Faulkner, William (1897-1962), American novelist, known for his epic portrayal, in some 20 novels, of the tragic conflict between the old and the new South. Although Faulkner’s intricate plots and complex narrative style alienated many readers of his early writings, he was a literary genius whose powerful works and creative vision earned him the 1949 Nobel Prize in literature.
Faulkner was a towering figure in American literature during the first half of the 20th century. With Ernest Hemingway, he is usually considered one of the two greatest American novelists of his era. Faulkner was particularly noted for the eloquent richness of his prose style and for the unique blend of tragedy and humor in his works. His novels have a stunning emotional impact and his characters are highly memorable. The dramatic force and vividness of Faulkner’s best work is unsurpassed in modern fiction.
Using the decay and corruption of the South after the American Civil War (1861-1865) as a background, Faulkner portrayed the tragedy that occurs when the traditional values of a society disintegrate. Some of his chief concerns were the nature of evil and guilt and the relationship between the past and the present. Despite his preoccupation with depravity and violence, however, Faulkner also wrote of people’s capacity to perform acts of nobility and goodness.
William Cuthbert Falkner was a Southerner by tradition, birth, and choice. His family had lived in Mississippi since before the Civil War, and he spent most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, a few miles from his birthplace. Falkner showed early signs of wanting to be a writer but his education was irregular after the fifth grade, and although he attended high school for a period and later took courses at the University of Mississippi, he never earned a degree. Toward the end of World War I (1914-1918), Falkner wanted to join the military in the tradition of his great-grandfather, a colonel in the Confederate Army, but was rejected by the United States Army because he was too short. Undeterred, he added a “u” to the spelling of his last name and passed himself off as English in order to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in Toronto. The war soon ended, however, and he returned to Oxford.
Faulkner took a series of jobs during the early 1920s, including a stint as the postmaster of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, a position from which he was fired in 1924. The same year a friend helped him publish his first book, a volume of poetry called The Marbled Faun. During 1925 he lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he became a friend of the American novelist Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged him to write fiction. Anderson helped Faulkner find a publisher for his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay (1926), about a wounded soldier’s homecoming in a small Southern town. The book received positive reviews and Faulkner had found his life’s work, although financial hardship forced him to continue to take menial jobs for several years thereafter. In 1929 Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham.
Faulkner’s many novels include Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), Intruder in the Dust (1948), A Fable (1954; Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, 1955), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962; Pulitzer Prize, 1963). In awarding him the 1949 Nobel Prize in literature, only the fourth such prize won by an American writer, the committee cited Faulkner’s “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” He also wrote numerous short stories, many of the best of which were published in book form in Go Down, Moses (1942) and The Collected Stories (1950; Pulitzer Prize, 1951). In-between his fiction works, which until late in his career did not always pay well, Faulkner wrote screenplays for Hollywood; two of his more prominent scripts were for the motion pictures To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), both directed by Howard Hawks.
Faulkner often described himself as “just a farmer who likes to tell stories.” His style, however, was that of a consummately skilled craftsman. His luxuriant prose style and complicated plot structure make some of his works difficult to read. Despite the intricacy of his technique, Faulkner was a wonderful storyteller, and his comic sense matched his understanding of the tragic. The language of his characters is based on popular Southern speech, and can be foul, funny, brilliantly metaphorical, savage, evil, and exciting. Although he wrote almost exclusively about the South he was not a regional novelist, instead examining universal themes of concern to all humanity. Particularly in his later works, Faulkner stressed man’s power to prevail over evil and decay and to find new values when the traditional ones have failed.
In the novel Sartoris Faulkner introduced a fictional territory in Mississippi called Yoknapatawpha County, which was closely modeled on the author’s own county of Lafayette. This legendary region became the setting for most of his later works, to the point where he even created a map of it for inclusion with his books on which he listed himself as the region’s “sole owner and proprietor.” The county’s inhabitants are drawn from every level of Southern society, ranging from the Sartoris family, symbols of the once-powerful landed aristocracy, to the Snopes family, unprincipled lower-class exploiters of the South. These two families and other characters appear again and again in Faulkner’s works.
In The Sound and the Fury, often regarded as Faulkner’s finest novel, he portrayed the decline of another aristocratic family, the Compsons. The emotional intensity of this novel is heightened by the technique of allowing the main characters to tell the story in internal monologues that reflect their own disordered—and sometimes even insane—point of view. Another of Faulkner’s important early novels is As I Lay Dying, about a poor family fulfilling a mother’s last wish to be buried in the family plot, which leads the family members on a difficult journey.
After writing a novel that he later claimed was designed strictly to generate financial return (Sanctuary, 1931), Faulkner resumed his literary efforts. In 1936 he published Absalom, Absalom!, one of his most powerful novels. The book is the story of the Sutpen family and its patriarch, Thomas Sutpen, who forged a plantation out of the Mississippi wilderness in the mid-19th century. A few years after this novel came The Hamlet (1940), the first in a trilogy of humorous novels about the Snopes family. The other two books in the trilogy are The Town and The Mansion.
Among Faulkner’s most remarkable short stories is “A Rose for Emily” (1931), which contains elements of the author’s common theme of the decline of the old South. Go Down, Moses, a volume of stories about the McCaslin family, includes the author’s well-known novella “The Bear.” Another story that would later be anthologized as a Faulkner classic is “That Evening Sun” (1931), which also features the Compson family.
Faulkner’s works demanded much of his readers. To create a mood, he might let one of his complex sentences run on for more than a page. He juggled time, spliced narratives, experimented with multiple narrators, and interrupted simple stories with rambling, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies. Although hailed as a genius, Faulkner acquired a reputation as a difficult author to read. American critic Malcolm Cowley, concerned that the writer was insufficiently known and appreciated, put together The Portable Faulkner (1946). This book arranged excerpts from Faulkner’s novels into a chronological sequence that gave the entire Yoknapatawpha saga a new clarity. The collection made Faulkner’s work accessible to a new generation of readers.
For the last few years of his life, Faulkner was a writer in residence and lecturer in American literature at the University of Virginia. However, he continued to spend much of his time at his home in Oxford. In 1962 he was awarded the gold medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His last novel, The Reivers, was published shortly before his death the same year. Selected Letters of William Faulkner, edited by Joseph Blotner, was issued in 1977.