Authors: William Faulkner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American Nobel Prize–winning author.

September 25, 1897

New Albany, Mississippi

July 6, 1962

Byhalia, Mississippi

Biography

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

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Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Faulkner

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Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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."

Author Works Long Fiction: Soldiers’ Pay, 1926 Mosquitoes, 1927 Sartoris, 1929 The Sound and the Fury, 1929 As I Lay Dying, 1930 Sanctuary, 1931 Light in August, 1932 Pylon, 1935 Absalom, Absalom!, 1936 The Unvanquished, 1938 The Wild Palms, 1939 The Hamlet, 1940 Go Down, Moses, 1942 Intruder in the Dust, 1948 Requiem for a Nun, 1951 A Fable, 1954 The Town, 1957 The Mansion, 1959 The Reivers, 1962 The Wishing Tree, 1964 (fairy tale) Flags in the Dust, 1973 (original version of Sartoris) Mayday, 1976 (fable) Short Fiction: These Thirteen, 1931 Idyll in the Desert, 1931 Doctor Martino, and Other Stories, 1934 The Portable Faulkner, 1946, 1967 Knight’s Gambit, 1949 Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner, 1950 Big Woods, 1955 New Orleans Sketches, 1958 Three Famous Short Novels, 1958 Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner, 1979 Screenplays: Today We Live, 1933 The Road to Glory, 1936 (with Joel Sayre) Banjo on My Knee, 1936 (uncredited, with Nunnally Johnson) Slave Ship, 1937 (with Sam Hellman, Lamar Trotti, and Gladys Lehman) Gunga Din, 1939 (uncredited, with Joel Sayre, Fred Guiol, and Ben Hecht) The Southerner, 1945 (uncredited, with Jean Renoir) To Have and Have Not, 1945 (with Jules Furthman) The Big Sleep, 1946 (with Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) Land of the Pharaohs, 1955 (with Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom) Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays, 1982 Poetry: Vision in Spring, 1921 The Marble Faun, 1924 This Earth, a Poem, 1932 A Green Bough, 1933 Nonfiction: Faulkner in the University, 1959 Faulkner at West Point, 1964 Essays, Speeches and Public Letters, 1965 The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944–1962, 1966 (Malcolm Cowley, editor) Lion in the Garden, 1968 Selected Letters, 1977 Miscellaneous: The Faulkner Reader, 1954 William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry, 1962 Bibliography Bleikasten, Andre. The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from "The Sound and the Fury" to "Light in August." Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Concentrating on four of William Faulkner’s finest novels, Bleikasten offers a wide-ranging study of the writer and the limits of authorship. Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 1964. Reprint. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005. This extensive but readable biography is the major source for details about Faulkner’s life. It contains many photographs and a useful index. Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. This venerable classic of Faulkner criticism is one of the best introductions, treating Faulkner’s characteristic themes, historical and social background, and offering detailed readings of the major novels and stories. Broughton, Panthea. William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974. Of several fine critical studies that attempt to see Faulkner whole and understand his worldview, this is one of the best, especially for readers just beginning to know Faulkner. Broughton sees the tension between the ideal and the actual as central to understanding the internal and external conflicts about which Faulkner most often writes. Carothers, James. William Faulkner’s Short Stories. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985. This study gives special attention to interrelations among the short stories and between the stories and the novels. Carothers offers balanced and careful readings of the stories and a useful bibliography. Fargnoli, A. Nicholas, and Michael Golay. William Faulkner A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2001. A comprehensive reference source for both biographical and literary information and context. Ferguson, James. Faulkner’s Short Fiction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. An attempt to redress the critical neglect of Faulkner’s short fiction. Discusses Faulkner’s poetic and narrative impulses, his themes of loss of innocence, failure to love, loneliness, and isolation; comments on his manipulation of time and point of view and how his stories relate to his novels. Ford, Marilyn Claire. "Narrative Legerdemain: Evoking Sarty’s Future in ‘Barn Burning.’" The Mississippi Quarterly 51 (Summer, 1998): 527-540. In this special issue on Faulkner, Ford argues that Faulkner experiments with the doubling of perspective in "Barn Burning" in which the omniscient narrator fuses with the protagonist to create a story with multiple narrative layers. Gray, Richard. The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1994. A noted Faulkner scholar, Gray closely integrates the life and work. Part 1 suggests a method of approaching Faulkner’s life; part 2 concentrates on his apprentice years; part 3 explains his discovery of Yoknapatawpha and the transformation of his region into his fiction; part 4 deals with his treatment of past and present; part 5 addresses his exploration of place; and part 6 analyzes his final novels, reflecting on his creation of Yoknapatawpha. Includes family trees, chronology, notes, and a bibliography. Hobson, Fred, ed. William Faulkner’s "Absalom, Absalom!": A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Extensive treatment of Faulkner’s greatest novel, including his use of history, family, race, and other essential southern themes. Hoffman, Frederick, and Olga W. Vickery, eds. William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960. Contains the important The Paris Review interview of 1956, the Nobel Prize address, and twenty-two essays, many of them seminal, on Faulkner’s work and life. Inge, M. Thomas. William Faulkner. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2006. Part of an illustrated series, this volume examines the life and works of Faulkner. Jones, Diane Brown. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of William Faulkner. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Discusses more than thirty of Faulkner’s stories in terms of publishing history, circumstances of composition, sources/influence, and relationship to other Faulkner works; includes interpretations of the stories and summarizes and critiques previous criticism. McHaney, Thomas. William Faulkner: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976. This guide provides an admirably complete annotated listing of writing about Faulkner through 1973. Because Faulkner is a world-class author, a tremendous amount has been written since 1973. A good source of information about later writing is American Literary Scholarship: An Annual. Marius, Richard. Reading Faulkner: Introductions to the First Thirteen Novels. Compiled and edited by Nancy Grisham Anderson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. Compilation of lectures originally delivered in a course on Faulkner. Includes separate lectures devoted to Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! Bibliographic references and index. Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Shorter and less detailed than Joseph Blotner’s biography, this volume gives more attention to exploring connections between Faulkner’s life and his works. The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Summer, 1997). A special issue on Faulkner, including articles that discuss displaced meaning, dispossessed sons, the wilderness and consciousness, and subjectivity in Go Down, Moses. Porter, Carolyn. William Faulkner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Part of Oxford’s Lives and Legacies series, this work examines the life of Faulkner and his major works. Rampton, David. William Faulkner: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. This work divides Faulkner’s writings into three eras and discusses how his life impacted his writing, including his use of language and characterization. The book does a good job of showing how his writing evolved throughout his career. Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997. A study of the thought and art of Faulkner, charting the development of his ideas from their source in his reading to their embodiment in his writing. Depicts two Faulkners: the country gentleman and the intellectual man of letters. Wagner-Martin, Linda. New Essays on "Go Down, Moses." Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. After an introduction that summarizes contemporary reception and critical analysis of Go Down, Moses, Wagner-Martin collects essays that approach the work from the perspective of race, environment, gender, and ideology. Weinstein, Philip. Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner. Oxford: Oxford University, 2009. This book offers close analysis of Faulkner’s texts while providing a portrait of him that reveals his struggles with family, lovers, racial conflict, and literary success. His life and work are shown to be fused in a way that allows readers to better understand his writing. Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A distinguished historian divides his book into sections on Faulkner’s ancestry, his biography, and his writing. Includes notes and genealogy.

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