illustrated portrait of American author William Faulkner

William Faulkner

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Last Updated on July 1, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

William Faulkner published nearly twenty novels, two collections of poetry, and a novel-drama, as well as essays, newspaper articles, and illustrated stories. His early work has been collected and his University of Virginia lectures transcribed. As a screenwriter in Hollywood, he was listed in the credits of such films as The Big Sleep (1946), To Have and Have Not (1944), and Land of the Pharaohs (1955).


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William Faulkner is best known for his novels, particularly The Sound and the Fury (1929), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and As I Lay Dying (1930), all of which have been translated widely. A Fable (1954) and The Reivers (1962) won Pulitzer Prizes, and A Fable and the Collected Short Stories won National Book Awards. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1949.

Film versions have been made of several of his works: Sanctuary (1961), Intruder in the Dust (1949), The Sound and the Fury (1959), The Reivers (1969), and Pylon (1957; or Tarnished Angels). Others (Requiem for a Nun, 1951, and “Barn Burning”) have been filmed for television.

Such attention attests to the fact that Faulkner has been one of the most influential writers in the twentieth century—both in the United States, where his work suggested to an enormous generation of southern writers the valuable literary materials that could be derived from their own region, and in Europe, particularly in France. He has had a later, but also profound, effect on Latin American fiction, most noticeably in the work of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who seeks, as Faulkner did, to create a fictive history of a region and a people. Faulkner’s work has also been well received in Japan, which he visited as a cultural ambassador in 1955.

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William Faulkner (FAWK-nur) published two volumes of poetry and several volumes of short stories. Most of his best stories appear in Knight’s Gambit (1949), Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner (1950), and the posthumously published Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner (1979). His early journalistic and prose pieces have been collected and published, as have his interviews and a number of his letters. Also published are several interesting minor works, including a fairy tale, The Wishing Tree, and a romantic fable, Mayday. New Faulkner material is steadily seeing print, much of it in the annual Faulkner issue of Mississippi Quarterly. Scholars are continually making public more information on Faulkner’s screenwriting in Hollywood, where he collaborated on such major successes as To Have and Have Not (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946). Several of his works have been adapted for television and film; notably successful were the 1949 film adaptation of Intruder in the Dust and the 1969 adaptation of The Reivers.


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When William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, he completed an emergence from comparative obscurity that had begun three years before. In 1946, when nearly all of Faulkner’s books were out of print, Malcolm Cowley published The Portable Faulkner. Cowley’s introduction and arrangement made clear “the scope and force and interdependence” of Faulkner’s oeuvre up to 1945.

Even in 1945, Faulkner was reasonably well known to the readers of popular magazines, his stories having appeared with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and Ernest Hemingway’s in publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, and The American Mercury. Despite his success in selling short stories and as a Hollywood screenwriter, Faulkner’s novels, except for the notorious Sanctuary, had little commercial success until after Cowley’s volume and the Nobel Prize. The notoriety of Sanctuary , which was widely reviewed as salacious, brought Faulkner to the attention of the film industry; it was his screenwriting that sustained him financially during the years of comparative neglect...

(This entire section contains 392 words.)

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when he produced the series of powerful novels that constitute one of the major achievements of world fiction. The motion-picture adaptation of his first novel to appear after Cowley’s volume,Intruder in the Dust, was filmed in Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford, Mississippi, and released in 1949.

After the Nobel Prize, honors came steadily. Faulkner was made a member of the French Legion of Honor, received two National Book Awards, for A Fable and Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner, and received two Pulitzer Prizes, for A Fable and The Reivers. He traveled around the world for the U.S. Department of State in 1954. During 1957, he was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. Recognition and financial security, while gratifying, neither diminished nor increased his output. He continued writing until his death.

Faulkner has achieved the status of a world author. His works have been painstakingly translated into many languages. Perhaps more critical books and articles have been written about him in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries than about any other writer with the exception of William Shakespeare. Critics and scholars from all over the world have contributed to the commentary. Faulkner’s achievement has been compared favorably with the achievements of Henry James, Honoré de Balzac, and Charles Dickens; many critics regard him as the preeminent novelist of the twentieth century.


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William Faulkner is one of many literary novelists to use violent death (often under mysterious circumstances) as a central plot element. One thinks of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912), Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), and many more. Faulkner differs from those other novelists, however, in that he produced a fairly large body of work, written primarily during the decade of the 1930’s, which is identifiable as crime and mystery fiction. Faulkner read and admired the detective novel and wrote his first detective story, “Smoke,” in 1930. His story “An Error in Chemistry” won second place in the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine contest in 1946. At least four of his novels and a number of his short stories employ crime and mystery as the basic structural elements of the plot. Because of the depth of his characterizations and the poetic quality of his prose, Faulkner’s crime stories have a resonance that mystery fiction seldom achieves. If one can overcome the natural reluctance to hedge in Faulkner with an epithet, one might argue that he is the most literate and the most American of all the mystery and detective writers.

