William Cuthbert Faulkner (; September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, a play, poetry, essays, and screenplays. He is primarily known for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he spent most of his life.
Faulkner is one of the most celebrated writers in American literature generally and Southern literature specifically. Though his work was published as early as 1919, and largely during the 1920s and 1930s, Faulkner was not widely known until receiving the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, for which he became the only Mississippi-born Nobel winner. Two of his works, A Fable (1954) and his last novel The Reivers (1962), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; also on the list were As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932). Absalom, Absalom! (1936) appears on similar lists. His first published story, “A Rose for Emily“, is one of the most famous an American has written.
Life and career
Born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi, William Faulkner was the first of four sons of Murry Cuthbert Falkner (August 17, 1870 – August 7, 1932) and Maud Butler (November 27, 1871 – October 16, 1960). He had three younger brothers: Murry Charles “Jack” Falkner (June 26, 1899 – December 24, 1975), author John Faulkner (September 24, 1901 – March 28, 1963), and Dean Swift Falkner (August 15, 1907 – November 10, 1935).
Soon after his first birthday, his family moved to Ripley, Mississippi, where his father Murry worked as the treasurer for the family-owned Gulf & Chicago Railroad Company. Murry hoped to inherit the railroad from his father, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, but John had little confidence in Murry’s ability to run a business and sold it for $75,000. Following the sale of the railroad business, Murry proposed a plan to get a new start for his family by moving to Texas and becoming a rancher. Maud disagreed with this proposition, however, and they moved instead to Oxford, Mississippi, where Murry’s father owned several businesses, making it easy for Murry to find work. Thus, four days prior to William’s fifth birthday, the Falkner family settled in Oxford, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life.
His family, particularly his mother Maud, his maternal grandmother Lelia Butler, and Caroline “Callie” Barr (the black nanny who raised him from infancy) crucially influenced the development of Faulkner’s artistic imagination. Both his mother and grandmother were avid readers as well as painters and photographers, educating him in visual language. While Murry enjoyed the outdoors and encouraged his sons to hunt, track, and fish, Maud valued education and took pleasure in reading and going to church. She taught her sons to read before sending them to public school and exposed them to classics such as Charles Dickens and Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
Faulkner’s lifelong education by Callie Barr is central to his novels’ preoccupations with the politics of sexuality and race.
As a schoolchild, Faulkner had success early on. He excelled in the first grade, skipped the second, and did well through the third and fourth grades. However, beginning somewhere in the fourth and fifth grades of his schooling, Faulkner became a much quieter and more withdrawn child. He began to play hooky occasionally and became somewhat indifferent to his schoolwork, instead taking interest in studying the history of Mississippi on his own time beginning in the seventh grade. The decline of his performance in school continued, and Faulkner wound up repeating the eleventh and twelfth grade, never graduating from high school.
Faulkner spent his boyhood listening to stories told to him by his elders including those of the Civil War, slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Falkner family. Faulkner’s grandfather would also tell him of the exploits of William’s great-grandfather and namesake, William Clark Falkner, who was a successful businessman, writer, and Civil War hero. Telling stories about “Old Colonel”, as his family called him, had already become something of a family pastime when Faulkner was a boy. According to one of Faulkner’s biographers, by the time William was born, his great-grandfather had “been enshrined long since as a household deity.”
When he was 17, Faulkner met Philip Stone, who became an important early influence on his writing. Stone was four years his senior and came from one of Oxford’s older families; he was passionate about literature and had already earned bachelor’s degrees from Yale and the University of Mississippi. Faulkner also attended the latter, joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and pursued his dream to become a writer. Stone read and was impressed by some of Faulkner’s early poetry, becoming one of the first to recognize and encourage Faulkner’s talent. Stone mentored the young Faulkner, introducing him to the works of writers such as James Joyce, who influenced Faulkner’s own writing. In his early 20s, Faulkner gave poems and short stories he had written to Stone in hopes of their being published. Stone would in turn send these to publishers, but they were uniformly rejected.
The younger Faulkner was greatly influenced by the history of his family and the region in which he lived. Mississippi marked his sense of humor, his sense of the tragic position of “black and white” Americans, his characterization of Southern characters, and his timeless themes, including fiercely intelligent people dwelling behind the faades of good ol’ boys and simpletons. Unable to join the United States Army due to his height (he was 5′ 5″), Faulkner enlisted in a reservist unit of the British Army in Toronto. Despite his claims, records indicate that Faulkner was never actually a member of the British Royal Flying Corps and never saw service during the First World War.
In 1918, Faulkner’s surname went from “Falkner” to Faulkner. According to one story, a careless typesetter simply made an error. When the misprint appeared on the title page of his first book, Faulkner was asked whether he wanted the change. He supposedly replied, “Either way suits me.”
In adolescence, Faulkner began writing poetry almost exclusively. He did not write his first novel until 1925. His literary influences are deep and wide. He once stated that he modeled his early writing on the Romantic era in late 18th- and early 19th-century England. He attended the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) in Oxford, enrolling in 1919, going three semesters before dropping out in November 1920.
