William Faulkner (1897 - 1962) stands as one of the most preeminent American writers of the twentieth century. Faulkner especially embodied the Southern sensibility. Faulkner’s literature had significant influence on both popular and Modernist literature. His literary reputation included poetry, novels, short stories and screenplays. Faulkner won two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature.
On September 25, 1897, William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi. His family had accumulated a great deal of wealth before the American Civil War. However, his family like many Southern families had lost all of its financial power during the conflict. His parents would move to Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner would use Oxford as the basis for the fictional town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County.
Although William Faulkner was bright, he felt no passion for his formal education. He dropped out of high school. Faulkner was employed in a bank in Oxford and began to write. In his early forays into writing, Faulkner emulated the poetic styling Edward FitzGerald, A. E. Housman, John Keats, and Algernon Swinburne. Faulkner addressed many of these early poems to a young woman, Estelle Oldham. Oldham’s parents disapproved of William Faulkner’s courtship. They wanted their daughter to marry someone who had better financial prospects.
In 1918 as the First World War was winding down, William Faulkner tried to become a pilot for the U.S. Army. Faulkner failed to meet the physical requirements. The military rejected his application. Faulkner traveled to Toronto, Canada. He posed as an English citizen and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. By the time Faulkner reached France, the conflict had ended.
After returning to the United States, William Faulkner attended the University of Mississippi from 1919 until 1921. The New Republic published his poem "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune." Faulkner wrote for both the school newspaper and his hometown newspaper. Faulkner also drafted an experimental play that was presented by the University of Mississippi’s drama club.
Once again William Faulkner dropped out of school. He followed a theater reviewer Stark Young to New York. Faulkner’s attempted to generate interest in his writing. But publishers were not interested at this point. Faulkner returned to Oxford. He took a post as postmaster at the University of Mississippi. Faulkner used his work hours to continue writing. His superiors dismissed him in 1924.
The Marble Faun was William Faulkner’s first collection of poems. These poems were written in a pastoral style. Book sales were very poor. When Faulkner visited Sherwood Anderson in New Orleans, Anderson suggested that poetry was not Faulkner’s forte. Faulkner wrote short pieces of prose for theTimes-Picayune and The Double Dealer. Faulkner submitted his manuscriptSoldier’s Pay to Boni & Liveright.
In 1925, William Faulkner traveled throughout England, France and Italy. His relationship with members of the Lost Generation flavored his stay in Paris. His writing during this period was influenced by symbolism and impressionism.Soldier’s Paywas released during Faulkner’s European trip.
In Faulkner’s second novel, Mosquitoes, Faulkner satirized the New Orleans literary scene. Faulkner also made fun of his friend Sherwood Anderson. This was not the first time that Faulkner had lampooned Anderson, but it led to Anderson to sever ties with William Faulkner. However, Faulkner continued to have genuine admiration for Anderson at one point declaring, "the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on."
Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness novel The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929. This novel was ranked sixth on the Modern Library’s on the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. (William Faulkner’sLight in August and As I Lay Dying are also on this list.)
William Faulkner would marry his former sweetheart Estelle Oldham in 1929. Oldham brought her two children from a previous marriage. The couple would also have two daughters over the next four years. The oldest one would die after only nine days. But Faulkner was still responsible for taking care of his new wife and young children. Faulkner’s family life did not hinder his pursuit of extra-marital affairs.
In 1931, William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily was published. This work is widely anthologized and is a masterpiece of narrative and communal point of view. The five sections build tension through their lack of direct chronological order. This story is classified as Southern Gothic for its use of the Southern milieu in the post-Civil War period.
In order to make money in 1931, Faulkner wrote the novel Sanctuary. The sensational subject captured the public’s attention. The financial success ofSanctuary drove sales to Faulkner’s earlier stream-of-consciousness novel,The Sound and The Fury. The film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hired William Faulkner in 1932. Faulkner was assigned to write screenplays. This position required Faulkner to move to California. He was well-paid, but never comfortable in his new surroundings. In part, this discomfort led to Faulkner’s excessive drinking. This period in his life would also set up the paradigm in which William Faulkner’s screenwriting would provide the money, which allowed him to write his fiction. Like many people, William Faulkner’s financial concerns were jeopardized by the uncertainty of the Great Depression.
In 1936, William Faulkner released Absalom, Absalom!. In this novel, he examined the way that the shadow of American slavery lingered over the modern South. He illustrated the way in which historical violations still have a destabilizing affect in the world.
In 1939, the National Institute of Arts and Letters selected William Faulkner to join its ranks. The same year Faulkner was awarded the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Award—a distinction he would earn the following year (1940) as well. Faulkner’s writing from this period was a skillful net of vivid narrative lines. His skill was also gaining Faulkner a reputation in which his work was worthy of scholarly study.
Howard Hawks reached out to William Faulkner for screenwriting help. Faulkner had a hand in creating the script for the film versions of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. During his sojourns to Hollywood, William Faulkner would also become an intimate to Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.
Despite his critical acclaim, William Faulkner book sales dwindled during World War II. As many of Faulkner’s books went out of print, he relied more heavily on his screenwriting as a means of support. In 1946, Viking Press published The Portable Faulkner. Malcolm Cowley wrote the introduction and helped rehabilitate Faulkner’s reputation.
In 1949, William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature. The prestige and monetary value of this award allowed Faulkner a greater degree of financial autonomy. He continued to gain recognition for his writing during this period. In 1950, Faulkner was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Howells Medal for Fiction and in 1951 Faulkner won the National Book Award for his collected stories. From 1957 until 1958, William Faulkner would serve as the writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia.
In the 1950s, William Faulkner would accept Howard Hawks invitation to travel to Egypt to help in the production of Land of the Pharaohs. Faulkner would also travel to Britain, Brazil, France, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Japan, the Philippines and Venezuela on goodwill cultural exchanges for the U.S. State Department. His political interest involved acting in the Civil Rights movements. Faulkner was a supporter of nonviolent and moderate resistance.
Before his death in 1962, William Faulkner was awarded the National Institute’s Gold Medal for Fiction. He died of a heart attack.