Article abstract: Using the South as his inspiration and setting, Faulkner wrote a series of novels and stories which reflect universal human truths and conditions; he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951 and is regarded as one of the greatest of American novelists.
William Cuthbert Faulkner was the eldest son of Murry and Maud Butler Falkner (he changed the spelling of the family name). The Falkner family traced its heritage back across the South, through Tennessee and the Carolinas, but its most outstanding member was William Clark Falkner, grandfather of the novelist.
Known as the “Old Colonel,” William Clark Falkner was the object of his grandson’s rapt attention and emulation. The Colonel was a warrior who fought in the Mexican War and in the Civil War; a successful businessman who built railroads and owned plantations; a writer, whose novel The White Rose of Memphis (1881) was a best-seller; and a martyred hero, shot down in the street by a political enemy. His larger-than-life statue stood among the ruins of the family plantation when William Faulkner was a boy.
By contrast, Murry Falkner was a well-meaning but ineffectual man, drifting from job to job, largely on the strength of the family name, and overshadowed by his strong-willed wife. William Faulkner took after his mother in physical appearance: He was a light, short man with fine features and dark eyes. Although small, he was not frail; he was later active in sailing and flying and was an avid horseman to the very end of his life. He developed a tenacious determination to pursue his own course; in later years, his confidence would be badly shaken by disappointments, but never destroyed. As a youth he had a natural tendency toward isolation, detachment, and observation, which was later to serve him well as a writer.
Shortly before Faulkner was five, the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner started off well in school but soon began to decline in performance; he was never graduated from high school. He retreated into observation: For example, he preferred to watch, rather than dance, even at parties with his sweetheart, Estelle Oldham.
Faulkner’s courtship of Estelle was desultory, his prospects were poor, and she married another man. Two months later, Faulkner joined the Royal Air Force in Canada, giving false information about his nationality and adding a “u” to his name. Although he later claimed combat experience and a wound from action over France, he was still in training in Toronto when the war ended. By December, 1918, he was back in Oxford.
Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi at Oxford as a veteran. He did not fit in with the other students—they mocked him as “Count No-Count” because of his affectations and poverty—and his only interest was writing for campus literary journals. Within a year, he had withdrawn from the university and had drifted through a series of part-time jobs.
During this time, he continued to write, mostly poetry. In 1924, his first book, The Marble Faun, was published; Faulkner had to pay a subsidy to the publisher. The next year, he moved to New Orleans, where his career as a writer truly began.
In New Orleans, Faulkner met the author Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged his development and recommended his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay (1926), for publication. The book was followed by Mosquitoes (1927). Neither volume did particularly well, but Faulkner’s next novel, although not published as written until after his death, changed his career.
In 1927, he completed Flags in the Dust (1973; published posthumously), a long, densely populated work about the aristocratic Sartoris family in mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. This mythical county was Faulkner’s great discovery as a writer, his own “postage stamp of soil” that would be the source for some of the greatest writing of the first half of the twentieth century. Ironically, Flags in the Dust was rejected by the publisher.
Stung, but increasingly sure of his talent, Faulkner continued to write. His next work was his first masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury (1929). The novel concerns the tangled, flawed history of the Compson family, residents of Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha. In the work a characteristic obsession of Faulkner emerges: the need to tell and retell the events of the past, from several different points of view, and with versions by several characters. Using stream-of-consciousness narrative (new at the time) and daring to employ an idiot as one of the principal narrators, The Sound and the Fury was a dense, sometimes difficult, but powerful work, dealing with a sense of loss and a longing for the past. The character Quentin Compson yearns for faded family glory and wrestles with incestuous desire for his sister Caddie; later a suicide in Boston, he also appears in other Faulkner tales of Yoknapatawpha. The novel was generally well received but did not earn for Faulkner much money.
In 1929, Faulkner also published a revised, shortened version of Flags in the Dust, entitled Sartoris. The novel was not as technically adventurous as The Sound and the Fury, but it added to the rapidly growing population of Yoknapatawpha County and established themes and plots that Faulkner would develop for the remainder of his career.
Estelle Oldham Franklin, Faulkner’s early love, had returned to Oxford with her two children; in May, 1929, her divorce was granted, and she and Faulkner were married on October 7. They bought a large, dilapidated antebellum house near Oxford and named it Rowan Oak. They would have two daughters: The first would die in infancy; the second, Jill, was Faulkner’s greatest pleasure from the marriage, which was destined to be a troubled one; on their honeymoon, Estelle attempted to drown herself. Throughout the years, both Faulkner and his wife were afflicted with problems, stemming from alcoholism, adultery, and lack of money.
Faulkner attempted to meet his financial burdens through writing. He sent “commercial fiction” to popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, but these pieces never brought enough steady income to meet expenses. His next novel, As I Lay Dying (1930), was another well-written but poorly selling work. In despair, he concocted a work designed for mass appeal: Sanctuary (1931), a lurid tale of abduction, corruption, and rape, set in Yoknapatawpha. Before its publication, however, Faulkner extensively revised the novel, putting sensationalism aside for artistic integrity. Despite this effort, Sanctuary brought him notoriety but no great income.
In 1932, Faulkner took the first of several scriptwriting jobs in Hollywood. He was not comfortable with the work, disliked California, and believed that his talent was being abused and perhaps irretrievably wasted. He was unhappy, drank heavily, and had affairs but had to continue with the scriptwriting jobs because of financial pressures. In 1932, his father died, and Faulkner assumed responsibility for the entire family.