William was able to attend classes at the university because his father had a job there as a business manager. He skipped classes often and received a “D” grade in English. However, some of his poems were published in campus publications.
Although Faulkner is identified with Mississippi, he was residing in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1925 when he wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay. After being directly influenced by Sherwood Anderson, he made his first attempt at fiction writing. Anderson assisted in the publication of Soldiers’ Pay and Mosquitoes, Faulkner’s second novel, set in New Orleans, by recommending them to his publisher.
The miniature house at 624 Pirate’s Alley, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, is now the site of Faulkner House Books, where it also serves as the headquarters of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society.
During the summer of 1927, Faulkner wrote his first novel set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, titled Flags in the Dust. This novel drew heavily on the traditions and history of the South, in which Faulkner had been engrossed in his youth. He was extremely proud of the novel upon its completion and he believed it to be a significant step up from his previous two novels. However, when submitted for publication, it was rejected by the publishers Boni & Liveright. Faulkner was devastated by this rejection, but he eventually allowed his literary agent, Ben Wasson, to significantly edit the text, and the novel was published in 1929 as Sartoris. (The original version was issued as Flags in the Dust in 1973.)
In the autumn of 1928, just after his 31st birthday, he began working on The Sound and the Fury. He started by writing three short stories about a group of children with the last name Compson, but soon began to feel that the characters he had created might be better suited for a full-length novel. Perhaps as a result of disappointment in the initial rejection of Flags in the Dust, Faulkner had now become indifferent to his publishers and wrote this novel in a much more experimental style. In describing the writing process for this work, Faulkner would later say, “One day I seemed to shut the door between me and all publisher’s addresses and book lists. I said to myself, ‘Now I can write.'” After its completion, Faulkner insisted that Ben Wasson not do any editing or add any punctuation for clarity.
In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham, Andrew Kuhn serving as best man at the wedding. Estelle brought with her two children from her previous marriage to Cornell Franklin and Faulkner hoped to support his new family as a writer. He began writing As I Lay Dying in 1929 while working night shifts at the University of Mississippi Power House. The novel would be published in 1930. Beginning in 1930, Faulkner sent out some of his short stories to various national magazines. Several of his stories were published, which brought him enough income to buy a house in Oxford for his family to inhabit, which he named Rowan Oak. He made money on his 1931 novel, Sanctuary, which was widely reviewed and read (but widely disliked for its perceived criticism of the South).
By 1932, Faulkner was in need of money. He asked Wasson to sell the serialization rights for his newly completed novel, Light in August, to a magazine for $5,000, but none accepted the offer. Then MGM Studios offered Faulkner work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Although not an avid moviegoer, he needed the money, and so accepted the job offer and arrived in Culver City, California, in May 1932. There he worked with director Howard Hawks, with whom he quickly developed a friendship, as they both enjoyed drinking and hunting. Howard Hawks’ brother, William Hawks, became Faulkner’s Hollywood agent. Faulkner would continue to find reliable work as a screenwriter from the 1930s to the 1950s.
As a teenager in Oxford, Faulkner dated Estelle Oldham (1897-1972), the popular daughter of Major Lemuel and Lida Oldham, and believed he would some day marry her. However, Estelle dated other boys during their romance, and in 1918 one of them, Cornell Franklin, proposed marriage to her before Faulkner did. Estelle’s parents insisted she marry Cornell, as he was an Ole Miss law graduate, had recently been commissioned as a major in the Hawaiian Territorial Forces, and came from a respectable family with which they were old friends. Estelle’s marriage to Franklin fell apart ten years later, and they divorced in April 1929.
Two months later, Faulkner and Estelle wed in June 1929 at College Hill Presbyterian Church just outside Oxford, Mississippi. They honeymooned on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at Pascagoula, then returned to Oxford, first living with relatives while they searched for a home of their own to purchase. In 1930, Faulkner purchased the antebellum home Rowan Oak, known at that time as The Shegog Place from Irish planter Robert Shegog. After his death, Estelle and their daughter, Jill, lived at Rowan Oak until Estelle’s death in 1972. The property was sold to the University of Mississippi that same year. The house and furnishings are maintained much as they were in Faulkner’s day. Faulkner’s scribblings are preserved on the wall, including the day-by-day outline covering a week he wrote on the walls of his small study to help him keep track of the plot twists in his novel, A Fable.
The quality and quantity of Faulkner’s literary output were achieved despite a lifelong drinking problem. He rarely drank while writing, preferring instead to binge after a project’s completion.
Faulkner had several extramarital affairs. One was with Howard Hawks‘s secretary and script girl, Meta Carpenter, later known as Meta Wilde. The affair was chronicled in her book A Loving Gentleman. Another, from 1949-53, was with a young writer, Joan Williams, who made her relationship with Faulkner the subject of her 1971 novel, The Wintering.
