Last reviewed: June 2017
American Nobel Prize–winning author.
September 25, 1897
New Albany, Mississippi
July 6, 1962
William Cuthbert Faulkner, one of the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century, was born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897. He was heir to a family whose heritage embraced the history of the South, from antebellum riches to the hard times that followed the Civil War. The most notable influence on Faulkner was his grandfather, William Clark Falkner (the novelist changed the spelling of the family name). Known as the "Old Colonel," William Clark Falkner was a towering figure whose achievements included service in the Mexican War and Civil War and authorship of a best-selling novel, The White Rose of Memphis (1881). Faulkner idolized his grandfather and considered him a true hero, a martyr; he was shot down in the street by a political enemy. He is present in the strong, independent characters in many of Faulkner’s novels.
Quiet and reserved as a youth, Faulkner was unremarkable in school and diffident in his courtship of Estelle Oldham. When World War I began, Faulkner enlisted in the Royal Air Force in Canada; he never saw action. Following the war he returned to Mississippi and briefly attended the University of Mississippi. He drifted through a series of part-time jobs and then in 1925 moved to New Orleans. There he met Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged Faulkner’s development and helped secure publication of his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, in 1926. William Faulkner, 1954
William Faulkner, 1954
The turning point in Faulkner’s career came in 1929 with the publication of The Sound and the Fury, which concentrates on the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. This became the background and source of all Faulkner’s truly important works. The novel centers on the tangled, flawed history of the Compson family, residents of Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha. In this work Faulkner’s characteristic themes and styles emerge; he displays his need to tell and retell the events of the past from the viewpoints of many different characters. Other novels followed in rapid succession, most notably As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August.
In October, 1929, Faulkner married the recently divorced Estelle Oldham Franklin; the couple settled at Rowanoaks, a mansion near Oxford, Mississippi. In order to meet his increased responsibilities Faulkner had to divide his time between his own work and writing screenplays and "commercial fiction" for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post.
Despite these difficulties Faulkner in 1936 published Absalom, Absalom!, a dense, compact mixture of various elements of Southern history, Greek myth, and biblical parable. It is Faulkner’s most profound exploration of the relationship between past and present, and it occupies a key position in his canon. Once again the actions of the central character—in this case, Thomas Sutpen—are recounted and reviewed from differing angles by several narrators, among them Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury.
Although Faulkner continued to publish novels during the late 1930s and 1940s, his major efforts were devoted to screenwriting, in order to pay off his considerable debts. As a result his literary reputation declined. Yet it revived following World War II, and in 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. A respected international figure, Faulkner toured Japan, South America, and Greece for the State Department, urging racial understanding during the growing crisis over segregation in his native South. He died in 1962 after a short illness in Mississippi.
Within the confines of Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner found the themes that engaged him and allowed the creation of his greatest works. Many of his concerns were universal, but they were embodied in the unique and distinctive characters he created. Most notable among his motifs is the relationship between blacks and whites. This is present in all of his works but most evident in The Sound and the Fury, Intruder in the Dust, and Go Down, Moses. Also important to his writing is the intricate relationship of past and present, which clearly dominates Absalom, Absalom! and is essential to The Sound and the Fury. The social and moral strains on the South as the region moved into modern times occupy a central place in his great trilogy, The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion.
As a writer Faulkner excelled in several areas, particularly the creation of character and atmosphere. His greatest gift was his unparalleled command of language, especially a powerful, cadenced rhetoric aptly suited to his themes and locations. Faulkner is a giant of American literature, and his novels have become recognized as archetypal explorations of the enduring theme Faulkner identified as "the human heart in conflict with itself."