and is now more fully appreciated. Faulkner created a body of work that is distinctly American yet reflects, on a grander scale, the universal values of human life.
Faulkner, unlike Hemingway, is a novelist of the old school—the actual texture of his prose-narrative is not at all 'revolutionary' or unusual. Just occasionally (as in the opening page or two of Sartoris and here and there in Sanctuary and Light in August) a spurious savour of "newness' is obtained by a pretended incompetence as a narrator or from a confused distraction—a 'lack of concentration' it would popularly be called if it occurred in the narrative of a police-court witness. There is, very occasionally, a clumsy slyness of this sort, of the faux-naif variety, but it is quite a minor thing. Just now and then—only for a page or two—he will Joyce for a bit, but merely to the extent of innocently portmanteauing a few words just to show he is on the right side, such as 'shadowdappled' or 'down-speaking': but he has not much luck with this, as he is apt to arrive at such a result as the following: "the rank manodor of his sedentary … flesh"—which looks too like escupidor to be a happy conjugation. For the most part his books might have been written by a contemporary of Trollope or the early Wells. (p. 43)
There is no reason whatever why a novelist today should not use the most 'straightforward' methods of narrative—the code napoléon was good enough for Stendhal, and we might do far worse than model ourselves upon it—I am not at all … [damning] Mr. Faulkner for being...
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The problem that faces every student of Faulkner's writing is its lack of a center, the gap between his power and its source, that curious abstract magnificence (not only a magnificence of verbal resources alone) which holds his books together, yet seems to arise from debasement or perplexity or a calculating terror. It is the gap between the deliberation of his effects, the intensity of his every conception, and the besetting and depressing looseness, the almost sick passivity, of his basic meaning and purpose. No writer, least of all a novelist so remarkably inventive and robust of imagination, works in problems of pure technique alone; and though it is possible to see in his books, as Conrad Aiken has shown [see CLC, Vol. 8], the marks of a writer devoted to elaboration and wizardry of form, who has deliberately sought to delay and obscure his readers so that the work may have a final and devastating effect, Faulkner's "persistent offering of obstacles, a calculated system of screens and obtrusions, of confusions and ambiguous interpolations and delays," seems to spring from an obscure and profligate confusion, a manifest absence of purpose, rather than from an elaborate but coherent aim.
For while Faulkner has brought back into the modern American novel a density of perception and elaboration of means unparalleled since Henry James, his passion for form has not been, like James's, the tortuous expression of an unusual and...
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I came to every new Faulkner opus wearily determined to see in it what my betters saw. No more than the next man do I enjoy looking like a dunce. But, no matter how hard I tried, I was licked every time. Some major defect, some incurable myopia, prevented me from seeing in him more than a dazzling, though often unsuccessful technician, passionately and sincerely creating a private world whose inhabitants would be completely unrecognizable to the natives of Oxford, Mississippi, but are apparently immediately recognizable to a host of young academics and, let us be fair, to many non-specialized, average, intelligent readers.
For them there is no disproportion between Mr. Faulkner's Gothic-horrors material and the complex means used to embody it. No gap between the noble, free-floating utterances of the Nobel Prize speech and the moral chaos of most of the novels. No impatience with the violence, the humorlessness, the portentousness of his characters. No willful and, as I see it, unrewarding deformation of our English tongue. No feeling that at the heart of all his books there is, as an English critic has put it, "an abrogation of natural law, an act of violence." Nothing of the uneasy sense I get from time to time of Charles Addams trying to be Dostoevski.
If there exist, as I believe to be the case, a few other old-fashioned reactionaries who are like myself baffled by Mr. Faulkner and even more baffled by his...