When Faulkner visited Stockholm in December 1950 to receive the Nobel Prize, he met Else Jonsson (1912-1996), widow of journalist Thorsten Jonsson (1910-1950), reporter for Dagens Nyheter in New York from 1943-46, who had interviewed Faulkner in 1946 and introduced his works to Swedish readers. Faulkner and Else had an affair that lasted until the end of 1953. At the banquet where they met in 1950, publisher Tor Bonnier introduced Else as the widow of the man responsible for Faulkner’s winning the prize.
On June 17, 1962, Faulkner suffered a serious injury in a fall from his horse, which led to thrombosis. He suffered a fatal heart attack on July 6, 1962, at the age of 64 at Wright’s Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi. Faulkner is buried with his family in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, alongside the grave of an unidentified family friend, whose stone is marked only with the initials “E.T.”
From the early 1920s to the outbreak of World War II, Faulkner published 13 novels and many short stories. Such a body of work formed the basis of his reputation and earned him the Nobel Prize at age 52. Faulkner’s prodigious output includes his most celebrated novels such as The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner was also a prolific writer of short stories.
His first short story collection, These 13 (1931), includes many of his most acclaimed (and most frequently anthologized) stories, including “A Rose for Emily“, “Red Leaves“, “That Evening Sun“, and “Dry September“. Faulkner set many of his short stories and novels in Yoknapatawpha County based on, and nearly geographically identical to, Lafayette County, of which his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, is the county seat. Yoknapatawpha was Faulkner’s “postage stamp”, and the bulk of work that it represents is widely considered by critics to amount to one of the most monumental fictional creations in the history of literature. Three of his novels, The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion, known collectively as the Snopes Trilogy, document the town of Jefferson and its environs, as an extended family headed by Flem Snopes insinuates itself into the lives and psyches of the general populace.
His short story “A Rose for Emily” was his first story published in a major magazine, the Forum, but received little attention from the public. After revisions and reissues, it gained popularity and is now considered one of his best.
Faulkner was known for his experimental style with meticulous attention to diction and cadence. In contrast to the minimalist understatement of his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner made frequent use of “stream of consciousness” in his writing, and wrote often highly emotional, subtle, cerebral, complex, and sometimes Gothic or grotesque stories of a wide variety of characters including former slaves or descendants of slaves, poor white, agrarian, or working-class Southerners, and Southern aristocrats.
In an interview with The Paris Review in 1956, Faulkner remarked:
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.
Another esteemed Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, stated that “the presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down”.
Faulkner wrote two volumes of poetry which were published in small printings, The Marble Faun (1924), and A Green Bough (1933), and a collection of mystery stories, Knight’s Gambit (1949).
Faulkner’s work has been examined by many critics from a wide variety of critical perspectives.
The New Critics became very interested in Faulkner’s work, with Cleanth Brooks writing The Yoknapatawpha Country and Michael Millgate writing The Achievement of William Faulkner. Since then, critics have looked at Faulkner’s work using other approaches, such as feminist and psychoanalytic methods. Faulkner’s works have been placed within the literary traditions of modernism and the Southern Renaissance.
According to critic and translator Valerie Miles, Faulkner’s influence on Latin American fiction is considerable, with fictional worlds created by Gabriel Garca Mrquez (Macondo) and Juan Carlos Onetti (Santa Maria) being “very much in the vein of” Yoknapatawpha: ” The Death of Artemio Cruz wouldn’t exist if not for As I Lay Dying“.
The works of William Faulkner are a clear influence on the French novelist Claude Simon.
Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”. It was awarded at the following year’s banquet along with the 1950 Prize to Bertrand Russell. Faulkner detested the fame and glory that resulted from his recognition. His aversion was so great that his 17-year-old daughter learned of the Nobel Prize only when she was called to the principal’s office during the school day.
He donated part of his Nobel money “to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers”, eventually resulting in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and donated another part to a local Oxford bank, establishing a scholarship fund to help educate African-American teachers at Rust College in nearby Holly Springs, Mississippi. The government of France made Faulkner a Chevalier de la Lgion d’honneur in 1951.
Faulkner was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for what are considered “minor” novels: his 1954 novel A Fable, which took the Pulitzer in 1955, and the 1962 novel, The Reivers, which was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer in 1963. (The award for A Fable was a controversial political choice. The jury had selected Milton Lott‘s The Last Hunt for the prize, but Pulitzer Prize Administrator Professor John Hohenberg convinced the Pulitzer board that Faulkner was long overdue for the award, despite A Fable being a lesser work of his, and the board overrode the jury’s selection, much to the disgust of its members.) He also won the U.S. National Book Award twice, for Collected Stories in 1951 and A Fable in 1955. In 1946 he was one of three finalists for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award and placed second to Rhea Galati.
The United States Postal Service issued a 22-cent postage stamp in his honor on August 3, 1987. Faulkner had once served as Postmaster at the University of Mississippi, and in his letter of resignation in 1923 wrote:
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.
This, sir, is my resignation.