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A preeminent figure in twentieth-century literature, William Faulkner created a profound and complex body of work in which he explored social decay in the American South. He set many of his novels and short stories in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional landscape reflecting the geographic and cultural background of his native Mississippi. Faulkner’s works reflect the tumultuous history of the South while perceptively exploring the human character. The fundamental theme of his fiction, Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, is ”the human heart in conflict with itself.” He utilized a variety of striking narrative techniques to convey this struggle.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
William Cuthbert Falkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. (He added the letter u to his name in 1918.) He grew up in the nearby town of oxford, where his family moved when he was four. His upbringing was genteel and gave him a profound sense of his Southern heritage. His father worked for his family’s railroad businesses, later becoming the business manager of the University of Mississippi.
William Faulkner had an adventurous youth as the oldest of four boys, learning how to handle guns and to hunt. An indifferent student, he went to high school in oxford, Mississippi, but dropped out in 1915, then worked for a time as a clerk in his grandfather’s bank. He had, however, been reading poetry with an older friend, Phil Stone, who contributed significantly to Faulkner’s literary education.
During World War I, Faulkner tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was rejected because of his small stature. With Stone’s help, Faulkner hatched a scheme to talk his way into the Royal Canadian Air Force by affecting a British accent and forging letters of recommendation. The war ended before he experienced combat duty, however, so he returned to his hometown, attending the University of Mississippi for a little over a year.
From Poetry to Prose
Faulkner was already writing in earnest, primarily poetry. He published his first poem in the New Republic on August 6, 1919. After dropping out of ole Miss, he went to New York City and was briefly employed as a bookstore clerk at the Doubleday store on Fifth Avenue. Returning to oxford in late 1921, he was hired as postmaster at the university and held that position for nearly three years. He resigned, however, when the postal inspector noticed that Faulkner often brought his writing to the post office and became so immersed in what he was doing that he ignored patrons.
His postal career aborted, Faulkner called on his former employer at Doubleday Books, Elizabeth Prall, who now lived in New Orleans and was married to novelist Sherwood Anderson. For the first half of 1925, Faulkner lived with the Andersons. Although his verse had been published in his first full-length book, The Marble Faun (1924), he realized that his prose was more accomplished, and he was encouraged by Anderson to write fiction. His first novel, Soldier’s Pay (1926), tells a story typical of its time, the aftermath of World War I. It centers on a physically and emotionally scarred veteran who finds only further disillusionment when he returns home to the South. Faulkner followed that up with Mosquitoes (1927), a mildly satirical study of the New Orleans literary scene. Neither of these novels received much critical notice.
Faulkner traveled to Europe for several months in 1925, lingered a while longer in New Orleans, then returned to Oxford, where he finally settled down. In 1927 and 1928 he worked on many short stories, developing a clearer understanding of the material he would use for his fiction: his region of Mississippi, which he called his ”postage stamp of native soil.” His next full-length work, originally titled Flags in the Dust, is the first of his novels set in Yoknapatawpha County. Published as Sartoris (1929), it is his first storytelling novel in which legends, tall tales, and gossip are interwoven with a story based on his family’s history. After several publishers rejected the manuscript, Faulkner became disgusted with the publishing industry. Abruptly, he decided to stop worrying about whether others liked his work and to write only for himself.
The Sound and the Fury
Writing with no thought of publication, Faulkner achieved mastery of both his material and his technique. The Sound and the Fury (1929) is a boldly experimental work, with a complex structure incorporating multiple narrative viewpoints, long and convoluted sentences, and a thorough intermingling of past and present. The book chronicles the disintegration of one family, the Compsons, and through their perspective, it reflects the deterioration of community and traditional values in the modern South.
The title refers to the famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Macbeth laments that life is ”a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” These words have a literal significance in Faulkner’s novel, for its first section is narrated by the mentally retarded Benjy Compson, whose comprehension of time is fuzzy. Next comes the viewpoint of Benjy’s brother Quentin, who is quite intelligent but whose severe depression undoes him. Here the writing throws grammar and punctuation to the wind to follow the stream of Quentin’s consciousness as he approaches suicide. Both Benjy and Quentin are obsessed with their sister Caddy; though none of the four sections of the book presents her point of view, the novel documents her tragic journey through life.
