Nationality: American. Born: William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi, 25 September 1897; moved with his family to Oxford, Mississippi, 1902. Education: Local schools in Oxford; University of Mississippi, Oxford, 1919-20. Military Service: Served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, 1918. Family: Married Estelle Oldham Franklin in 1929; two daughters. Career: Bookkeeper in bank, 1916-18; worked in Doubleday Bookshop, New York, 1921; postmaster, University of Mississippi Post Office, 1921-24. Lived in New Orleans and contributed to New Orleans Times-Picayune, 1925. Traveled in Europe, 1925-26; returned to Oxford, 1927. Full-time writer, 1927 until his death. Screenwriter, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932-33, 20th Century-Fox, 1935-37; screenwriter, Warner Brothers, 1942-45. Writer-in-residence, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1957 and part of each year, 1958-62. Awards: O. Henry award, 1939, 1949; Nobel prize for literature, 1950; American Academy Howells medal, 1950; National Book award, 1951, 1955; Pulitzer prize, 1955, 1963; American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal, 1962. Member: Nation Letters, 1939; American Academy, 1948. Died: 6 July 1962.
The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley. 1946; revised edition, 1967.
Collected Stories. 1950.
The Faulkner Reader, edited by Saxe Commins. 1954.
Novels 1930-1935, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk. 1985.
Novels 1936-1940, edited by Joseph Blotner. 1990.
Novels 1942-1954, 1994.
Collected Stories. 1995.
These 13: Stories. 1931.
Doctor Martino and Other Stories. 1934.
Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories. 1942.
Knight's Gambit. 1949.
Big Woods. 1955.
Jealousy and Episode: Two Stories. 1955.
Uncle Willy and Other Stories. 1958.
Selected Short Stories. 1961.
Barn Burning and Other Stories. 1977.
Uncollected Stories, edited by Joseph Blotner. 1979.
Soldiers' Pay. 1926.
Sartoris. 1929; original version, as Flags in the Dust, edited by Douglas Day, 1973.
The Sound and the Fury. 1929.
As I Lay Dying. 1930.
Idyll in the Desert. 1931.
Light in August. 1932.
Miss Zilphia Gant. 1932.
Absalom, Absalom! 1936.
The Unvanquished. 1938.
The Wild Palms (includes Old Man). 1939.
The Hamlet. 1940; excerpt, as The Long Hot Summer, 1958.
Intruder in the Dust. 1948.
Notes on a Horsethief. 1950.
Requiem for a Nun. 1951.
A Fable. 1954.
Faulkner County. 1955.
The Town. 1957.
The Mansion. 1959.
The Reivers: A Reminiscence. 1962.
Father Abraham, edited by James B. Meriwether. 1984.
The Marionettes (produced 1920). 1975; edited by Noel Polk, 1977.
Requiem for a Nun (produced 1957). 1951.
The Big Sleep, with Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, in Film Scripts One, edited by George P. Garrett, O.B. Harrison, Jr., and Jane Gelfmann. 1971.
To Have and Have Not (screenplay), with Jules Furthman. 1980.
The Road to Glory (screenplay), with Joel Sayre. 1981.
Faulkner's MGM Screenplays, edited by Bruce F. Kawin. 1983.
The DeGaulle Story (unproduced screenplay), edited by LouisDaniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin. 1984.
Battle Cry (unproduced screenplay), edited by Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin. 1985.
Stallion Road: A Screenplay, edited by Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin. 1989.
Today We Live, with Edith Fitzgerald and DwightTaylor, 1933; The Road to Glory, with Joel Sayre, 1936; Slave Ship, with others, 1937; Air Force (uncredited), with Dudley Nichols, 1943; To Have and Have Not, with Jules Furthman, 1945; The Big Sleep, with Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, 1946; Land of the Pharaohs, with Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom, 1955.
The Graduation Dress, with Joan Williams, 1960.
The Marble Faun. 1924.
Salmagundi (includes prose), edited by Paul Romaine. 1932.
This Earth. 1932.
A Green Bough. 1933.
Mississippi Poems. 1979.
Helen: A Courtship, and Mississippi Poems. 1981.
Vision in Spring. 1984.
Mirrors of Chartres Street. 1953.
New Orleans Sketches, edited by Ichiro Nishizaki, 1955; revised edition, edited by Carvel Collins, 1958.
On Truth and Freedom. 1955(?).
Faulkner at Nagano (interview), edited by Robert A. Jelliffe. 1956.
Faulkner in the University (interviews), edited by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph Blotner. 1959.
University Pieces, edited by Carvel Collins. 1962.
Early Prose and Poetry, edited by Carvel Collins. 1962.
Faulkner at West Point (interviews), edited by Joseph L. Fant and Robert Ashley. 1964.
The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories 1944-1962, with Malcolm Cowley. 1966.
Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters, edited by James B. Meriwether. 1966.
The Wishing Tree (for children). 1967.
Lion in the Garden: Interviews with Faulkner 1926-1962, edited by James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. 1968.
Selected Letters, edited by Joseph Blotner. 1977.
Letters, edited by Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin. 1984.
Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. 1986.
Thinking of Home (letters), edited by James G. Watson. 1992.*
The Literary Career of Faulkner: A Bibliographical Study by James B. Meriwether, 1961; Faulkner: A Reference Guide by Thomas L. McHaney, 1976; Faulkner: A Bibliography of Secondary Works by Beatrice Ricks, 1981; Faulkner: The Bio-Bibliography by Louis Daniel Brodsky and Robert W. Hamblin, 1982; Faulkner: An Annotated Checklist of Recent Criticism by John Earl Bassett, 1983; Faulkner's Poetry: A Bibliographical Guide to Texts and Criticisms by Judith L. Sensibar and Nancy L. Stegall, 1988.
Faulkner: A Critical Study by Irving Howe, 1952, revised edition, 1962, 1975; Faulkner by Hyatt H. Waggoner, 1959; The Novels of Faulkner by Olga W. Vickery, 1959, revised edition, 1964; Faulkner by Frederick J. Hoffman, 1961, revised edition, 1966; Bear, Man, and God edited by Francis L. Utley, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Arthur F. Kinney, 1963, revised edition, 1971; Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, 1963, Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, 1978, and Faulkner: First Encounters, 1983, all by Cleanth Brooks; Faulkner's People by Robert W. Kirk and Marvin Klotz, 1963; A Reader's Guide to Faulkner by Edmond L. Volpe, 1964; Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Robert Penn Warren, 1966; The Achievement of Faulkner by Michael Millgate, 1966; Faulkner: Myth and Motion by Richard P. Adams, 1968; Faulkner of Yoknapatawpha County by Lewis Leary, 1973; Faulkner's Narrative by Joseph W. Reed, Jr., 1973; Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism edited by Linda W. Wagner, 1973, and Hemingway and Faulkner: Inventors/Masters by Wagner, 1975; Faulkner: A Collection of Criticism edited by Dean M. Schmitter, 1973; Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual by Panthea Reid Broughton, 1974; Faulkner: A Biography by Joseph Blotner, 2 vols., 1974, revised and condensed edition, 1 vol., 1984; A Faulkner Miscellany edited by James B. Meriwether, 1974; Doubling and the Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner by John T. Irwin, 1975; Faulkner: The Critical Heritage edited by John Earl Bassett, 1975; A Glossary of Faulkner's South by Calvin S. Brown, 1976; The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury by André Bleikasten, 1976, and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: A Critical Case-book edited by Bleikasten, 1982; Faulkner's Heroic Design: The Yoknapatawpha Novels by Lynn Levins, 1976; Faulkner's Craft of Revision by Joanne V. Creighton, 1977; Faulkner's Women: The Myth and the Muse by David L. Williams, 1977; Faulkner's Narrative Poetics by Arthur F. Kinney, 1978, Critical Essays on Faulkner: The Compson Family, 1982, and The Sartoris Family, 1985, all edited by Kinney; The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner's Novels by Donald M. Kartiganer, 1979; Faulkner's Career: An Internal Literary History by Gary Lee Stonum, 1979; Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography by Judith Wittenberg, 1979; Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha Comedy by Lyall H. Powers, 1980; Faulkner: His Life and Work by David Minter, 1980; The Heart of Yoknapatawpha by John Pilkington, 1981; Faulkner's Characters: An Index to the Published and Unpublished Fiction by Thomas E. Dasher, 1981; Faulkner: The Short Story Career: An Outline of Faulkner's Short Story Writing from 1919 to 1962, 1981, and Faulkner: The Novelist as Short Story Writer, 1985, both by Hans H. Skei; A Faulkner Overview: Six Perspectives by Victor Strandberg, 1981; Faulkner: Biographical and Reference Guide and Critical Collection edited by Leland H. Cox, 2 vols., 1982; The Play of Faulkner's Language by John T. Matthews, 1982; The Art of Faulkner by John Pikoulis, 1982; Faulkner's "Negro": Art and the Southern Context by Thadious M. Davis, 1983; Faulkner: The House Divided by Eric J. Sundquist, 1983; Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha by Elizabeth M. Kerr, 1983; Faulkner: New Perspectives edited by Richard Brodhead, 1983; The Origins of Faulkner's Art by Judith Sensibar, 1984; Uses of the Past in the Novels of Faulkner by Carl E. Rollyson, Jr., 1984; Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! A Critical Casebook edited by Elizabeth Muhlenfeld, 1984; A Faulkner Chronology by Michel Gresset, 1985; Faulkner's Short Stories by James B. Carothers, 1985; Faulkner by Alan Warren Friedman, 1985; Genius of Place: Faulkner's Triumphant Beginnings by Max Putzel, 1985; Faulkner's Humor, 1986, Faulkner