William Faulkner

(1897 - 1962)

'Faulkner is now recognised as the strongest American novelist of the century... "As I Lay Dying" may be the most original novel ever written by an American.'

Harold Bloom

Early Life in Mississippi

Born to a wealthy Southern family in September 1897, Faulkner would live much of his life in his beloved home state of Mississippi. The culture and landscape of the 'deep south' hugely influenced the young Faulkner, as he spent much of his boyhood listening to his elders share stories of the Civil War, slavery and the ancient 'Falkner' family. His father nurtured his love of the outdoors by teaching him to hunt, track and fish; whilst his mother and beloved maid 'Mammy Callie' encouraged him to read the classic tales of Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm. Whilst initially an excellent student, Faulkner lost interest in formal education, preferring instead to teach himself the history of Mississippi in his spare time.

When the USA entered the First World War in 1917 Faulkner tried to enter the army. At 5ft 5” he was under the minimum height, so he settled for spending the war as a reservist with the British Army. He claimed to have flown in the British Royal Flying Corp on the western front, but no records exist which support his claim.

Although he had dropped out of high school he attended the University of Mississippi and it was there that his love of writing began to develop. He published several poems in the University newspaper and, perhaps more serendipitously, he met writer Philip Stone, the man who would go on to become his life-long mentor and friend. It was Stone who encouraged Faulkner to give up poetry and focus on writing prose fiction.

In his teenage years Faulkner had dated local beauty Estelle Oldham and had planned to marry her. However, Estelle’s family forced her to marry a local law student, Cornell Franklin. The marriage was not a happy one and after ten years, in 1929, Estelle divorced Franklin and married Faulkner. The couple moved into a grand antebellum house in Oxford, Mississippi along with Estelle’s two children, which was to be their home for over thirty years.

‘Faulkner c’est un dieu’

The early books by William Faulkner were not successful. His first few novels garnered little interest, with the third Sartoris receiving mixed reviews even after being substantially edited by the publishers. Even his masterpiece The Sound and Fury was not successful enough to provide an income to the struggling family when it was first published in 1929, despite winning critics with its genius reinvention of the stream of consciousness. It was only with the publication of The Sanctuary (1931), a ‘potboiler’ written purely for financial reasons, that Faulkner found an income from writing.

In 1932, to earn a better living, he overcame his dislike of the cinema and accepted work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Despite his misgivings he proved extremely gifted as a script doctor, contributing to such classic films as To Have and To Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946).

Ignored and out of print in America, his work was championed in Europe, by such eminent writers as Jean-Paul Sartre who claimed ‘Pour les jeunes en France, Faulkner c'est un dieu’ (For the youth of France, Faulkner is a god). Largely due to European interest throughout the 1940s, his reputation grew as previous works were re-assessed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Two of his later novels won the Pulitzer Prize (A Fable and The Reivers) and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.

All but three of the thirteen books by William Faulkner after The Sanctuary are based in ‘Yoknapatawpha County’, a fictional Mississippi world based on ‘Lafayette’ where Faulkner lived. In this world Faulkner captures the characters and voices he loved since childhood.

In 1959 he sustained severe injuries after a horse riding accident. His health subsequently declined, exacerbated by his life-long drinking problem. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1962 and was buried in Oxford, Mississippi.

Since his death Faulkner’s work has gained increasing recognition at home and abroad. He is now considered amongst the greatest American writers, particularly of the American South. Faulkner donated a part of his Nobel winnings to found the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, now a major literary award, and endowed a scholarship fund for African-Americans in Mississippi. The Sound and the Fury has been voted sixth in a list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; also on the list were Light in August and As I Lay Dying.

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