Discussion Topics

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Develop the following statement with reference to The Sound and the Fury: Some of the seemingly impenetrable difficulties in reading William Faulkner’s prose disappear once his purpose is explained.

Is it meaningful to regard the past as a “presence” in Faulkner’s fiction?

How seriously should we take the parallels between Joe Christmas and Jesus Christ in Light in August?

What values does Faulkner affirm most stoutly as distinctly southern ones?

At what point in Faulkner’s literary career does his comic genius assert itself strongly? Does it appear to signal a fundamental change in his outlook?

Discuss Old Man as a kind of tall tale or extended joke.

Is Yoknapatawpha County merely a fictional equivalent of Lafayette County in Mississippi, where Faulkner lived, or does it have a larger significance? If so, what is it?


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Bleikasten, Andre. The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from “The Sound and the Fury” to “Light in August.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Concentrating on four of William Faulkner’s finest novels, Bleikensten offers a wide-ranging study of the writer and the limits of authorship. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1964. This extensive but readable two-volume biography is the major source for details about Faulkner’s life. It contains many photographs and a useful index.

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. Brooks has written several excellent books on Faulkner, but this venerable classic of Faulkner criticism is one of the best introductions, treating Faulkner’s characteristic themes, historical and social background, and offering detailed readings of the major novels and stories. His carefully prepared notes, appendices, and character index can be immensely helpful to beginning readers trying to make sense of mysterious events and complex family relations.

Broughton, Panthea. William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974. Of several fine critical studies that attempt to see Faulkner whole and understand his worldview, this is one of the best, especially for readers just beginning to know Faulkner. Broughton sees the tension between the ideal and the actual as central to understanding the internal and external conflicts about which Faulkner most often writes.

Carothers, James. William Faulkner’s Short Stories. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985. This study gives special attention to interrelations among the short stories and between the stories and the novels. Carothers offers balanced and careful readings of the stories and a useful bibliography.

Fargnoli, A. Nicholas, and Michael Golay. William Faulkner A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2001.

Ferguson, James. Faulkner’s Short Fiction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. An attempt to redress the critical neglect of Faulkner’s short fiction. Discusses Faulkner’s poetic and narrative impulses, his themes of loss of innocence, failure to love, loneliness, and isolation; comments on his manipulation of time and point of view and how his stories relate to his novels.

Ford, Marilyn Claire. “Narrative Legerdemain: Evoking Sarty’s Future in ‘Barn Burning.’” The Mississippi Quarterly 51 (Summer, 1998): 527-540. In this special issue on Faulkner, Ford argues that Faulkner experiments with the doubling of perspective in “Barn Burning” in which the omniscient narrator fuses with the protagonist to create a story with multiple narrative layers.

Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994. A noted Faulkner scholar, Gray closely integrates the life and work. Part 1 suggests a method of approaching Faulkner’s life; part 2 concentrates on his apprentice years; part 3 explains his discovery of Yoknapatawpha and the transformation of his region into his fiction; part 4 deals with his treatment of past and present; part 5 addresses his exploration of place; and part 6 analyzes his final novels, reflecting on his creation of Yoknapatawpha. Includes family trees, chronology, notes, and a bibliography.

Hoffman, Frederick, and Olga W. Vickery, eds. William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960. Though there are more recent collections of critical essays on Faulkner, this volume remains one of the most useful. It contains the important The Paris Review interview of 1956, the Nobel Prize address, and twenty-two essays, many of them seminal, on Faulkner’s work and life.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Conversations with William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Part of the Literary Conversations series, this volume gives insight into Faulkner the person. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Jones, Diane Brown. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of William Faulkner. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Discusses more than thirty of Faulkner’s stories in terms of publishing history, circumstances of composition, sources/influence, and relationship to other Faulkner works; includes interpretations of the stories and summarizes and critiques previous criticism.

Karl, Frederick Robert. William Faulkner, American Writer. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

McHaney, Thomas. William Faulkner: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976. Though somewhat difficult to use, this guide provides an admirably complete annotated listing of writing about Faulkner through 1973. Because Faulkner is a world- class author, a tremendous amount has been written since 1973. A good source of information about later writing is American Literary Scholarship: An Annual.

Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Shorter and less detailed than Joseph Blotner’s biography, this volume gives more attention to exploring connections between Faulkner’s life and his works.

The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Summer, 1997). A special issue on Faulkner, including articles that discuss displaced meaning, dispossessed sons, the wilderness and consciousness, and subjectivity in Go Down, Moses.

Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A study of the thought and art of Faulkner, charting the development of his ideas from their source in his reading to their embodiment in his writing. Depicts two Faulkners: the country gentleman and the intellectual man of letters.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. New Essays on “Go Down, Moses.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. After an introduction that summarizes contemporary reception and critical analysis of Go Down, Moses, Wagner-Martin collects essays that approach the work from the perspective of race, environment, gender, and ideology.

Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A distinguished historian divides his book into sections on Faulkner’s ancestry, his biography, and his writing. Includes notes and genealogy.


Critical Essays