By Jay Parini
By the time he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1950, his reputation had spread around the world. The French, in particular, loved—and still love—Faulkner. Indeed, Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, was among his earliest champions. But so have the Latin Americans adored Faulkner, and many of them (such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Mirquez , and Mario Vargas Llosa) have considered him a primary source of inspiration.
What is so special about Faulkner? For a start, he turned what he called his own little "postage stamp" of a county in Mississippi into a mythic place. He called this region Yoknapatawpha County, and all of his important works are set in that mythical kingdom, whose county seat is Jefferson, and which is bounded on the north by the Tallahatchie River and on the south by the Yoknapatawpha River. This fictional county covers roughly 2,400 square miles, and is home to the many families Faulkner writes about in the novels and stories, including the Compsons of The Sound and the Fury , the Bundrens of As I Lay Dying and Joe Christmas in Light in August . The genius of Faulkner was to create a whole universe from local materials, surveying society from the highborn to the low, creating a fictional world by increments, in book after book, so that readers can see a vision unfold in astonishing detail as they progress from story to story. Faulkner's key subject, he said in his Nobel speech, was "the human heart in conflict with itself," and that conflict animates his fiction.
In the end, William Faulkner stands alone, a master of tragic farce, a wild-eyed comedian, a storyteller of the highest order. He not only told his stories; he retold them, revising the tales of Yoknapatawpha County in book after book, as characters appear and reappear, often at different periods of their lives, in different circumstances. Faulkner is one of those writers one lives in, learns to read, and comes to love. He deserved the high praise he received from critics around the world, and his presence in American literature is permanent and inspiring.
Photo Credit: AP / Wide World Photos