William Cuthbert Faulkner was born September 25 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, where his father Murray was working for the railroad that William's namesake and great grandfather, the “Old Colonel” had helped found. The family soon moved to nearby Oxford, where Faulkner would spend most of his life; although small and isolated, the town was the site of the University of Mississippi, where the rather ordinary, hard-drinking Murray eventually became business manager. Young William unsurprisingly looked back to Colonel William Clark Falkner for a role model; this ancestor, a Civil War hero, had also been a popular writer, a local political leader, and a railroad pioneer. Young Bill was instilled with these family legends by his elderly aunts. Traces of glory remained in Murray's father, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, who was called the “Young Colonel” even though he never served in any war; he had, however, headed a local bank and his white suits and Masonic uniforms signalled his solid and formal position in the traditional community. The family hero, however, remained the Old Colonel, a violent man who had walked all the way to frontier Mississippi from Tennessee in the early nineteenth century. Never shy of any type of conflict, he survived several fights and duels, but was eventually shot down in the street by an angry former business associate. His two popular novels, some martial poetry, and a play, provided a literary legacy for his namesake. Still, young William eventually changed the spelling of his last name in an effort to assert his individuality and independence.
Bill, as he was known then, spent long hours in his grandfather's impressive library, but school bored him. He preferred hunting, girls, talk about airplanes and football, although he was too slight to excel on the gridiron. His often hostile father accused him of being a “sissy” and clearly favoured Faulkner's younger brothers, both good athletes. Seemingly embracing his wastrel reputation, Faulkner dropped out of high school, and drifted from one odd job to another. Soon he acquired a local nickname, “Count ‘No Count'”, which didn't help his courtship of Estelle Oldham, the daughter of a judge. His own family suggested that he would never be able to support a wife. When Estelle married the dashing and successful Cornell Franklin in 1918, Faulkner ran off to New Haven to live with his old Oxford pal Phil Stone, who was enrolled at Yale. Faulkner got a job at a munitions factory, but also maintained a rigorous reading program of old and new literary classics under Stone's direction. He was especially influenced by Swinburne, the decadent French poets, and Balzac. His appreciation of T. S. Eliot's use of myth was partly due to his own profound knowledge of the Bible, which years of Mississippi Protestantism had drummed into him. The new texts linked up with old favourites, such as Melville, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, and Conrad.
Faulkner, like many romantic aspiring writers, was electrified by the chance of heroic combat in World War I. After several futile attempts to enlist, he joined the Royal Air Force of Canada. However, his five months of pilot training in Toronto ended with the Armistice. Nevertheless, Faulkner swaggered around Oxford in an unauthorized officer's uniform, bragging of aerial combat in France. With military aspirations thwarted, he attempted to excel as an artist. As a child he had learned to draw from his talented grandmother and mother, so, as a special student at the University of Mississippi, he provided illustrations for several campus publications and sketched accompaniments to some poetry sequences he wrote for various girlfriends. These works were obviously influenced by decadent fin-de-siêcle artists such as Wilde, Beardsley and Swinburne, romantic and neo-romantic poets such as Keats, Robinson, Arlington and Housman, symbolists such as Mallarmé and Verlaine, and contemporary writers such as Aiken and O'Neill, whose works he had reviewed for local publications. Faulkner also dabbled in the theatre, helping found a dramatic club called “The Marionettes”, for which he wrote a Symbolist-inspired play.
Ultimately, however, bored, despondent over losing not only Estelle (now living in China), but other loves too, Faulkner left the University in 1921. Returning East, he worked briefly in a New York bookstore, where he luckily met Elizabeth Prall, who later married Sherwood Anderson. In December a homesick Faulkner accepted a position as postmaster at Ole Miss. Despite a woeful performance, he hung on to the job until 1924, which enabled him to complete his first book of poetry, The Marble Faun (1924), a decadent / neo-romantic collection that nevertheless contained inklings of future genius.
