William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962), a major figure of contemporary American literature, wrote novels and short stories combining stream-of-consciousness narrative with linguistic innovations and vivid characterization. His better known works include "The Sound and the Fury", "Absalom Absalom!", and "The Reivers", which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

William Cuthbert Faulkner, b. New Albany, Miss., Sept. 25, 1897, d. July 6, 1962,
was one of America's most innovative novelists. He lived most of his life in Oxford, Miss., and his works combine regional traditions and culture with masterful characterization and technical experimentation.

In a career lasting more than three decades, Faulkner published 19 novels, more than 80 short stories, 2 books of poems, and numerous essays. Like Thomas Mann and James Joyce, writers he greatly admired, Faulkner depicted traditional society not only in its own terms but also in terms of ageless human dramas.

Early Life and Works

Faulkner's principal setting is Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional domain loosely based upon places and subjects near to him in his youth. His family had played a significant role in Mississippi history. His great-grandfather, the model for the senior John Sartoris of several novels, was a lawyer, soldier, painter, railroad builder, poet, and novelist and was twice acquitted of murder charges. Faulkner grew up surrounded by traditional lore--family and regional stories, rural folk wisdom and humor, heroic and tragic accounts of the War Between the States, and tales of the hunting code and the Southern gentleman's ideal of conduct. In his lifetime and in his works, Faulkner bore witness to great political, economic, and social changes in the life of the South.

Although Oxford, Miss., was in some ways rural, it was also the seat of the state university, the county government, and the federal district court, and it had ties to major cultural centers. A voracious reader, more schooled than he would ever admit, Faulkner began writing in his early teens. As a young man he produced hand-lettered and hand-illustrated books for his friends, including books of poems, at least one esoteric play, an allegorical story, and a children's tale. These works show his early commitment to a writer's life.

Faulkner's early years were not confined to the countryside that he eventually shaped into Yoknapatawpha. Before the 1918 armistice, he trained in Toronto as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force. He traveled to New York City, New Orleans, and Europe. He read and wrote, absorbing the modernist influences that were changing the face of 20th-century art. In the mid-1920s, Faulkner lived among writers and artists in the French Quarter of New Orleans and received encouragement for his fiction, most notably from Sherwood Anderson. He had come to New Orleans with a book of poems to his credit, The Marble Faun (1924), and he there completed his first novel, Soldiers' Pay (1926), about the homecoming of a fatally wounded aviator.

The Mature Years

After travel abroad and the publication of his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927), about bohemian life in New Orleans, Faulkner returned to Oxford, Miss., apparently on Anderson's advice, to begin a remarkable decade of writing. Sartoris (1929) was his first major exploration of Yoknapatawpha County, what he called his "little postage stamp of native soil," and he exploited it fictionally during the following 24 years, with occasional side trips.

Faulkner's next novel, THE SOUND AND THE FURY (1929), displayed startling progress. It showed that he had mastered his material, demonstrated a rich variety of styles, and brought to bear techniques and ideas then pervasive in literature and art. Established as an author, Faulkner continued to write novels, always experimenting with new forms. As I Lay Dying (1930) was a tour de force in stream of consciousness. Subsequent works included the tightly knit novel LIGHT IN AUGUST (1932), the monumentally complex narrative ABSALOM, ABSALOM! (1936), and the episodic Go Down, Moses (1942), containing his most famous short piece, "The BEAR." A Fable (1954) and The Reivers (1962) each won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but Faulkner's later novels were generally considered less successful.

Faulkner set ambitious goals for himself and often considered his books failures because they did not measure up to his expectations. Others thought differently, however. Faulkner received the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature. A humanist, he repeatedly explored the question of human freedom and the obstacles to it--racism, regimentation, shame, fear, pride, and overly abstract principles. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner summed up a lifetime of writing: "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail." THOMAS L. McHANEY

Bibliography: Adams, Richard P., Faulkner: Myth and Motion (1968); Blotner,Joseph, Faulkner: A Biography, 2 vols. (1972) and, as ed., Selected Letters(1977); Brooks, Cleanth, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County (1964) and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978); Howe, Irving, William Faulkner: A Critical Study, 3d ed. (1975); Karl, Frederick R., William Faulkner: American Writer (1989); McHaney, Thomas, William Faulkner: A Reference Guide (1976); Meriwether, James B., Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters of William Faulkner (1965); Meriwether, James B., and Millgate, Michael, Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 (1968); Millgate, Michael, The Achievement of William Faulkner (1966); Reed, Joseph W., Faulkner's Narrative (1973); Waggoner, Hyatt, William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World (1959); Wagner, Linda, ed., William Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism (1973)