Frederik R. Karl, biographer of Joseph Conrad, approaches his subject differently than does Joseph Blotner in his 1974 two-volume biography. Blotner worked with the cooperation of the Faulkner family and paid less attention than Karl to the writer’s alcoholism, disastrous marriage, and affairs. Karl’s biography is more a psychological portrait of Faulkner as man and artist.
Faulkner’s father, the declining member of a prosperous Mississippi family, was disappointed in his oldest son, a small, artistic mother’s boy. Faulkner tried to prove his manliness with a lifelong devotion to hunting and horses, while emulating his father’s drinking, but set himself apart by adding a “u” to the Falkner family name and by being a success. He was driven to succeed to meet the expectations of his devoted, protective mother.
Simply because he felt destined to be with his childhood sweetheart, Faulkner married a woman who had rejected him for another. Estelle Faulkner, also an alcoholic, proved impossible to live with, but Karl says she represented the archetypal female for her husband, an essential element in his imagination. Despite lengthy affairs with younger women, Faulkner always returned to his wife.
Karl’s portrait shows how Faulkner was torn between extremes, feeling the pull of both a conventional existence in the hometown that never understood him and literary modernism, modeling himself after the self-destructive French Symbolist poets. While most analyses of Faulkner emphasize his Southernness, Karl sees the writer at the center of the American literary tradition of the lost Eden, the need to rebel and escape, the potential for failure and suicide. For Karl, who calls him the American Balzac, Faulkner captures the essence of his country in a way no other writer has.