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
He married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle, in 1929 after she divorced her first husband. Not long after, he bought a run-down mansion in Oxford and named it Rowan Oak . There he raised one daughter, Jill, and remained until his death in 1962. To this day, the house is a monument to Faulkner, and it attracts thousands of tourists each year.
Between 1928 and 1962, Faulkner wrote an amazing number of novels and stories. He also skipped off to Hollywood for brief stretches to earn money by writing screenplays. He hated Hollywood, which he considered artificial, yet he befriended many famous actors of the day, including Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Faulkner eventually wrote all or part of many screenplays, and some of them—To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep—were quite remarkable, although his work in the film industry never compared to his work as a novelist.
Faulkner experienced what he called "one matchless time" between 1928 and 1942, a period of immense creative power and productivity. During those years, he wrote a sequence of intensely vivid novels and stories that have remained at the center of American literature. In addition to such stories as "A Rose for Emily," "Barn Burning," and "The Bear," he wrote Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury , As I Lay Dying , Sanctuary, Light in August , Absalom, Absalom!, The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee Jerusalem,] Go Down, Moses and The Hamlet. Few writers in the history of world literature have managed such a streak of masterworks in such a short space.
Faulkner drank heavily from a fairly early age, and this sad fact cannot be avoided when looking into his life. Indeed, he spent many periods tucked away in various alcoholic clinics, recovering from binges that left him helplessly ill. This excessive drinking took its toll, and his later work—the novels largely produced in the late 1940s and 1950s—does not measure up to the writing he produced during his heyday. Nevertheless, nothing he wrote is without interest and a certain power. Even his nostalgic last novel, The Reivers, offers an entertaining and memorable portrait of the writer's boyhood in Mississippi.
Photo Credit: William Faulkner at the Studio club in Hollywood, c. 1936. Courtesy of The Brodsky Collection Center for Faulkner Studies
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.