and Women, 1986, Faulkner and Race, 1988, Faulkner and the Craft of Fiction, 1989, Faulkner and Popular Culture, 1990, and Faulkner and Religion, 1991, all edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie; Figures of Division: Faulkner's Major Novels by James A. Snead, 1986; Heart in Conflict: Faulkner's Struggles with Vocation by Michael Grimwood, 1986; Faulkner: The Man and the Artist, Stephen B. Oates, 1987; Faulkner: The Art of Stylization by Lothar Hönnighausen, 1987; Faulkner by David Dowling, 1988; Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation by Gene D. Phillips, 1988; Faulkner, American Writer by Frederick Karl, 1989; Faulkner's Country Matters: Folklore and Fable in Yoknapatawpha by Daniel Hoffman, 1989; Faulkner's Marginal Couple by John N. Duvall, 1990; Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Fiction edited by A. Robert Lee, 1990; Faulkner's Fables of Creativity: The Non-Yoknapatawpha Novels by Gary Harrington, 1990; Faulkner: Life Glimpses by Louis Daniel Brodsky, 1990; Faulkner's Short Fiction by James Ferguson, 1991; William Faulkner and Southern History by Joel Williamson, 1993; Faulkner's Families: A Southern Saga by Gwendolyne Chabrier, 1993; The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation by Olga Vickery, 1995; The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography by Richard Gray, 1996; Faulkner: The Return of the Repressed by Doreen Fowler, 1997; Faulkner's Place by Michael Millgate, 1997; Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution by Richard Godden, 1997.* * *
The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, published in 1950, comprises 900 pages and 42 stories, many of which feature the same characters that we encounter in his Yoknapatawpha County novels. In his stories, as in his novels, Faulkner's distinctive achievement was to combine a penetrating grasp of individual consciousness—getting what he called "the story behind every brow"—with a remarkable breadth of social vision, so as to encompass with equal authority aristocrats and poor whites; black people and Indians; old maids and matriarchs; Christlike scapegoats and pathological murderers; intellectuals and idiots.
In his Nobel prize address of 1950 Faulkner summarized his life's work in terms of an internal struggle—"the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about." On one side of that conflict is the ideal self, striving to realize its potential for "love and honor and pride and compassion and sacrifice" and the other "old verities of the heart." On the other side is the weakness that prevents these ideals from being realized, among which the paramount vice is cowardice: "the basest of all things is to be afraid." Within this universal paradigm of identity-psychology—that is, the elementary human struggle to achieve a satisfactory sense of one's own worth—Faulkner portrays his individual protagonists as relating their effort to some uniquely private symbol of identity. It is crucially important that in true existentialist fashion, characters define that symbol for themselves without reference to conventional mores. Thus, in "A Rose for Emily" the symbol of Emily's worth is the bridal chamber in the attic in which her mummified lover awaits her nightly embrace; in "A Justice" it is the steamboat that Ikkemotubbe forces his people to haul overland so he can install his bride in a dwelling appropriate to a chieftain; and in "Wash" the symbol of enhanced worth is the great-grandchild whose imminent birth will fuse Wash's white trash bloodlines with those of the infant's aristocrat father, Thomas Sutpen. The fact that each of these characters (Emily, Wash Jones, Ikkemotubbe) is a murderer is secondary to the grand assertion of will—the quintessence of the heroic—that each of them invests in the chosen symbol of personal worth.
In addition to suspending conventional morality so as to enter the story behind every brow, Faulkner flouts conventional realism by according heroic status preponderantly to losers, failures, and misfits. Before rising up with scythe in hand to defend his family honor, Wash Jones is so degraded that even black slaves, who freely enter Sutpen's kitchen while blocking Wash at the door, laugh in his face over his dwelling ("dat shack down yon dat Cunnel wouldn't let none of us live in") and his cowardice ("Why ain't you at de war, white man?"). In "Ad Astra" Faulkner again follows the Biblical premise that the last shall be first by casting the two lowliest, most outcast characters as spiritually superior. While the so-called Allied soldiers lapse into a violent ethnic free-forall, French versus English versus Irish versus American, the subadar (a man of color from India) and the German prisoner transcend the barriers of race, language, religion, and wartime enmity so as to establish a bond based on "music, art, the victory born of defeat" and social justice (each renounces his aristocratic heritage for the belief that "all men are brothers").