His friendship with Elizabeth Prall led to an apprenticeship with her husband Sherwood Anderson when Faulkner moved to New Orleans in 1925. In a starry literary circle he was inspired to experiment with prose pieces, many of which he published in the New Orleans Picayune and the fledgling literary journal, The Double Dealer. Friends acquainted him with Freud, the mythic world of the anthropologist Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, and most importantly, the modernist innovations of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Faulkner's absorbed interest in experimental writing proceeded apace; building on his brief published pieces in local venues, he began a novel, Soldier's Pay, which portrayed the tragic homecoming of a fatally wounded war hero. Set in Georgia, it was, nonetheless a kind of rehearsal for the later Mississippi novels. Full of despair and “fisher-king” mythic motifs of impotence and futile love, the novel focussed on the returning veteran, Mahon, who is accompanied by a fellow soldier and a young widow, both met on the homeward bound train. Mahon's heartless flapper fiancé, another woman he has deserted, a jaded, randy intellectual and Mahon's minister father complete a cast that plays out a tragic story of a sterile post-war world in which old loyalties and values seem to mean little. Anderson, who had promised Faulkner he would get the book in print if he didn't have to read it, came through, and the novel was published in 1926.
To celebrate, Faulkner scraped some money together and sailed to Europe. Travelling on the cheap, sometimes by foot, he visited Italy and England, but felt a stronger affinity for France. His sojourn there led to a life-long Francophilia that embraced a love of French literature and food. There were many memorable moments; he spotted his idol James Joyce in a cafe, but was too timid to approach him.
Faulkner kept writing in Europe and, upon his return to Mississippi, another series of odd jobs enabled him to continue working on his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927). This often plodding and pointless story traces the progress of a houseboat loaded with various kinds of artists and a wealthy patron across Lake Pontchartrain. Strongly influenced by the art-talk of Aldous Huxley's novels, the book nonetheless features some complex theories of art, toys with perverse sexuality, and offers evidence of the growing influence of Eliot, particularly “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.
All of these early works provide a rather negative view of women, who often appear as flappers, floozies, and heartbreakers, perhaps because of Estelle's “betrayal” and Faulkner's subsequent rejection by a second love, Helen Baird. In 1928 Estelle divorced her husband and returned to Oxford with her two children; everyone now expected Faulkner to marry her. Although his love had cooled, he did, and the marriage soon took a permanently rocky turn, as the partners drifted into quarrels, alcoholism and, ultimately, largely separate lives. Still, the marriage seemed to give Faulkner some degree of balance and purpose, for the next year, 1929, was the start of his most productive period (extending to 1942), during which he wrote seven masterpieces. The impetus for this unparalleled achievement came in Sartoris (1929) in which Faulkner, taking Anderson's advice, focussed on what he termed his “little postage-stamp of soil”, Yoknapatawpha County; all of his greatest stories take place there, in or around Jefferson, the county seat. The fictional town and county clearly depict hometown Oxford and Lafayette County. This forceful concentration permitted Faulkner to orchestrate a mythic “cosmos” of his own. He populated his teeming world with avatars of all the people of his state, but gave them cosmic depth and meaning through a judicious and imaginative use of interconnected mythic structures, symbols and richly figured language, which could be alternately grand, literary and tragic, or folk-drenched, vernacular and comic. Ultimately, he ranged widely through his state's history, incorporating the frontier days, the Civil War, and contemporary events, sometimes all in the same novel. Many stories rendered the experience of women, blacks, and Indians as well, and showed a poignant nostalgia for lost rituals and traditions and the vanishing wilderness while simultaneously denouncing reckless industrialization, consumer culture and racial injustice.
