By Jay Parini
William Faulkner was perhaps the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century. The first of four sons, born in 1897 to Maud and Murry Falkner, Faulkner himself added the "u" to his name when he first began to publish fiction. It was a way of setting himself apart from his father. The "u" was a kind of personal rebellion, but a small one. His mother was a wise, well-educated woman (whom he called Miss Maud) while his father, Murry, was a man who seemed to be living in the shadow of his predecessors. Faulkner's great-grandfather, his namesake, had been a legendary figure in Mississippi history, whom Faulkner would always refer to as "the Old Colonel." The Old Colonel, William Clark Falkner, was a wealthy lawyer, businessman and politician who had been shot to death in the town square of Ripley, Mississippi, not long after the Civil War. Faulkner wrote about him many times in his novels, under different guises.
William Faulkner's paternal grandfather was known as "the Young Colonel," and he was also an influential fellow, a successful businessman and politician who lived in a large house in Oxford, Mississippi, where the novelist was raised and lived until his death. Faulkner's father, Murry, was something of a failure by comparison, an alcoholic who barely managed to make ends meet; so Faulkner used his ferocious imagination—as a writer of fiction—to restore the family fortunes and earn respect in the world for the family.
Faulkner was not an avid student. He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade preferring to read and write poetry himself instead. Like many young men of his generation, Faulkner hoped for military glory. He trained as a pilot for the British R.A.F. in Canada toward the end of World War I, and though the war ended before he could have completed this training he often claimed to have flown in missions over France. He largely avoided academic institutions, although he did manage to take some courses at Ole Miss after the war. He lived for a period in New Orleans, as a bohemian, and there he traded his poetry for fiction. His first novel, Soldiers' Pay, was published in 1926. He traveled briefly in Europe in the mid-20s, but unlike Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he never found life abroad terribly appealing. Oxford, Mississippi, was home, and he returned there, for good, in the late '20s. From that point on, he left his hometown only when circumstances demanded his presence elsewhere.
Photo Credit: Left to right: Murry "Jack" Falkner, William "Bill" Falkner, John Falkner and baby brother Dean, c. 1910. Courtesy of The Brodsky Collection, Center for Faulkner Studies