William Cuthbert Faulkner (changed from the original spelling, Falkner) was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He was the first of four sons born to Maud and Murry, a prominent local businessman. The Faulkners moved to Oxford, Mississippi, when William was five; for the rest of his life, Oxford remained his primary home.
Though an avid reader, Faulkner did not like school. He quit high school and worked in his grandfather’s bank. During this time, he was devastated as a result of a broken marital engagement with Estelle Oldham, who married another man under familial pressure. In 1918 he was refused admission into the armed forces because of his size. Determined to fight in World War I, he falsified his credentials to enter the Royal Air Force in Canada, but the war ended before he completed his military training. He attended the University of Mississippi for two years as a special student, from 1919 to 1921.
After his tenure at the University of Mississippi, he worked briefly in a New York bookstore. He returned to Oxford and became postmaster at the university until 1924, when he was fired for writing and socializing while on duty. In 1924, he published his first book, a collection of poems entitled The Marble Faun.
In 1925, he lived for a few months in New Orleans. During that short time he socialized with Sherwood Anderson. It was Anderson’s wife, Elizabeth Prall, who encouraged Faulkner to abandon poetry for fiction. He subsequently left New Orleans and traveled to Paris and toured Europe, and began to write his first novel.
His first three novels, Soldiers’ Pay (1926), The Mosquitoes (1927), and Sartoris (1929) (a shortened version of Flags in the Dust, published in 1973) garnered little attention. In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham, who had recently divorced her husband. She already had two children, and the couple had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Early on, Estelle attempted suicide; unfortunately, this event signaled the beginning of an unhappy union for the couple.
In 1929 Faulkner published his most ambitious work to date, The Sound and the Fury. It garnered much critical praise but was not commercially successful. While working the night shift as a power plant stoker, he wrote and revised As I Lay Dying in under three months. Published in 1930, the novel was praised by critics but attracted little commercial attention.
For the rest of his life, Faulkner made his living as a writer of fiction and Hollywood screenplays. His most accomplished works during the 1930s and 1940s include Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Hamlet, and Go Down, Moses. In 1946 Malcolm Cowley’s editing and publication of The Portable Faulkner helped to cement Faulkner’s literary reputation and commercial viability.
Faulkner received the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature and the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Fable. During the last ten years of his life, he traveled, lectured, and became an outspoken critic of segregation. From 1957 until his death, he was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, near his daughter Jill and her children. In 1962, after years of drinking and a succession of physical problems, he died of a heart attack on July 6 in Oxford.