The Sound and the Fury received enthusiastic reviews, but sold only a few copies on its first printing. Meanwhile, Faulkner’s first love, Estelle Oldham, divorced her husband, took custody of their two children, and married Faulkner in June of 1929. The need to make money prompted Faulkner to take a night job at a power plant. He had earlier written a sordid potboiler he hoped would sell well. Before Sanctuary hit the shelves in 1931, Faulkner did a major rewrite to tone it down somewhat. It became his best-selling novel, although critics disparaged the work for its sensationalistic violence.
As I Lay Dying and Today We Live
While working at the powerhouse, Faulkner quickly wrote As I Lay Dying (1930) , which he referred to immodestly as a ”tour de force.” Again Faulkner surprised his readers with a tale of almost epic stature about poor rural people. The novel consists of fifty-nine interior monologues providing constantly shifting points of view. Fifteen different narrators portray the odyssey of the Bundren family from the backwoods of Yoknapatawpha to the city of Jefferson with the dead body of Addie, the family matriarch. The dying Addie had asked to be buried there with her kin, so responsibility and obligation lie behind the macabre journey. The tale is told with passion and sympathy, but also a touch of irony and mockery, so readers have difficulty deciding whether the book is comic or tragic.
Faulkner also wrote an impressive number of high-quality short stories during this period. He sold many of them to national magazines such as Saturday Evening Post in order to boost his income. Many of these stories cover, in concentrated form, material later developed in novels. Faulkner’s first short-story collection, These 13 (1931) , received more laudatory reviews than had any of his novels.
Financial hardship pressed on Faulkner throughout the 1930s. He was supporting a wife, two children, and his mother, after his father died in 1932. He lost a brother in a plane crash in 1935, and supported his widow and child as well. The Great Depression of the 1930s caused book sales to plummet, and Faulkner’s pessimistic novels were unpopular and out of keeping with the public mood. In 1932, he traveled to the one place where a writer could make a decent living: Hollywood. He returned to work there often during the next decades, even though he strongly disliked the place, and formed a good relationship with top director Howard Hawks. He was able to transform one of his own stories, ”Turn About” (1932) into a screenplay, produced by Hawks as Today We Live (1933). He worked on several other films, but fled from the movie capital as soon as he had enough money to pay his bills.
Peak of Productivity
Faulkner continued producing novels of supreme literary merit, such as Light in August (1932), which examines the origins of personal identity and the roots of racial conflicts. The novel introduces many characters, centering on Joe Christmas, an orphan who is trying to uncover his true identity, including his racial ancestry, by piecing together bits of hearsay information. The narrative works through numerous flashbacks, frequently shifting from character to character. Many critics felt the novel suffered from faulty structure, though it was later recognized as a masterpiece.
Faulkner’s next major novel, Absalom! Absalom! (1936), is considered by many to be his finest. It focuses on Thomas Sutpen, a tragic character with a passion for creating and controlling a self-contained world. Many of the ”facts” regarding Sutpen and the other characters are based on unreliable information, or different versions of the same story, and the novel thus questions the human capacity to know the truth about anything.
A short story called ”Barn Burning,” published in Harper’s in 1939, introduced the Snopes family into the life of Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner stretched the Snopes’s history into a trilogy of novels, starting with The Hamlet (1940). Unlike the Compson and Sartoris families, the shrewd businessman Flem Snopes has little connection to or pride in the Southern heritage; his interest is sheer self-advancement. The second and third books in the trilogy, The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), portray Flem Snopes a bit more sympathetically, but his avaricious nature is unchanged. The Snopes family represent a stage in the decline of the South in which commerce and material gain wipe out human considerations and traditions.
Some critics believe that The Hamlet was the last publication of Faulkner’s peak period. In the dozen years since the composition of The Sound and the Fury, he had accomplished what many other writers would be satisfied to call a life’s work. But he was hardly finished. He stitched several previously published short stories together into a novel, Go Down, Moses (1942), that chronicles a century in the history of Yoknapatawpha County. Through episodes in the life of Isaac McCaslin, Faulkner delves into issues of race and slavery, stewardship and exploitation of land, and the disappearing wilderness.