Faulkner's craft is exemplified in two extraordinarily original stories about Indian culture, "A Justice" and "Red Leaves." In "A Justice" two interracial love affairs—Pappy's with a slave woman and Ikkemotubbe's with a Creole—become entangled because of Ikkemotubbe's urgent identity need. Having passed himself off in New Orleans as the tribal chief, a ploy that helped him win the love of the Creole woman, he has hurried home ahead of his pregnant sweetheart so as to install himself as chief before she gets there. After eliminating three relatives who stand in his way—the present chief, along with the chief's son and brother—Ikkemotubbe must get the endorsement of Pappy and Pappy's best friend, Herman Basket, who apparently have the power to name the next chief, called "The Man." In a wonderfully subtle deployment of threats and bribes, Ikkemotubbe obtains this anointing but then withholds from Herman Basket the horse he had promised and from Pappy the black woman he had used for enticement. So Pappy, aflame with desire, has to contrive his own path to satisfaction. This he does, to the outrage of the black woman's husband who appeals to Chief Ikkemotubbe for justice when a "yellow" baby is born. With Solomon-like wisdom, the chief first tries to soothe the cuckold's feelings by bestowing on the infant the name "Had-Two-Fathers." When that fails to mollify the black man, a second stage of justice does effect the purpose: Pappy and Herman Basket spend months of hard labor constructing a fence around the black man's hut, which not only keeps Pappy physically at bay but during construction makes him too tired to be a lover at night. This comic tale renders the origin of the Indian hero of The Bear, Sam Fathers—whose name by rights should have been "Had-Three-Fathers" inasmuch as it was the crafty Ikkemotubbe himself and not Pappy who actually was the baby's father.
Although "Red Leaves" has comic elements—it is here, not in "A Justice," that we learn of Ikkemotubbe's romantic caper in New Orleans—its extraordinary power derives from its tragic portrait of a scapegoat. As so often in Faulkner's fiction, we begin the tale sharing the perspective of an uncomprehending outsider: two Indians are in pursuit of a slave who seems shamefully reluctant to accompany his master, the tribal chief, to the next world. "They do not like to die," one complains to the other; "a people without honor and without decorum," to which the friend replies, "But then, they are savages; they cannot be expected to regard usage."
Not until part IV, at midpoint in the story, do we meet the central character, the aforesaid transgressor against usage, honor, and decorum. Only now does Faulkner's true theme come into play, a theme stated most directly in the foreword to his 1954 volume The Faulkner Reader: "we all write for this one purpose … [to] say No to death." Hopeless beyond reprieve, the slave initially says yes to death, listening to "the two voices, himself and himself," saying, "You are dead" and "Yao, I am dead." To remove any doubt, the slaves who conduct his funeral service in the swamp tell him outright, "Eat and go. The dead may not consort with the living; thou knowest that." Again, he concedes defeat: "Yao. I know that." Only when he is slashed by a snake does his will to live rise up to battle the certitude of his coming death: "'It's that I do not wish to die'—in a quiet tone of slow and low amaze, as though … [he] had not known the depth and extent of his desire."
Without question he is virtually a dead man, and his heroic struggle cannot be measured by his success in escape or resisting capture. It is measured instead by his stalling tactics that enable him to say no to death for perhaps 60 breaths by pretending to eat, though his throat is too constricted by fear to swallow. He then extends his life span perhaps another 60 breaths by pretending to drink water, again with throat constricted, until this last gambit is forcibly terminated: "'Come,' Basket said, taking the gourd from the Negro and hanging it back in the well." With the gourd gone the slave's stalling gambit is finished, removing any further chance to forestall death.
Had he not written his great novels, stories like these would have assured Faulkner an honored place in American letters on their own account. Given his range and depth of imagination, along with extraordinary powers of expression in both traditional and experimental forms, Faulkner's total achievement is a literary canvas of truly Shakespearean scope and intensity in both the comic and tragic modes. No one in American literature has a better claim to be its greatest author; no one using the English language has a better claim to a seat beside Shakespeare.
William Faulkner (1897-1962), a major American 20th-century novelist, chronicled the decline and decay of the aristocratic South with an imaginative power and psychological depth that transcend mere regionalism.
William Faulkner was born on Sept. 25, 1897, in New Albany, Miss. He grew up in Oxford, Miss., which appears in his fiction as "Jefferson" in "Yoknapatawpha County." William was the oldest of four brothers. Both parents came from wealthy families reduced to genteel poverty by the Civil War. A great-grandfather, Col. William Falkner (as the family spelled its name), had authored The White Rose of Memphis, a popular success of the 1880s. William's father owned a hardware store and livery stable in Oxford and later became business manager of the state university. William attended public school only fitfully after the fifth grade; he never graduated from high school.
In 1918, after the U.S. Army rejected him for being underweight and too short (5 feet 5 inches), Faulkner enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. During his brief service in World War I, he suffered a leg injury in a plane accident. In 1918 he was demobilized and made an honorary second lieutenant.
In 1919 Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a special student but left the next year for New York City. After several odd jobs in New York and Mississippi, he became postmaster at the Mississippi University Station; he was fired in 1924. In 1925 he and a friend made a walking tour of Europe, returning home in 1926.
