William Faulkner photographed in 1954 by Carl Van Vechten
|Born:||September 25, 1897(1897-09-25)
New Albany, Mississippi, U.S.A.
|Died:||July 6, 1962 (aged 64)
Byhalia, Mississippi, U.S.A.
|Occupation:||Novelist, short story writer|
|Literary movement:||Modernism, stream of consciousness|
|Influences:||James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot|
|Influenced:||Flannery O'Conner, Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee, Peter Carey|
William Cuthbert Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) was an American novelist and poet whose works feature his native state of Mississippi. He is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century and was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Faulkner's writing is often criticized as being dense,and being asubjective to meandering and difficult to understand because of his heavy use of such literary techniques as symbolism, allegory, multiple narrators and points of view, non-linear narrative, and especially stream of consciousness. Faulkner was known for an experimental style with meticulous attention to diction and cadence, in contrast to the minimalist understatement of his peer Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner is sometimes lauded as the inventor of the "stream-of-consciousness" technique in fiction, although this is misleading; other writers, specifically the French novelists of the nineteenth century, probably used this technique first.
Along with Mark Twain and possibly Tennessee Williams, Faulkner is considered to be one of the most important "Southern writers". Although his work came out on a regular basis from the mid-1920s until the late 1940s, he was relatively unknown before receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, but his work is now favored by the general public and critics.
Faulkner was born William Falkner (without a "u") in New Albany, Mississippi, and raised in and heavily influenced by that state, as well as by the history and culture of the South. He moved with his family at the age of four to the nearby town of Oxford, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life. Oxford is the model for the town of "Jefferson" in his fiction, and Lafayette County, which contains the town of Oxford, is the model for his fictional "Yoknapatawpha County". Faulkner's roots in North Mississippi ran deep. His great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, was an important figure in northern Mississippi who served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, founded a railroad, and gave his name to the town of Falkner in nearby Tippah County. Perhaps most importantly, he wrote several novels and other works, establishing a literary tradition in the family. More relevantly, Colonel Falkner served as the model for Colonel John Sartoris in his great-grandson's writing.
It is understandable that the older Falkner was influenced by the history of his family and the region in which they lived. Mississippi marked his sense of humor, his sense of the tragic position of blacks and whites, his keen characterization of usual Southern characters and his timeless themes, one of them being that fiercely intelligent people dwelled behind the façades of good old boys and simpletons. After being snubbed by the United States Army because of his height, Faulkner first joined the Canadian and then the Royal Air Force, yet did not see any World War I wartime action. The definitive reason for Faulkner's change in the spelling of his last name is still unknown. Some possibilities include adding an "u" to appear more British when entering the Royal Air Force, or so that his name would come across as more aristocratic. He may have also simply kept a misspelling that an early editor had made.
Although Faulkner is heavily identified with Mississippi, he was living in New Orleans in 1925 when he wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, after being influenced by Sherwood Anderson into trying fiction. The small house at 624 Pirate's Alley, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral, is now the premises of Faulkner House Books, and also serves as the headquarters of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society.
Faulkner married Estelle Oldham (19 February 1896 to 11 May 1972) in June 1929 at College Hill Presbyterian Church just outside of Oxford, Mississippi. They honeymooned on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, at Pascagoula, then returned to Oxford, first living with relatives while they searched for a home of their own to purchase. In 1930 Faulkner purchased the antebellum home Rowan Oak, known at that time as "The Bailey Place" where he and his family lived until his daughter Jill, after her mother's death, sold the property to The University of Mississippi in 1972. The house and furnishings are maintained much as they were in Faulkner's time. Still, today, one can find Faulkner's scribblings on the wall here, notably, the day-by-day outline covering an entire week that he wrote out on the walls of his small study to help him keep track of the plot twists in the dense novel A Fable.
On writing, Faulkner remarked, "Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him", in an interview with The Paris Review in 1956. Another esteemed Southern writer, Flannery O' Connor, stated that "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."
