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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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

In “Go Down, Moses,” published in 1942, Faulkner isolated the precise moment when a young boy, Roth Edmonds, falls under “the curse of his fathers” as he tells his black friend—a boy he played with, ate with and shared a bed with—that he must now sleep on the floor. Faulkner wrote that this betrayal stirs in Roth “a rigid fury of the grief he could not explain, the shame he would not admit.”

A journalist for Time wrote in 1964 that Faulkner’s “novels are a kind of diary of his own tormented inner struggle, an inadvertent self-portrait of a man making visible his own conflict of loyalties and good will.”

Daniel Singal, in his book, “William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist,” also saw a man who was torn between different value systems and different selves, “from the battle-scarred First World War aviator to the bona fide southern aristocrat to the bohemian writer and small-town derelict.” Ultimately, Singal writes, only “two Bills” remained: the “old-fashioned country gentleman and contemporary writer.”

One thing that most readers agreed on was Faulkner’s dedication to his work. In a rare interview with The Paris Review, Faulkner said if he were to write his novels a second time he was certain he would do it better. He explained that striving for improvement was crucial. “Once [the writer] did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.”

Faulkner repeatedly said his own opinion trumped all critics. As Malcolm Cowley put it, “Others might say that Faulkner was not so much writing stories for the public as telling  them to himself. It is what a lonely child might do, or a great writer.”
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Faulkner’s Family and Friends

Estelle Oldham divorced her first husband and married Faulkner only months later in 1929. But their marriage was far from happy: she tried to kill herself during their honeymoon. Like him, she had an alcohol problem.

The early 1930s were challenging years for Faulkner. In 1931, Estelle gave birth to a baby girl who only lived for a few days. In 1933 she gave birth to a second daughter, Jill. A year and a half later, Faulkner’s brother was killed in a flying accident.

Desperate for income, Faulkner began traveling to Hollywood to take on screenwriting projects between 1932 and 1945. While there, he was introduced to Clark Gable in a famous exchange where Faulkner chided Gable for not recognizing him as a writer. He also carried on several affairs during his marriage, including a long relationship with Meta Carpenter, an assistant to his friend, movie director Howard Hawks.

Faulkner had three brothers. One of them, John Falkner, also became a writer. Another brother joined the FBI and took part in the murder of John Dillinger, a famous bank robber, in Chicago in 1934. His third brother, Dean, an aviator, was killed in a flying accident. Faulkner took care of his brother’s widow and her daughter, adding to his financial burden.

His relationship with his father was inconstant, and according to one author, he sought out other “father-substitutes.” Doreen Fowler wrote in “Faulkner: The Return of the Repressed” that his relationships with Phil Stone and Sherwood Anderson fulfilled this need. Though both men admired and supported his work, ”Faulkner simultaneously welcomed and resented this fatherly presence.”

However, even when they weren’t speaking, he helped Stone through financial difficulties and reportedly called Anderson “the father of all my generation.”
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Faulkner’s Death and Posthumous Fame

Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, of a heart attack at Wright’s Sanitarium in Byhalia, Miss. The proud but private recluse, despised for a time by his neighbors, neglected by the general public for most of his life, was at his death “widely considered the most important American novelist of his generation and arguably of the entire 20th century,” according to Jay Watson in Mississippi History Now.

The funeral procession was likened to a scene from one of Faulkner’s novels, “Go Down, Moses.” William Styron, a novelist and disciple of Faulkner who covered Faulkner’s funeral for Life magazine, wrote that in the “monumental heat,” Faulkner would be buried “on a gentle slope, between two oak trees.”

Watson writes that according to the Modern Language Association, since Faulkner’s death, more books and essays have been written about him than any other American writer.
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Understanding Faulkner’s Work

Readers of Faulkner rely on emotional instincts to embrace and unravel the ambiguities woven into each passage.

Robert Hamblin, an expert on Faulkner’s literature, tells frustrated readers to think of themselves as members of a jury. Imagine “sitting in court listening to and sifting through … contradictory testimonies of a parade of witnesses, and knowing that finally you'll have to make up your own mind about what actually happened and who is and is not telling the truth,” Hamblin writes.

For additional resources, an overview of each book’s plot and synopsis, and commentary, consult William Faulkner on the Web. Southeast Missouri State University’s Center for Faulkner Studies also offers several critical essays for many of his novels and short stories.

The William Faulkner Foundation based at the University of Rennes, France, provides a complete list of films written by Faulkner or adapted from his work.
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Fans of Faulkner

The William Faulkner Society presents information on conferences, panel discussions and proposal requests on Faulkner, and includes information on the 36th Annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference held at the University of Mississippi.

According to Southeast Missouri State University’s Center for Faulkner Studies, “Faulkner is still very much a part of our collective memory and often acts as a point of reference in pop culture venues like movies and television shows.” Visit the site to discover the latest reported Faulkner “sightings” in pop culture.
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