During the years 1926-1930 Faulkner published a series of distinguished novels, none commercially successful. But in 1931 the success of Sanctuary, written expressly to make money, freed him of financial worries. He went to Hollywood for a year as a scenarist and an adviser.
It was not until after World War II that Faulkner received critical acclaim. French critics recognized his power first; André Malraux wrote an appreciative preface to Sanctuary, and Jean Paul Sartre wrote a long critical essay on Faulkner. The turning point for Faulkner's reputation came in 1946, when Malcolm Cowley published the influential The Portable Faulkner (at this time all of Faulkner's books were out of print!).
The groundswell of praise for Faulkner's work culminated in a 1950 Nobel Prize for literature. His 1955 lecture tour of Japan is recorded in Faulkner at Nagano (1956). In 1957-1958 he was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia; his dialogues with students make up Faulkner in the University (1959). William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches and Public Letters (1965) and The Faulkner-Cowley File (1966) offer further insights into the man.
Faulkner had married Estelle Oldham in 1929, and they lived together in Oxford until his death on July 6, 1962. He was a quiet, dapper, courteous man, mustachioed and sharp-eyed. He steadfastly refused the role of celebrity: he permitted no prying into his private life and rarely granted interviews.
Poetry and Short Stories
During the early 1920s Faulkner wrote poetry and fiction. In the volume of verse The Marble Faun (1922), a printer's error allegedly introduced the "u" into the author's name, which he decided to retain. The money for another book of poems, The Green Bough (1933), was supplied by a lawyer friend, Philip Stone, on whom the lawyer in Faulkner's later fiction is modeled. Faulkner's poetry shows the poet's taste for language but lacks stylistic discipline.
Faulkner is considered a fine practitioner of the short-story form, and some of his stories, such as "A Rose for Emily," are widely anthologized. His collections—These Thirteen (1931), Doctor Martino and Other Stories (1934), Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (1942), and Knight's Gambit (1949)—deal with themes similar to those in his novels and include many of the same characters.
Soldiers' Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927) precede Sartoris (1927), Faulkner's first important work, in which he begins his Yoknapatawpha saga. This saga, Faulkner's imaginative recreation of the tragedy of the American South, is a Balzacian provincial cycle in which each novel interrelates, clarifies, and redefines the characters. The central figure is Bayard Sartoris, returned from the war, who drives and drinks violently to compensate for his sense of alienation. He seems determined to find some extraordinary form of self-destruction. He becomes an experimental aviator and dies in a crash, leaving his pregnant wife to sustain the family name. The novel introduces families that reappear in many of Faulkner's novels and stories: the Sartoris and Compson families, representing the agrarian, aristocratic Old South; and the Snopes clan, representing the ruthless, mercantile New South.
"The Sound and the Fury"
The book generally regarded as Faulkner's masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury (1929), is a radical departure from conventional novelistic form. It uses a stream-of-consciousness method, rendering a different type of mentality in each of its four sections. The title, taken from Macbeth's utterance of cosmic despair in Shakespeare's play, is a clue to the profound pessimism of the novel, which records the decay and degeneracy of the Compson family and, by implication, of the aristocratic South. It is difficult to read, and Faulkner's "Appendix," written much later at the publisher's request, hardly clarifies it.
Each section takes place in a single day; three sections are set in 1928 and one in 1910. The difficulties begin with the fact that the 1910 section is placed second in the book, and the other three are not sequential in their 1928 three-day span. Further, the opening section is rendered in the stream of consciousness of an idiot, who cannot distinguish past from present.
Unquestionably the most difficult for Faulkner to write, the Benjy section (of April 7, 1928) is also the most difficult to read. It has been likened to a prose poem, with the succeeding three sections being simply variations on its theme of futility. Because the mentally impaired Benjy lives in a state of timelessness, his report is purely sensuous, and the reader must figure out his own chronology. Faulkner gives two aids: the device of signaling time shifts by alternating the typeface between bold and italic, and the variance of the African American attending Benjy (Roskus and Dilsey ca. 1898; Versh, T.P., and Frony ca. 1910; Luster ca. 1928).
Out of Benjy's garbled report come a number of facts and motifs. He is 33 years old, in the constant care of an African American youth named Luster. Benjy is tormented by the absence of his sister, Candace, though she has been out of the household for 18 years; each time he hears golfers on the neighboring course call "Caddy!" (coincidentally her nickname), he is painfully reminded of her. The golf course, formerly part of the Compson estate, was sold so that Benjy's older brother, Quentin, could attend Harvard, where he committed suicide in 1910. Mrs. Compson is a self-pitying woman; Mr. Compson was a drunkard; Uncle Maury was a womanizer; Candace was sexually promiscuous and, in turn, her daughter, confusingly called Quentin (after her dead uncle), is also promiscuous. Benjy has been castrated at his brother Jason's order.