The publication of Light in August (1932) deepened and expanded the Yoknapatawpha saga and was Faulkner’s first major meditation on the tangled relationships of blacks and whites in the South. The book did little to relieve Faulkner’s financial situation. He continued to work, on and off, in Hollywood but returned to Oxford whenever he could. Faulkner found writing increasingly difficult during this period. He published two volumes of short stories and a novel, Pylon (1935), but made slow progress on his major work, which would become the novel Absalom, Absalom! (1936). When Dean Faulkner, his younger brother, was killed in an airplane crash in 1935, Faulkner added Dean’s family to his other financial obligations.
Faulkner continued work on Absalom, Absalom!, which finally appeared in 1936. The novel is his most dense and compact, taking titanic events from the past and recounting them through multiple narrators in the present. The tale of Thomas Sutpen, his effort to carve out a kingdom and found a dynasty in the Mississippi wilderness, is approached from several points of view, and the repetition and interplay between the stories that are told and the lives of the tellers (among then Quentin Compson, from The Sound and the Fury) give the novel the enduring, archetypal aspect of myth and fable. Adding to this resonance are echoes from the Bible, Greek myths, and Southern history. The novel can be difficult to read, because it demands that the reader participate in its development by piecing together the puzzling strands of the plot; still, it is Faulkner’s greatest single work.
For the next six years, Faulkner divided his time between Hollywood work and his own writing. He published four novels during this period: The Unvanquished (1938), drawn together from short stories; The Wild Palms (1939); The Hamlet (1940), which was the first of a trilogy dealing with the Snopes family, an innumerable clan of rapacious poor whites who threaten to overwhelm Yoknapatawpha County; and Go Down, Moses (1942), another novel written as a set of interconnected stories, dealing with the McCaslin family, whose members include both blacks and whites in an intricate knot of kinship. After this work, Faulkner published no new novels for six years, working in Hollywood in an attempt to pay off his massive debts. His literary reputation declined: In 1939, he had been on the cover of Time magazine; by 1946, only Sanctuary remained in print.
His reputation was revived in 1946, with the publication of The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley. Faulkner contributed new material, including a map of Yoknapatawpha County and a genealogy for his characters. Two years later, he published Intruder in the Dust (1948), not his greatest novel, but his first to sell really well: His chronic money problems were ended.
Faulkner’s writing had always been admired in Europe, particularly in France, and in 1951, his achievements were recognized with the Nobel Prize. Earlier, in 1948, he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The appreciation his writing had long deserved was at last being granted.
Published in 1954, A Fable cost Faulkner the most effort of any of his novels, but emerged as the least effective. He returned to the land and people he knew best with The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), thus completing the Snopes trilogy. The approach in these works was expansive and leisurely, the narrative straightforward and traditional, in contrast to his earlier experimentation.
Increasingly recognized at home and abroad, Faulkner toured Japan, South America, and Greece for the State Department and was not afraid to involve himself with the growing crisis over segregation in his native South, urging racial understanding and cooperation. In 1962, he published his final work, The Reivers. On July 6, 1962, Faulkner died in Byhalia, Mississippi.
Faulkner is a giant figure in American literature. His greatest novels deal with the people of Yoknapatawpha County, its town of Jefferson, and the Mississippi countryside, yet their themes and characters are not limited to any one place or time but touch universal human needs and emotions.
Faulkner has been termed a regional writer, a “Southern” writer. While it is true that his own creation is set in a vividly real South, Faulkner’s strength goes beyond any one locality. As he wrote to Malcolm Cowley:
I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time. Though the one I know is probably as good as another, life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.
Faulkner was able to achieve this universality through his knowledge and re-creation of a specific place, the South, and through his specific, always individual, characters. More than any other American writer in this century, he has established and peopled a world that is so real that it continues to live off and outside the printed page.
As a writer, Faulkner excelled in several areas: He was adept at the creation of character and the development of plot; his technical mastery was established early and made his method of narrative as important, and as interesting, as his content. He was equally skilled at recounting dramatic, passionate events and spinning the tall-tale humor of frontier American literature.
Faulkner’s greatest gift and his greatest accomplishment was his use of language, particularly powerful, cadenced, hypnotic rhetoric. More than any other American writer of the twentieth century, he explored and exploited the vast range and variety of American English in all its forms, features, dialects, and tones, and through language he crafted a series of works that will long endure.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974. The most exhaustive and definitive life of Faulkner. Blotner was a friend and associate while Faulkner was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. Contains an enormous amount of background material covering all aspects of Faulkner’s life and career.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. A distinguished literary critic gives an informed and thoughtful view of Faulkner’s writings and accomplishments.
Cowley, Malcom, ed. The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962. New York: Viking Press, 1966. A collection of letters to and from Faulkner and Cowley during their association, with explanatory material by Cowley. Faulkner provides many hints and suggestions as to the intent of his works and how he created his characters.
Friedman, Alan W. William Faulkner. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985. Part of the “Literature and Life” series, this is a good, basic introduction to Faulkner’s life and career and makes an excellent starting point for the beginning student of Faulkner.
Hoffman, Frederick. William Faulkner. 2d rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1966. Introductory volume which covers the main works quickly, touching on the highlights. Short on biographical information.
Howe, Irving. William Faulkner: A Critical Study. 3rd rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. Updating of an early and generally perceptive study of Faulkner’s work, with special emphasis on the social settings and situations of his novels.
Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Has only one section on Faulkner but is especially good at explaining his techniques in creating a world of written text. Offers some intriguing suggestions for further study.
Minter, David. William Faulkner, His Life and Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. A chronological study of the man and his works. The critical readings illuminate the novels, especially the lesser-known works.
Wagner, Linda, ed. William Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1973. Useful collection of writings on Faulkner’s novels and stories; helpful in showing the growing appreciation of his work by critics.
Warren, Robert Penn, ed. Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. A good survey of the response to Faulkner by the major literary critics; touches on most of the major novels.