Despite his prolific rate of publication, Faulkner remained strapped financially, so he returned to Hollywood in the 1940s. He had a hand in writing two of Howard Hawks’s best pictures, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), both starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. At this point, most of his books had gone out of print. A compilation called The Portable Faulkner (1946), edited by Malcolm Cowley, changed this situation considerably, and with the many soldiers returning from World War II who now went to colleges and universities, Faulkner’s books were suddenly in demand.
In November 1950 it was announced that Faulkner had won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. He traveled to Oslo and gave a memorable speech—rapidly, and in a low voice. Following the prize, his books sold more than ever before and were translated into many languages. Faulkner had heretofore voiced opinions about social and political matters only through his books, but now podiums and lecterns were offered from everywhere, and he took seriously his obligations as a public figure. He spoke out against segregation in Mississippi in the mid-1950s; however, he also opposed involvement by the federal government to enforce integration. This moderate position won him few friends.
Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for A Fable (1954), an allegorical story of a Jesus figure who causes a temporary cease-fire during World War I. After completing the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner wrote his final novel, The Reivers (1962), a last nostalgic glance at Yoknapatawpha County which was published shortly before his death, and earned him, posthumously, his second Pulitzer Prize.
Works in Literary Context
William Faulkner revealed a talent for poetry, as well as drawing, from an early age. As a teenager he wrote romantic poetry in the model of the eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert Burns and the Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne. His friend, Phil Stone, introduced him to the writings of the French novelist Honore de Balzac and the French Symbolist poets. A major influence on the direction of his work was Sherwood Anderson, who had already written his celebrated story collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919) when Faulkner met him. It was Anderson who steered Faulkner from poetry to prose, and who suggested that he write about the region where he came from. Other literary influences on Faulkner include Mark Twain, who brought vernacular storytelling and regional humor into American literature, and Irish writer James Joyce, who advanced stream-of-consciousness narration.
A County of the Mind
Fifteen of Faulkner’s novels and dozens of his short stories are set in Yoknapatawpha County, his fictional representation of his northern Mississippi region. Its county seat, Jefferson, is modeled after Oxford. Depicted in both the past and the present, Yoknapatawpha is populated with a vast spectrum of people—the Indians who originally inhabited the land, the landed gentry, yeoman farmers, poor whites, blacks, carpetbaggers, and bushwhackers. Faulkner was justifiably proud of the kingdom he had erected in his imagination. Although there are some inconsistencies in the Yoknapatawpha novels, the saga as a whole offers a microcosm of the Deep South in its history and culture. The greatness of Faulkner’s design led critics to recognize that he was not just a provincial author, but that his regional stories had universal appeal.
The Past in Faulkner
One of Faulkner’s chief thematic preoccupations is the past, and this theme is also reflected in the form of his fictions. In a famous analogy, French philosopher and literary critic Jean-Paul Sartre compared the Faulknerian character’s point of view to that ”of a passenger looking backward from a speeding car, who sees, flowing away from him, the landscape he is traversing. For him the future is not in view, the present is too blurred to make out, and he can see clearly only the past as it streams away before his obsessed and backward-looking gaze.” Faulkner’s pages are filled with characters who are fettered to the past, from Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury to the Reverend Gail Hightower in Light in August, who endlessly relives the glory of his grandfather’s cavalry charge. Over and above the personal obsessions of individual characters, Faulkner perceived the pull of history and nostalgia as an affliction affecting the South as a whole. As he famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun (1951), ”The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Faulkner’s writing style is keyed to his themes. The stylistic methods most closely associated with his treatment of the past are his use of long sentences, flashbacks, and multiple viewpoints. Complicated sentence structures can hold a moment aloft indefinitely for the author, or a character, to dwell upon. Flashbacks are even more clearly related to Faulkner’s interest in the past. Narration in which the time reference is ambiguous, such as Benjy Compson’s section of The Sound and the Fury, demonstrates still more forcefully the enmeshment of past and present. By telling a story from several points of view, Faulkner adds a further dimension to his concept of time; the past is subject to continual reevaluation and open to conflicting interpretations. Other characteristic points of Faulkner’s modernistic style include the flagrant reiteration of certain words, seemingly excessive strings of adjectives, and deliberately vague pronoun references, as well as Joycean stream of consciousness, sometimes without punctuation.