Ironically, the most sensitive and intelligent Compson, Quentin (whose day in the novel is June 1, 1910), shares Benjy's obsession about their sister. Candace and the past dominate Quentin's section, which is set in Boston on the day he commits suicide. His musings add more facts in the novel's mosaic. The head of the family, Mr. Compson, is wise but cynical and despairing. Quentin has falsely confessed incest with Candace to his father; the father has not believed him. Quentin had fought one of Candace's lovers over her "honor." He is oppressed by knowing that the pregnant Candace is to be married off to a northern banker; the impending marriage is symbolic to Quentin of his irremediable and intolerable severance from Candace and is the reason for his suicidal state. Quentin's ludicrously methodical preparations for his suicide culminate when the last thing he does before leaving to kill himself is brush his teeth.
Jason (his day in the novel is April 6, 1928) is one of the great comic villains of literature. He has an irrational, jealous loathing of Candace. Now head of the family, he complains bitterly of his responsibilities as guardian of Candace's daughter, Quentin, while systematically stealing the money Candace sends for her care. Jason is cast in the Snopes mold—materialistic, greedy, and cunning. What makes him humorous is his self-pity. He sees himself as victim—of Candace, who he feels has cost him a desired job; of his niece, whose promiscuity seems a personal affront; of Benjy, whose condition causes embarrassment; of Mrs. Compson, whom he constantly bullies and whose inefficiency has burdened him; of the Jews, whom he blames for his stock market losses; of the servants, whose employment necessitates his own work at a menial job. Jason's lack of soul is evident in all his habits. He leaves no mark on anything and lives totally in the present—the perfect Philistine of the New South.
The novel's final section, the only one told in the third person, gives the point of view of the sensible old black servant, Dilsey (her day is April 8, 1928). As with other Faulkner African Americans, her presence is chiefly functional: her good sense and solidity point up the decadence of the whites. In this section Jason meets with an ironic, overwhelming defeat. The novel's chief social implication is that the South is doomed.
Novels of the 1930s
As I Lay Dying (1930) is a farcical burlesque epic, again using the multiple stream-of-consciousness method to tell the grotesque, humorous story of a family of poor whites intent on fulfilling the mother's deathbed request for burial. Sanctuary (1931), taken seriously by most critics, was discounted by Faulkner as a "potboiler." It is the lurid tale of Popeye, a sexually mutilated bootlegger, who has degenerate sexual acts performed for his gratification. One of his victims is a college girl whose lie in Popeye's behalf at the trial of another bootlegger results in the latter's conviction of Popeye's crime. In an ironic ending, Popeye is hanged for a crime of which he is innocent.
The story in Light in August (1932) takes place in a single day. It is overly complicated by a subplot. Beginning with a pregnant girl searching for her lover, this plot is subordinated to the story of Joe Christmas (same initials as Jesus Christ), whose uncertain racial identity perplexes him. Though structurally unsound, Light in August generates enormous power and probably ranks second among Faulkner's books.
Faulkner's creativity ebbed after 1935. Though occasionally interesting and fitfully brilliant, his work tended to be increasingly repetitious, perverse, and mannered to the point of self-parody.
Pylon (1935), one of Faulkner's weakest novels, is the story of a flying circus team. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is an extremely complex novel; the title comes from the biblical cry of David ("My son, my son!"). This novel tells of a poor white from the Virginia hills who marries an aristocractic Mississippi woman, inadvertently launching a three-generation family cycle of violence, degeneracy, and mental retardation.
Two minor novels, The Unvanquished (1938) and The Wild Palms (1939), were followed by an uneven but intriguing satire of the Snopes clan, The Hamlet (1940). Of this novel's four parts, the first and the last manifest Faulkner's greatest faults: they are talky and oblique and seem out of focus. The middle sections, however, are Faulkner at his best.
Intruder in the Dust (1948) takes a liberal view of southern race relations. Lucas Beauchamp, an eccentric old African American, is saved from a false murder charge through the efforts of fair-minded whites. A Fable (1954) is a very poor parable of Christ and Judas. The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962), a trilogy that is part of the Yoknapatawpha saga, are generally regarded as minor works.
Faulkner's thoughts on literature and many other subjects can be found in James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, eds., Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 (1968). Faulkner is discussed in several memoirs: John Faulkner, My Brother Bill: An Affectionate Reminiscence (1963), and Murry C. Falkner, The Falkners of Mississippi: A Memoir (1967). A biography of Faulkner is in the introduction of Edmond L. Volpe, A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner (1964). Some of the best critical work on Faulkner is in Frederick J.
Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery, eds., William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism (1960). Although Joseph Blotner's biography, in progress, should be the definitive work, useful studies of Faulkner's life and work include Irving Malin, William Faulkner: An Interpretation (1957); William Van O'Connor, William Faulkner (1959); Hyatt Howe Waggoner, William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World (1959); Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (1966); and H. Edward Richardson, William Faulkner: Journey to Self-Discovery (1969). See also Robert Penn Warren, ed., Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966), and Richard P. Adams, Faulkner: Myth and Motion (1968). □
Born: September 25, 1897
New Albany, Mississippi
Died: July 6, 1962
William Faulkner, a major American twentieth-century author, wrote historical novels portraying the decline and decay of the upper crust of Southern society. The imaginative power and psychological depth of his work ranks him as one of America's greatest novelists. He also received the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Youth and experience
William Cuthbert Falkner (as the family spelled its name) was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, the oldest of four brothers. Both parents came from wealthy families reduced to poverty by the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern states of the United States). A great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner, had written The White Rose of Memphis, a popular novel of the 1880s. William was named in honor of his great-grandfather. William's father owned a hardware store and livery stable (a place where animals and vehicles are kept and rented) in Oxford and later became business manager of the state university. William did not attend public school consistently after the fifth grade; he left high school prior to graduation in order to work in his grandfather's bank. William never earned his high school diploma despite being an avid reader and a lover of poetry.
In 1918, after the U.S. Army rejected him for being underweight and too short (5 feet 5 inches), Faulkner enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. During his brief service in World War I (1914–18; a war that involved most countries in Europe as well as many other nations in the world, and in which the United States participated from 1917–18), he suffered a leg injury in a plane accident. In 1918 he left the air force and returned home to Oxford.
In 1919 Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a special student, but left the next year for New York City. After several odd jobs in New York he left and again returned to Mississippi, where he became postmaster at the Mississippi University Station. He was fired in 1924 for reading on the job. In 1925 he and a friend made a walking tour of Europe, returning home in 1926.
During the years 1926 to 1930 Faulkner published a series of novels, none commercially successful. But in 1931 the success of Sanctuary freed him of financial worries. He went to Hollywood for a year as a scriptwriter and an adviser.
It was not until after World War II (1939–45; a war in which France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan) that Faulkner received critical acclaim. The turning point for Faulkner's reputation came in 1946, when Malcolm Cowley published the influential The Portable Faulkner (at this time all of Faulkner's books were out of print). The rapid and widespread praise for Faulkner's work was recognized in a 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Faulkner had married Estelle Oldham, his childhood sweetheart, in 1929, and they lived together in Oxford until his death. He was a quiet, dashing, courteous man, mustachioed and sharp-eyed. He constantly refused the role of celebrity: he permitted no prying into his private life and rarely granted interviews. William Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, in a hospital in Byhalia, Mississippi. He was sixty-four years of age.
Poetry and short stories
During the early 1920s Faulkner wrote poetry and fiction. In the volume of verse The Marble Faun (1922), a printer's error allegedly introduced the "u" into the author's name, which he decided to retain. His friend, Philip Stone, supplied money for another book of poems, The Green Bough (1933).
Faulkner is considered a fine writer of the short story, and some of his stories, such as "A Rose for Emily," are widely anthologized (put into a collection of literature). His collections—These Thirteen (1931), Doctor Martino and Other Stories (1934), Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (1942), and Knight's Gambit (1949)—deal with themes similar to those in his novels and include many of the same characters.
Soldiers' Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927) precede Sartoris (1927), Faulkner's first important work, in which he begins his Yoknapatawpha saga. This saga, Faulkner's imaginative re-creation of the tragedy of the American South, is written so that each novel works with the others to clarify and redefine the characters. The novel introduces families that reappear in many of Faulkner's novels and stories: the Sartoris and Compson families, representing the land-owning, aristocratic Old South; and the Snopes clan, representing the ruthless, commercial New South.
The Sound and the Fury
The book generally regarded as Faulkner's masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury (1929), is written in a style that differs from most novels of the time. It uses a stream-of-consciousness method (where the author lets his thoughts flow freely), creating a different manner of thought in each of its four sections. The novel records the breakdown of the Compson family, which serves to suggest a breakdown of the southern ways of the past. Each section takes place in a single day; three sections are set in 1928 and one in 1910. The difficulties begin with the fact that the section set in 1910 is placed second in the book, while the other three set in 1928 are not in the order in which they occur during their three-day span.
The Benjy section (April 7, 1928) is the most difficult section to read. Because the mentally impaired Benjy lives in a state where things rarely change, his report is purely physical, and the reader must figure out his own order of time. Faulkner gives two aids, however: the device of signaling time shifts by alternating the typeface between bold and italic, and the different people attending Benjy.
