The oldest of four sons of Murry Cuthbert Falkner and Maud Butler Falkner, William Cuthbert Falkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. (He changed the spelling of his name in 1918.) When he was five years old, his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner would spend much of his life. Faulkner’s ancestors came to America from Scotland during the eighteenth century. William Clark Falkner, his great-grandfather, was a source of inspiration for the young Faulkner. William Clark had been a colonel in the Civil War, built railroads, and had also written a popular romance in 1881 called The White Rose of Memphis. He was murdered on the street by a business partner, and Faulkner re-created this event several times in his fiction. Faulkner also used his great-grandfather as the model for his fictional character Colonel John Sartoris in his 1929 novel Sartoris.
Faulkner did not complete his last year of high school, nor did he complete a college education, although he was admitted to the University of Mississippi as a special student. He served briefly in the Canadian branch of the Royal Air Force during World War I after being rejected by the United States Army because he did not meet the weight and height requirements. The war ended before he could participate in any action, however. After the war he worked in various clerical and building jobs until he could establish himself as a full-time writer.
Faulkner’s writing career began with poems, some of which were published. A play he wrote was performed in 1921, and his first book of poems was published in 1924. In 1925 he met Sherwood Anderson, best known as the author of Winesburg, Ohio, who influenced him to become a fiction writer. (The pieces he wrote during the period he spent with Anderson in New Orleans were collected in 1958 under the title of New Orleans Sketches.) Following the trend of other American writers, Faulkner made a six-month tour of Europe in 1925. On his return to the United States, he began writing seriously. He produced his first novel in 1926 and his second in 1927. His third, Sartoris, in which he introduced the fictional Yoknapatawpha county, was published in 1929. That year also saw the appearance of The Sound and the Fury, the work which first gained him critical notice. In 1929 he also married his high-school sweetheart, Lida Estelle Oldham Franklin. They had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy. He also helped raise two stepchildren.
Except for brief periods during the early 1930s and early 1940s, when Faulkner went to Hollywood as a screenwriter and produced scripts for such films as To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, he spent most of his time in Oxford, Mississippi, writing stories and novels. In 1949, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature and in 1955 he received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable, a story of France during World War I. Already suffering from failing health, Faulkner suffered a number of injuries caused by falls from horses. After being admitted to the hospital for one such injury, he died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962. Faulkner produced a sizable body of work that includes a number of critically acclaimed masterpieces.