Faulkner’s Writing and His Impact

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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 ... read more »

Faulkner’s Writing and His Impact

In New Orleans, Faulkner met Sherwood Anderson, a writer who would become his friend and mentor. He also became friends with John McClure, a journalist who helped edit The Double Dealer, a literary magazine. Faulkner had already published a poem in The Double Dealer, where Ernest Hemingway, who some consider a rival, was also published. With McClure’s help, Faulkner had short stories and sketches published in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. In 1924, Stone paid a publisher to print Faulkner ‘s first book, a poetry collection called “The Marble Faun.”

He published two other novels, which were “well-received” according to PBS. Then in 1929, “Sartoris,” Faulkner’s “third apprentice book” was published. This novel was the seed for his multi-generational chronicles of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The name was taken from the Chickasaw word for a river, in his own Oxford County. In a later work, “Absalom, Absalom!” Faulkner christened himself “sole owner and proprietor.”

Faulkner continued to write about other fictitious families, including the Snopes, Bundrens, Sutpens, McCaslins and Compsons.

Later that year, he published “The Sound and the Fury,” an experimental novel that follows the destruction of the Compson family. Biographer Judith Sensibar, quoted in The Boston Globe, called it “a memorial and a love letter to Estelle,” who inspired the novel’s central character, Caddy.

The novel’s first scene, which shows Caddy peering in at her grandfather’s funeral from her perch in a tree, was, as Faulkner put it, “the only thing in literature which would ever move me very much.” According to The Paris Review, Faulkner rewrote the book five times.

A writer for Salon, Steve King, said, Faulkner’s first reviewers likened his work to Dostoevsky and Euripides. According to the University of Michigan Special Collections Library Web site, critic Winfield T. Scott, however, said “The Sound and the Fury” was “‘tiresome,’ full of ‘sound and fury—signifying nothing.’” For the first 15 years after the book’s publication, it sold only around 3,000 copies.

Still Faulkner persevered. In the early 1930s and 1940s he made nearly a dozen trips to Hollywood to work as a studio scriptwriter, reports the book “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.” This “assignment writing” demanded little creative input and the income allowed him to continue work on his own novels.

In 2004, Faith Lapidus said that between 1929 and 1936, Faulkner “re-invent[ed] the novel,” Voice of America reported. “After Faulkner, few northerners were brave enough to write about a South they did not know,” Lapidus said. “And no serious Southern writer was willing to describe a South that did not exist.”

“The Sound and the Fury” may have been Faulkner’s favorite, but most critics believe his best work and perhaps the best American novel is “Absalom, Absalom!” Published in 1936, it tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, a Southerner who marries one woman in Haiti and another woman back in the South. He then swindles an estate from the Native Americans.

A reviewer for the Macon Telegraph wrote, “Essentially this is the familiar tale of the rise and fall of a Southern planter. Yet Mr. Faulkner has invested it with a freshness and new beauty by his heady style … no less than by his keen insight into human motives.”

According to Time magazine in 1964, Faulkner’s work forced Southerners to reflect on their fear of miscegenation, fixation on the past and their resistance to change. In contrast, Northerners were portrayed as out-of-touch or worse: as hypocrites.

Recognition for Faulkner came slowly. During the Great Depression, he continued to rely on screenplays and short stories, selling some for $1,000 and others for as little as $25, according to “The Cambridge Introduction to William Faulkner.” In 1939, he was accepted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters but by 1944, most of his work was out of print. 

In 1946, Malcolm Cowley, a book critic and admirer of Faulkner, published “The Portable Faulkner.” He had planned to brand Faulkner as a war hero, having read about his adventures in WWI, but Faulkner persuaded him against it. Because of Cowley, several of Faulkner’s works returned to print.

In 1949, Faulkner went from a middling writer admired in some circles to an international sensation when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, Faulkner addressed struggling artists. “The Cambridge Introduction to William Faulkner” quotes him as saying, “I believe that man will not only endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

In 1957 and 1958, Faulkner spent two terms as the University of Virginia's first Writer-in-Residence. Listen to audio recordings of the sessions online.
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Faulkner’s Inspiration

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Faulkner’s Family and Friends

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Faulkner’s Death and Posthumous Fame

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Understanding Faulkner’s Work

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Fans of Faulkner

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