An American Original
By any measure, William Faulkner is one of the most highly esteemed authors in all of American literature. That a high school dropout from the poorest region of the United States, working in relative isolation and under intense financial pressure, could produce so many top-flight works of fiction in a compressed period of time is a remarkable achievement. Some of his writing is rather difficult to understand, and some difficult to stomach; a great deal of it is dazzling in its originality. Faulkner elevated the stature of regional or local-color fiction and was largely responsible for the revival of Southern literature in the mid-twentieth century. His influence on the genre sometimes called ”Southern gothic” is seen in authors such as Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy. As one of the most frequently studied American authors, he has reached a rarefied stature among intellectuals and a permanent place in the American literary pantheon. He also won a devoted following in the European literary scene; intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus championed his writing.
Works in Critical Context
Faulkner is now recognized as a giant, but he labored in obscurity for much of his career. Books now considered classics made no discernible impact when first published. Critics and readers alike were unappreciative and reluctant to accept the challenge his experimental and modernistic texts presented. The most commercially successful of his early works, Sanctuary, had an undue and unfavorable influence on his reputation. For years, he was dismissed as a purveyor of the grotesque; more charitable critics perceived him as merely a regional writer. Only later did a critical consensus emerge that while Faulkner’s material was regionally focused, his concerns were universal.
Between 1939 and 1942, several important examinations of Faulkner appeared in literary journals. Although hardly noticed by the public, Faulkner was esteemed by many of his fellow writers. His work had also attracted a substantial following in France. Despite this stature, in the 1940s each of his books dropped out of print, partly because of lack of popular interest, partly due to the war effort. The publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946 created a resurgence of interest. Editor Malcolm Cowley’s introduction, stressing the Southern legend that Faulkner had created in his works, served as a springboard for future critics. ”Faulkner performed a labor of imagination that has not been equaled in our time, and a double labor,” Cowley asserted. ”First, to invent a Mississippi county that was like a mythical kingdom, but was complete and living in all its details; second, to make his story of Yoknapatawpha County stand as a parable or legend of all the Deep South.”
The turning point for Faulkner’s reputation came when he won the Nobel Prize. Up until then, many readers remained wary of him, and even the New York Times expressed the fear that the rest of the world might consider Yoknapatawpha County an accurate depiction of life in America. Faulkner’s reply was contained in his acceptance speech. He explained that it is the writer’s duty and privilege ”to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” The stirring speech caused many to change their opinion of him overnight.
Grist for the Academic Mill
For sixty years since the Nobel Prize, Faulkner has been a cornerstone of American literary scholarship. Early critics and readers sought correspondences between Faulkner’s life and his fiction, an unrewarding line of inquiry since there are few direct parallels between Faulkner as a person and his characters. Cleanth Brooks, a prominent practitioner of the New Criticism, produced two of the most meticulous studies of Faulkner’s work, in 1963 and 1978. Since then, academics of all stripes have written thousands of articles and monographs on Faulkner, including psychoanalytic, linguistic, feminist, postmodern, political, and genre-based criticism. Scholars have probed his views on history, slavery, identity, community, and morality. They have concluded that his genius lies in the ability to portray all types of characters, and in the use of a variety of narrative voices. A recent volume edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, entitled William Faulkner: Six Decades of Criticism (2002) provides a useful overview of Faulkner studies.
- Adams, Richard P. Faulkner: Myth and Motion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.
- Backman, Melvin. Faulkner, The Major Years: A Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.
- Blotner, Joseph L. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974.
- Bockting, Ineke. Character and Personality in the Novels of William Faulkner: A Study in Psychostylistics. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995.
- Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978.
- Carothers, James B. William Faulkner’s Short Stories. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985.
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- Clarke, Deborah. Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
- Davis, Thadious M. Faulkner’s “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
- Gray, Richard J. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
- Howe, Irving. William Faulkner: A Critical Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
- Matthews, John. The Play of Faulkner’s Language. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.
- Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
- Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964.
- Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. William Faulkner: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State
- University Press, 2002.
- Welty, Eudora. On William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
- Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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