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.