Out of Benjy's jumbled report comes background information for the novel. He is thirty-three years old, and in the constant care of an African American youth named Luster. Benjy is troubled by the absence of his sister, Candace, though she has been out of the household for eighteen years. The oldest son, Quentin, was sent to Harvard, where he committed suicide. Mrs. Compson is a self-pitying woman; Mr. Compson is a drunkard; Uncle Maury is a womanizer; Candace is lacking in morals and, in turn, her daughter, confusingly called Quentin (after her dead uncle), is also morally loose.
Ironically, the most sensitive and intelligent Compson, Quentin (whose day in the novel is June 1, 1910), shares Benjy's obsession about their sister. Candace and the past dominate Quentin's section, which is set in Boston on the day he commits suicide. He is oppressed by the knowledge that the pregnant Candace is to be married off to a northern banker. The upcoming marriage is the reason for his suicidal state.
Jason, the third Compson brother, whose day in the novel is April 6, 1928, is one of the great comic villains of literature. He has an irrational, jealous hatred of Candace. Now head of the family, he complains of his responsibilities as guardian of Candace's daughter, Quentin, while systematically stealing the money Candace sends for her care. Jason is greedy, cunning, and concerned only with money and possessions. What makes him humorous is his self-pity. Jason's lack of soul is evident in all of his habits. He leaves no mark on anything and lives totally in the present, which serves to represent the New South.
The novel's final section, the only one told in the third person, gives the point of view of the sensible old black servant, Dilsey (her day is April 8, 1928). As with other Faulkner African American characters, her presence is chiefly practical: her good sense and solidity point at the selfishness and self-absorption of the white characters. In this section Jason meets with an overwhelming defeat. The novel's chief assumption is that the Southern way of life is doomed.
As I Lay Dying (1930) is an absurd epic that uses the multiple stream-of-consciousness method to tell the ridiculous, humorous story of a family of poor whites intent on fulfilling the mother's deathbed request for burial. The story in Light in August (1932) takes place in a single day. Although complicated by a subplot, Light in August generates enormous power and probably ranks second among Faulkner's books.
Faulkner's creativity declined after 1935. Though occasionally interesting and at times brilliant, his work tended to be increasingly repetitious.
For More Information
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1974.
Fargnoli, A. Nicholas, and Michael Golay. William Faulkner A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001.
Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994.
Oates, Stephen B. William Faulkner, the Man and the Artist: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
William Cuthbert Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) is one of America's most important and highly regarded writers of fiction. Although his literary career spanned four decades, almost all of his most important work dates from between 1929 and 1942, a period beginning with the appearance of his novels Sartoris (1929) and The Sound and the Fury (1929), and closing with Go Down, Moses (1942). Faulkner's work is perhaps most noted for its complex narrative structure and its dazzling use of language and voice.
Born in New Albany, Mississippi, into a prominent (though somewhat declining) north Mississippi family, Faulkner spent most of his childhood down the road in Oxford, where his family moved in 1902. In 1915, Faulkner dropped out of high school to pursue a career in writing, first as poet and later as fiction writer. Encouraged and supported by Oxford lawyer Phil Stone, Faulkner began a series of travels that took him to the Northeast, Canada, Europe, and New Orleans, with occasional stops back in Oxford. Strongly influenced by Sherwood Anderson, whom he first met in 1924 while living in New Orleans, Faulkner published his first two novels, Soldier's Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927), to limited critical success.
In the late 1920s, Faulkner returned to Oxford and turned his literary efforts almost exclusively to works exploring life in north Mississippi. In a number of his best novels and stories, including Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom! Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942), Faulkner portrayed with often dizzying complexity the life and history of his fictional Mississippi county, Yoknapatawpha. Something close to tragic doom cloaks almost all of Faulkner's work, particularly in his portrayal of the South's massive cultural transformations wrought by forces of intolerance, modernization, and greed.
Faulkner's critical reputation—and financial solvency—floundered precariously until the late 1940s, when publication of Malcolm Cowley's The Portable Faulkner initiated a resurgence of interest. Capping this stunning critical reappraisal was Faulkner's receiving of the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature. Although he continued to write until his death in 1962, little of Faulkner's later fiction matches the power, intensity, and complexity of his work from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
Faulkner is now regarded as one of America's and the world's greatest writers. His writing style, dense and packed at times to the bursting point, embodies his belief that every moment of existence is pressured almost to suffocation by all that has come before—the past, as he said, is never past. His experiments with narrative form and structure mark Faulkner as one of the greats of high modernism, and profoundly influenced the shape of the twentieth-century novel. Nowhere was his influence more dominant than in the development of twentieth-century Southern literature, where not only his narrative fireworks but also his thematic concerns—particularly the grinding conflict between the traditional and the modern—became for several generations touchstones of Southern expression.
See Also: LITERATURE.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography, 2 vols. 1974.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. 1963.
Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. 1994.
Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. 1980.
Singal, Daniel. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. 1997.
Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. 1993.
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr.