Faulkner’s Early Life

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Great Authors: William Faulkner

William Faulkner, revered modernist writer, historian and sociologist, is known for capturing the raw beauty of the rural South in all its dark complexity. While his sprawling verse and habit of knotting together past, present and future has overwhelmed some critics, others have responded to the demands of his writing.

Faulkner’s Early Life

William Cuthbert Falkner (he later added the “u”) was the oldest of four boys born in New Albany, Miss., to Murry and Maud Butler Falkner on Sept. 25, 1897. He was named after his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, who was killed in a duel. After his grandfather sold the railroad where his father worked, Falkner’s family moved to Oxford, Miss. Murry, well respected but a “mean drunk,” according to The Boston Globe, failed at several ventures before establishing a livery stable.

As a child, Billy loved to read, and began writing his own poems and short stories in the fourth grade. Oxford was a town teeming with storytellers, including his grandmother, farmers idling outside the town store and men discussing cases outside the courthouse. Callie Barr, his family’s black nurse and a former slave, also told him stories. Barr would one day help raise Faulkner’s own daughter.

In high school, he took no interest in academics but enjoyed playing football and reading. Around this time he met Phil Stone, a lawyer and poet who was four years older than Faulkner. Stone introduced him to the work of John Keats, Sherwood Anderson and the Imagist poets.

Faulkner quit school in 11th grade. He tried to enlist in the United States Army but was refused because he didn’t meet height requirements. He spent his time courting Estelle Oldham, who was engaged but talked about eloping with him instead. In 1918, persuaded by her parents, Oldham married Cornell Franklin, a law student. Distraught, Faulkner went to Connecticut to live with his old friend Stone.

In Connecticut, Faulkner worked at an arms factory and then managed to join the Royal Air Force in Canada. On his RAF application, he lied about his birthplace and pretended to be British. Faulkner started training in Toronto, but World War I ended before he had the chance to make use of his training.

Although he never saw combat, PBS reports that Faulkner “made up tales portraying himself as a war hero with harrowing experiences of battle and valor.” He loved to tell stories about his supposed adventures, asking one friend, “Did you ever try to drink a bottle of whiskey when you were sitting upside down in the top of a hangar?”

In December 1918, Faulkner returned to Oxford and was admitted to the University of Mississippi through a special program for war veterans. He wrote short stories and poems for the school newspaper, and helped start a drama club on campus. After three semesters, he dropped out of Ole Miss in 1920.

Aside from short stays in Europe, in New York City’s Greenwich Village and in New Orleans, he never stayed away from Oxford for long.

Faulkner returned to the University of Mississippi in 1921 to accept a job as postmaster. To say he was ill-suited for the job was an understatement. In a 1989 New York Times article, author Eudora Welty recalled hollering and pounding at the window for his attention. “[A]nd at last here he is. William Faulkner. We interrupted him …  [H]e was out of sight in the back writing lyric poems.” After three years on the job, Faulkner was forced to resign.
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