Sartoris reworks the material of Soldier's Pay but demonstrates a new maturity of tone and much stronger artistic control. One sees a corresponding power of characterization, particularly in the central figure of young Bayard Sartoris. Like Faulkner, the namesake of a Civil War hero, Bayard returns to Jefferson devastated by witnessing his twin brother John's aerial-combat death in World War I France. Bayard's inability to connect with his family and friends, his troubled courtship of Narcissa Benbow, and his inner furies result in what amounts to suicide. Sartoris served as an impressive preamble to Faulkner's first masterwork, published that same year, The Sound and the Fury. Depressed by the failure of his books to sell, Faulkner decided to experiment, beginning with a complicated portrait of a little girl in muddy drawers climbing a pear tree to peer in the parlour window at her grandmother's corpse; this tableau created a compelling metaphor for the tale of a proud Southern family's decline, but also of the end of innocence everywhere present in the modern era. Faulkner told his tale in successive first person narrations by three brothers; shockingly, the first is told by an “idiot”, and does indeed seem to “signify nothing”, but as each successive telling unfolds the reader, forced to create meaning, participates in the construction of the novel. The concluding fourth section, which is rendered through the consciousness of the brothers' black housekeeper, brings closure to the circular tale through a crescendo of ironic spiritual symbolism. Although critics perceived it as a crucial breakthrough in literary modernism, the book sold poorly, as did Faulkner's next work, As I Lay Dying (1930), which shifts focus to the travails of a poor white family, as they attempt to bury their unembalmed mother forty miles from home; their ridiculous, sweltering journey echoes Exodus and provides a soaring commentary on grief, death, and familial tensions. Ever experimental, and expanding the technique of multiple narration, Faulkner employs fifty-nine first person narrations by fifteen characters; further, he ingeniously interbraids lofty, often psychoanalytic, literary language with absurdist imagery and comic dialogue, making the novel's ultimate affect both comic and tragic, an unusual and memorable feat.
As the thirties opened, Faulkner, desperate for money, purposely wrote a lurid potboiler, Sanctuary (1931), which features the rape, abduction and corruption of Temple Drake, an Ole Miss coed, at the hands of Popeye, a horrifying gangster. Full of sexual perversion, violence, and ugly imagery, with much of the action set in brothels and bars, the novel undeniably and unbearably exerts a brutal power as it details the grotesque underbelly of modern society. European readers took notice; Jean Paul Sartre claimed that the book suggested the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective novel.
Faulkner still struggled financially; he had difficulty placing the many short stories he wrote to make money during this period as well. When he was asked to come to Hollywood to work on scripts, he had little choice. Faulkner's several Hollywood gigs (1932-36; 1942-45; parts of l951 and l954) were, for him, virtual slavery, and led to increasing drunkenness. The one bright spot: Faulkner embarked on an intermittent love affair with Meta Carpenter, a talented script-supervisor. They discussed marriage, but Faulkner feared a divorce from Estelle would cost him his beloved only child, Jill, who was born in 1933.
Faulkner's next novel, Light in August (1932), one of his two or three greatest works, combines the largely comic frame story of Lena Grove, a simple woman searching through several states for her unborn child's father, with the much longer and tragic tale of Joe Christmas, an abused child who has grown up to be a murderer. As Lena enters Jefferson, Joe has just killed his long-time mistress Joanna, whose ancestors were Calvinist carpetbaggers. Both stories involve Byron Bunch, a sawmill worker in love with Lena, and Byron's friend, the Reverend Gail Hightower, a defrocked minister obsessed with his grandfather's Civil War heroics. The stories merge in a shocking climax when Christmas is castrated and killed in Hightower's kitchen by a racist vigilante; Lena, however, serenely continues her journey with her newborn baby and Byron; the narrative suggests he will marry her and thereby protect her child from the disasters that befell Christmas. Few novels have delved so deeply into race, obsessive religion, or the conundrums of sexuality. Faulkner also uses scrambled chronology, stream of consciousness, and several other narrative devices to plumb the role of memory and the past in human consciousness, while simultaneously interrogating the social sources of individual identity.