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It is necessary to emphasise that Faulkner in his best work is not concerned with ideas in any abstract sense. His preoccupations are not intellectual but moral; what he offers is not philosophy but wisdom. At the same time, his public statements are in no sense divorced from his literary achievement. The Nobel Prize Speech has sometimes been regarded as very much a post hoc statement, a deliberate effort on Faulkner's part to match with his own grandiloquence the grandeur of the occasion. It should properly be seen as a distillation, necessarily couched in abstract terms, of the kind of statements and moral judgments which had been implicit in his work from the very first. As Faulkner wrote to Warren Beck in 1941: "I have been writing all the time about honor, truth, pity, consideration, the capacity to endure well grief and misfortune and injustice and then endure again …" Like the people of Oxford, so many of Faulkner's critics have failed to understand, in the words of "Mac" Reed, that Faulkner was "their closest friend who was trying to show them in his own peculiar way that they must appreciate the good life better."
The crucial failure of much Faulkner criticism, however, and the one which underlies so many misreadings and misjudgments of his work, has been the continuing underestimation of Faulkner as an artist. The case against Faulkner was made out by Wyndham Lewis in his book, Men Without Art, published in...
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Robert Penn Warren
It was in the Spring of 1929 that John Gould Fletcher, on a visit to Oxford University, where I was a student, gave me a copy of Soldiers' Pay. I had been out of the South for a long time—in a sense, in flight from the South—and at least half of me was oriented toward Greenwich Village and the Left Bank and not toward the Cumberland Valley in Tennessee; but at the same time I was, I suppose, homesick, and was making my first serious attempt at fiction, fiction with a setting in the part of the South where I had grown up. As a novel, Soldiers' Pay is no better than it should be, but it made a profound and undefinable impression on me. Then came, in the order of my reading, The Sound and the Fury, A I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and These Thirteen.
What happened to me was what happened to almost all the bookreading Southerners I knew. They found dramatized in Faulkner's work some truth about the South and their own Southerness that had been lying speechless in their experience. Even landscapes and objects took on a new depth of meaning, and the human face, stance, and gesture took on a new dignity.
If you, in spite of your own sometimes self-conscious and willed Southernness, had been alienated by the official Southern pieties, alibis, and daydreams, the novels of Faulkner told you that there was, if you looked a second time, an intense, tormented, and brutal, but dignified and sometimes noble,...
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Arthur F. Kinney
Mayday is derivative in idea and technique, a product of a self-conscious affecting of Symbolist art quivering at its own fragility in a harsh and cruel world at the same time it openly parodies young passions and lusts. The setting is medieval: Sir Galwyn of Arthgyl is given a dream of death by St. Francis, and, accompanied by Pain and Hunger, he sets out on his journey of life to be united with this Little Sister. The first men who try to stop him protect Yseult whose naked bathing in a pool not only arouses Sir Galwyn but is meant to double the Little Sister Death he searches after. Naked, Yseult rises from the pool to romp and lie in the woods with her new lover until the cold darkness causes him to suggest she get dressed; at this first opportunity, as he shows Pain and Hunger, he escapes, sighing with relief. Two other princesses, representing the evening and morning stars, come to him, the first as a deer, the second carried in a chariot by dolphins, but his affairs with both are brief. In each instance the knight is lightly mocked by the vulgar colloquialism of the women he leaves behind: at the end, he welcomes not the Afterworld but Death herself. This singular journey towards embracing death obviously anticipates Quentin's section in The Sound and the Fury, especially in the closing lines of Mayday, but where the later portrait is cautious in defining Quentin's psychology and tragic in its implications, Mayday is...
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Calvin S. Brown
Mayday itself is not, as one might expect, a fumbling piece of apprentice-work, but a skillful and amusing exercise in a very minor literary genre which might be described as a lightly allegorical medieval pastiche. It is the story of Sir Galwyn of Arthygal, who, accompanied by Hunger and Pain, rides forth as a new knight, kills "a small dragon of an inferior and cowardly type," seduces three beautiful princesses in three consecutive days and immediately abandons each of them, and finally, with the help of St. Francis, seeks and finds little sister Death in the river. On the way he encounters various figures, including Time, with whom he has philosophical discussions; and the whole work operates in a spirit of cheerful and unportentous nihilism. The manner and style are essentially those of Cabell, and the archaic language is remarkably well handled, especially in view of the fact that Faulkner was no scholar. Much of the amusement comes from what [Carvel Collins in his introduction] calls anachronisms, though they are not really that but are deliberate juxtapositions of the tone of high romance with everyday trivial clichés, as when Yseult, standing naked in the water, replies to a highflown speech of Sir Galwyn: "Do you really think I am beautiful? You say it so convincingly that I must believe you have said it before—I am sure you have said it to other girls. Now, haven't you? But I am sorry you saw me with my hair done this way." There is...