-- Flannery O'Connor, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction"
Faulkner's most celebrated novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and The Unvanquished (1938). Faulkner was a prolific writer of short stories: his first short story collection, These 13 (1932), includes many of his most acclaimed (and most frequently anthologized) stories, including "A Rose for Emily", "Red Leaves", "That Evening Sun", and "Dry September". In 1931 in an effort to make money, Faulkner crafted Sanctuary, a sensationalist "pulp fiction"-styled novel. Andre Malraux characterised "Sanctuary" as "intrusion of Greek tragedy in the pulp fiction". Its themes of evil and corruption (bearing Southern Gothic tones) resonate to this day. A sequel to the book, Requiem for a Nun, is the only play that he published, except for his "The Marionettes" which he 'self-published' as a young man. "Requiem for a Nun" includes an introduction that is actually one sentence spanning more than a page.
Faulkner was also an acclaimed writer of mysteries, publishing a collection of crime fiction, Knight's Gambit, that featured Gavin Stevens (who also appeared in Light in August, Go Down, Moses, The Town, Intruder in the Dust, and the short story "Hog Pawn"), an attorney, wise to the ways of folk living in Yoknapatawpha County. He set many of his short stories and novels in this fictional location, based on—and nearly identical to in terms of geography—Lafayette County, of which his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, is the county seat. His former home in Oxford, Rowan Oak, is operated as a museum by the University of Mississippi and recently underwent a multi-million dollar restoration to preserve the house and its furnishings. Faulkner wrote three volumes of poetry -- The Marble Faun (1924) and A Green Bough (1933), all of which were well received but which were printed in very small editions. As a result, they are among his more valuable works to collect.
Faulkner's literary accolades are numerous. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 for "his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel". Although Faulkner won two Pulitzer Prizes, they were not awarded for his most famous novels, but were both given to what are considered as Faulkner's "minor" novels. First was his 1954 novel A Fable, which took the Pulitzer in 1955, and then his 1962 novel, The Reivers, which was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer in 1963. He also won two National Book Awards, first for his Collected Stories in 1951 and once again for his novel A Fable in 1955.
Much has been made of the fact that Faulkner had a serious drinking problem throughout his life. He was not alone in this area; a list of contemporaneous American writers who struggled with alcohol would stretch to several pages. But as Faulkner himself stated on several occasions, and as was witnessed by members of his family, the press, and friends at various periods over the course of his career, he did not drink while writing, nor did he believe that alcohol helped to fuel the creative process. It is now widely believed that Faulkner used alcohol as an "escape valve" from the day-to-day pressures of his regular life, including his never-ending and maddening financial straits, rather than the more romantic vision of a brilliant writer who needed alcohol to pursue his craft. From 1949 to 1953, he conducted an affair with a young writer who considered him her mentor. The relationship with Joan Williams (1928-2004) became the subject of her third novel, called The Wintering (1971). Williams' son, Matt Bowen, wrote a dramatic adaptation of his mother's novel in 2005.
In the 1930s Faulkner moved to Hollywood to be a screenwriter (producing scripts for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, both directed by Howard Hawks). Faulkner became good friends with director Howard Hawks, as well as screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. Faulkner also befriended actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Also at that time, Faulkner started an affair with Hawks's secretary and script girl Meta Carpenter. In Hollywood, Faulkner was rather famous for drinking as well, and throughout his life was known to be an alcoholic. Faulkner's Hollywood experience is treated in fictionalized fashion in the Joel and Ethan Coen 1991 film Barton Fink. That film's supporting character, W.P. Mayhew, is intended as a composite of Faulkner and his Lost Generation peer, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
An apocryphal story regarding Faulkner during his Hollywood years found him with a case of writer's block at the studio. He told Hawks he was having a hard time concentrating and would like to write at home. Hawks was agreeable, and Faulkner left. Several days passed, with no word from the writer. Hawks telephoned Faulkner's hotel and found that Faulkner had checked out several days earlier. It seems Faulkner had been quite literal and had returned home to Mississippi to finish the screenplay.
Faulkner donated a portion of his Nobel winnings "to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers", eventually resulting in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He donated another portion to a local Oxford bank to establish an account to provide scholarship funds to help educate African-American education majors at nearby Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Faulkner served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia from 1957 until his death at Wright's Sanitorium in Byhalia, Mississippi of a heart attack at the age of 64.