Faulkner sought release during these years from increasing familial and professional problems through flying lessons; eventually he bought an airplane, and his brothers learned to fly too. Faulkner gave his plane to his brother Dean, and was therefore overcome by guilt when Dean died in a crash in 1935, ironically acting out a plot Faulkner had written earlier in Sartoris. He also wrote about flying in Pylon (1935), which concerned the exploits of a wandering troupe of gypsy aviators. Returning to sexual sensationalism, Faulkner created a ménage-à-trois, a situation envied by the Prufrock-like reporter who provides much of the narration. The book has many failings, but did offer Faulkner a chance to try out some of the techniques he perfected in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which is widely considered his greatest achievement. The book resurrects Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury as one of the novel's four narrators, which include his Harvard roommate, Shreve McCannon, Quentin's father, and Miss Rosa Coldfield. The two boys attempt to decipher the mysteries surrounding the rise and fall of the self-made Thomas Sutpen, a demonic and obsessed planter who wrested Supten's Hundreds, a huge plantation, out of the wilderness with the help of ‘wild' slaves imported from Haiti. Exploring incest, inter-racial love, psychic perversion, and materialist obsession, the novel uses individual, often intimate stories as exemplars of universal human conflict, while simultaneously painting on a huge canvas the sufferings of blacks and whites during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the South's attempts to come to terms with its tragic history. The complex, often flamboyant, even tortured writing makes enormous demands on readers, but Faulkner's most anguished book ultimately demonstrates a convincing logic and a profound effect.
Faulkner claimed that he wanted to get the “hoop-skirts and plughats” out of the Civil War sections of Absalom!; interestingly, he dealt with these materials in a more conventional way in The Unvanquished (1938), which began as began as short stories he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post. He eventually saw that they comprised a novel, and his revisions drew them together more tightly. The final version initially has a comic style, but increasingly moves toward the tragic, as it plumbs the growing corruption of two mythic figures, Granny and her heroic Confederate son-in-law, John Sartoris. The key figure, however, is John's son Bayard, usually accompanied by his black companion/servant and friend, Ringo. Bayard's coming-of-age tale takes up the interlinked problems of revenge and parental legacy. The narrative calculates the price of war, charting its effects on tradition and morality. Bayard's effort to escape the snares of the past echoes that of Faulkner's own post-World War I generation.
In 1939's The Wild Palms, alternating chapters of two discrete narratives, Faulkner experimented with counterpoint. One story told of a convict's struggle to rescue a woman and her newborn baby from the 1929 Mississippi flood; the other tale concerned the adulterous love affair of Harry Wilbourne and Charlotte Rittenmeyer. The latter, an aspirant artist disastrously drawn to a weak medical student, is one of Faulkner's most fascinating female figures. The first story, however, is rather too grandly cosmic, while the second seems claustrophobically intimate.
In The Hamlet (1940) and Go Down, Moses (1942), Faulkner found his masterly stride again. The former began a trilogy of novels about the rise of the Snopes family which continued in The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959). The novel originated as a series of comic short stories about rural folk, horse trading, and a local earth goddess, Eula Varner. Many of these tales were told by V. K. Ratliff, a travelling sewing machine salesman, one of Faulkner's wisest and most entertaining narrators. Perhaps profiting from his experience with The Unvanquished, Faulkner realized that the overarching tale of the Snopes's ascent was a means toward uniting the stories into novel format. The rise of Flem Snopes, a passionless but ruthless man who eventually marries Eula despite his impotence, became the keystone of the trilogy, and offers compelling evidence of Faulkner increasing despair over the decline of values in modernist, finance-driven life. In The Town Flem leaves Frenchman's Bend for Jefferson, where his exploits lead to control of the Sartoris bank and the installation of other scheming Snopeses in positions of power; Eula kills herself in an effort to save her daughter, Linda, who mistakenly believes Flem to be her father. Finally, in The Mansion, Flem is killed by Mink, the cousin he framed into a lengthy prison sentence. Mink's heroic story dominates the volume and comprises one of Faulkner's most moving narratives.
Go Down, Moses, Faulkner's third revision and union of existing stories, tells the story of Ike McCaslin's efforts to repudiate the tragic racial history of his family, which includes his grandfather's siring of a child on his own mulatto daughter. As in Absalom, the story mines the past, as Ike discovers the shocking secrets of slavery. A powerful climax is reached in what is perhaps Faulkner's most impressive and sustained piece of writing, “The Bear”, which uses a hunt to explore the meaning of history, manhood and responsibility to nature. Faulkner's unflinching examination of the South's racial history seems even more admirable today, as we now know that the Old Colonel sired a black family; Faulkner, as a result, is excoriating personal ghosts as well. The story has added power from its focus on the frontier, which memorably includes the Indians through the powerful character of the Indian-mulatto Sam Fathers, but even there the overall power of the book lies mainly in its focus on black white relations. As such, it coincided with Faulkner's anguish as he aesthetically confronted the growing racial crisis that would eventually explode just after his death in 1962.
Faulkner's public statements on race were often dismaying, but certainly more cautious than those found in the novels; nevertheless, he was ostracized by both his community and his family because of his ‘liberalism', and received several death threats.
Although we think of Faulkner as a triumphant figure, the course of his life was usually troubled in personal and financial ways, and all of his books except Sanctuary were out of print before Malcolm Cowley's publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946. This instigated a reassessment of Faulkner's work, which was powerfully accelerated when French critics lauded his genius. Intruder in the Dust (1948), used a “detective” story format to tell the story of Lucas Beauchamp, a proud black man falsely accused of murder. This popular novel was made into a film, which had its premiere in Oxford. Requiem for a Nun (1951) saw him returning to Temple Drake in a play format that dramatizes the murder of her child and the exposure of her adulteries. This became Hollywood's The Story of Temple Drake. Faulkner's Collected Stories appeared in 1950, setting the stage for his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm, where his short but inspiring acceptance speech was much admired; he predicted that despite the specter of nuclear destruction, man would not only endure; he would prevail.
The world's acclaim caused Faulkner to feel constrained to write didactic, “moral” fiction; he struggled for years to write a revision of the Christ story set in World War I France, A Fable (1954). Although the book received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, this overwritten, sometimes pompous allegory only occasionally flowers into eloquence. Faulkner does, however, provide a delightful fable about a racehorse.
Faulkner's final years included increasing spells of illness, accidents and deadening alcoholism, alongside public appearances and pronouncements. The state department made him a virtual roving ambassador (most memorably in Japan in 1955) and he eventually accepted a position at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he wished to relocate permanently in order to be near his daughter Jill and his grandsons. Years of abusing his body, however, led to a fatal in 1962. A final Yoknapatawpha book, The Reivers, nostalgically returned to Faulkner's childhood, via the delightful coming-of-age story of young Lucas Priest and his adventures in Memphis with Boone Hogganbeck; it posthumously won Faulkner his second Pulitzer Prize.
Faulkner is celebrated today as the greatest American writer of the twentieth century and as one of the greatest writers of all time. Grounded in both classic and contemporary literature, equipped with a profound sense of history and tradition, doggedly determined to find modern stylistic and philosophic solutions to literary social, and spiritual problems, Faulkner developed a Protean aesthetic, one well equipped to harness the energies of a dynamic age. This is most evident in his persistent, often heroic dissection of racism, which indicates an agreement with W. E. B. DuBois's assertion that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” A few years before his death, Faulkner asserted that “the writer's first job. . .” is “always to search the soul. . .and to give a proper, moving picture of man in the human dilemma.” It is a testament to his courage and commitment that he regularly met this exacting standard throughout his long, often difficult, but ultimately triumphant career.
Citation: Lowe, John. "William Faulkner". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 19 July 2001 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=4923, accessed 28 September 2021.]