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Faulkner himself is to blame for the long critical disparagement of "Sanctuary," the fifth novel he wrote. "To me it is a cheap idea," he said in his introduction to the Modern Library edition (1932), "because it was deliberately conceived to make money…. I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to [Harrison] Smith, who had done 'The Sound and the Fury' and who wrote me immediately, 'Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.'"…
Being a "cheap idea" hastily executed to make money, "Sanctuary" could be brushed aside. Critics and readers didn't suspect that Faulkner mightn't be telling the complete truth about it, given his early passion for astounding the public…. It wasn't wholly invented, but was largely based on a story that Faulkner had heard from a woman in a New Orleans nightclub about her abduction by an impotent gangster. Faulkner was familiar with the various backgrounds to be presented, including the Memphis underworld (Memphis then being the murder capital of the United States). Moreover, he had on hand Horace Benbow, a character left over from "Sartoris" when that novel was shortened before publication; Horace might serve as his storyteller. With all this material, and with the help of his...
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[Faulkner] was a richly gifted writer and there are times when he writes with real genius. He is keenly observant, and when he so wishes can be stereoscopically graphic. He gives us the intimate feel of an old banker's run-down bank and an easy-going little town, its age and southern heat, by referring in passing to the gold lettering on the bank's windows as 'cracked'. He evokes idle days spent sitting on the steps of a country store by letting us catch on the wing a reference to those steps as 'heel-gnawed'. A dog nosing in a cupboard has a 'barometric tail'. The dusty, hot air is 'insect-rasped'. The frost tonight will shrink the water in a pool about 'rank bayonets of dead grass in fixed glassy ripples in the brittle darkness'. On a wet day the sounds of the guns 'linger in the air like a spreading stain'. When the sun has half-set behind hedges a horseman 'rides stirrup-deep in cold air'. And so on, his eyes and ears recording automatically, his excellent memory reevoking. He seems possessed when at work by a terrific power of concentration, to have been explosively responsive to every experience, to have been courageous whether as a woodsman, a hunter after big game, a cross-country horseman, or a writer driven by penury—one cannot say poverty because he was a spendthrift with a folie de grandeur—to earn writing-time by any and every means from painting roofs in his meagre and sometimes mean little home-town of Oxford (Miss.) to...
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[Brooks, one of the most notable scholars of Faulkner, says of his William Faulkner: First Encounters: "[This book] has been written for the general reader and for the student coming to Faulkner for the first time." Brooks adds that he "limits himself" to discussions of theme, character, plot, and historical and fictional settings. The following excerpts from Brooks's introduction illustrate his main concerns throughout this lucid, informative analysis of Faulkner's major works.]
Most of us identify Faulkner with the South, and it is natural that we should do so, for his fiction is filled with references to its history, its geography, its customs; and his prose often employs its special idiom. Though there are exceptions, most of his great fiction has a Southern setting. Yet Faulkner's identification with the South can be misleading, for his value as a writer is not at all limited to what he can tell us about a particular regional culture. He was not a mere provincial in either time or space.
Thus, Faulkner differs radically from the typical Southern local colorists who preceded him by a generation. The local colorist in his crassest form is engaged in exploiting the local scene for the amused curiosity of the outsider. He stresses the differences between the "locals" and the national norm, his tacit assumption, of course, being that his reader represents the norm.
Even when the local...
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