William Faulkner Biography

William Faulkner book cover
Start Your Free Trial


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Download William Faulkner Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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

(The entire section is 7,303 words.)