William Faulkner (1897-1962), a major American 20th-century novelist, chronicled the decline and decay of the aristocratic South with an imaginative power and psychological depth that transcend mere regionalism.
William Faulkner was born on Sept. 25, 1897, in New Albany, Miss. He grew up in Oxford, Miss., which appears in his fiction as "Jefferson" in "Yoknapatawpha County." William was the oldest of four brothers. Both parents came from wealthy families reduced to genteel poverty by the Civil War. A great-grandfather, Col. William Falkner (as the family spelled its name), had authored The White Rose of Memphis, a popular success of the 1880s. William's father owned a hardware store and livery stable in Oxford and later became business manager of the state university. William attended public school only fitfully after the fifth grade; he never graduated from high school.
In 1918, after the U.S. Army rejected him for being underweight and too short (5 feet 5 inches), Faulkner enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. During his brief service in World War I, he suffered a leg injury in a plane accident. In 1918 he was demobilized and made an honorary second lieutenant.
In 1919 Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a special student but left the next year for New York City. After several odd jobs in New York and Mississippi, he became postmaster at the Mississippi University Station; he was fired in 1924. In 1925 he and a friend made a walking tour of Europe, returning home in 1926.
During the years 1926-1930 Faulkner published a series of distinguished novels, none commercially successful. But in 1931 the success of Sanctuary, written expressly to make money, freed him of financial worries. He went to Hollywood for a year as a scenarist and an adviser.
It was not until after World War II that Faulkner received critical acclaim. French critics recognized his power first; André Malraux wrote an appreciative preface to Sanctuary, and Jean Paul Sartre wrote a long critical essay on Faulkner. The turning point for Faulkner's reputation came in 1946, when Malcolm Cowley published the influential The Portable Faulkner (at this time all of Faulkner's books were out of print!).
The groundswell of praise for Faulkner's work culminated in a 1950 Nobel Prize for literature. His 1955 lecture tour of Japan is recorded in Faulkner at Nagano (1956). In 1957-1958 he was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia; his dialogues with students make up Faulkner in the University (1959). William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches and Public Letters (1965) and The Faulkner-Cowley File (1966) offer further insights into the man.
Faulkner had married Estelle Oldham in 1929, and they lived together in Oxford until his death on July 6, 1962. He was a quiet, dapper, courteous man, mustachioed and sharp-eyed. He steadfastly refused the role of celebrity: he permitted no prying into his private life and rarely granted interviews.
Poetry and Short Stories
During the early 1920s Faulkner wrote poetry and fiction. In the volume of verse The Marble Faun (1922), a printer's error allegedly introduced the "u" into the author's name, which he decided to retain. The money for another book of poems, The Green Bough (1933), was supplied by a lawyer friend, Philip Stone, on whom the lawyer in Faulkner's later fiction is modeled. Faulkner's poetry shows the poet's taste for language but lacks stylistic discipline.
Faulkner is considered a fine practitioner of the short-story form, and some of his stories, such as "A Rose for Emily," are widely anthologized. His collections—These Thirteen (1931), Doctor Martino and Other Stories (1934), Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (1942), and Knight's Gambit (1949)—deal with themes similar to those in his novels and include many of the same characters.
Soldiers' Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927) precede Sartoris (1927), Faulkner's first important work, in which he begins his Yoknapatawpha saga. This saga, Faulkner's imaginative recreation of the tragedy of the American South, is a Balzacian provincial cycle in which each novel interrelates, clarifies, and redefines the characters. The central figure is Bayard Sartoris, returned from the war, who drives and drinks violently to compensate for his sense of alienation. He seems determined to find some extraordinary form of self-destruction. He becomes an experimental aviator and dies in a crash, leaving his pregnant wife to sustain the family name. The novel introduces families that reappear in many of Faulkner's novels and stories: the Sartoris and Compson families, representing the agrarian, aristocratic Old South; and the Snopes clan, representing the ruthless, mercantile New South.
"The Sound and the Fury"
The book generally regarded as Faulkner's masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury (1929), is a radical departure from conventional novelistic form. It uses a stream-of-consciousness method, rendering a different type of mentality in each of its four sections. The title, taken from Macbeth's utterance of cosmic despair in Shakespeare's play, is a clue to the profound pessimism of the novel, which records the decay and degeneracy of the Compson family and, by implication, of the aristocratic South. It is difficult to read, and Faulkner's "Appendix," written much later at the publisher's request, hardly clarifies it.
Each section takes place in a single day; three sections are set in 1928 and one in 1910. The difficulties begin with the fact that the 1910 section is placed second in the book, and the other three are not sequential in their 1928 three-day span. Further, the opening section is rendered in the stream of consciousness of an idiot, who cannot distinguish past from present.
Unquestionably the most difficult for Faulkner to write, the Benjy section (of April 7, 1928) is also the most difficult to read. It has been likened to a prose poem, with the succeeding three sections being simply variations on its theme of futility. Because the mentally impaired Benjy lives in a state of timelessness, his report is purely sensuous, and the reader must figure out his own chronology. Faulkner gives two aids: the device of signaling time shifts by alternating the typeface between bold and italic, and the variance of the African American attending Benjy (Roskus and Dilsey ca. 1898; Versh, T.P., and Frony ca. 1910; Luster ca. 1928).
Out of Benjy's garbled report come a number of facts and motifs. He is 33 years old, in the constant care of an African American youth named Luster. Benjy is tormented by the absence of his sister, Candace, though she has been out of the household for 18 years; each time he hears golfers on the neighboring course call "Caddy!" (coincidentally her nickname), he is painfully reminded of her. The golf course, formerly part of the Compson estate, was sold so that Benjy's older brother, Quentin, could attend Harvard, where he committed suicide in 1910. Mrs. Compson is a self-pitying woman; Mr. Compson was a drunkard; Uncle Maury was a womanizer; Candace was sexually promiscuous and, in turn, her daughter, confusingly called Quentin (after her dead uncle), is also promiscuous. Benjy has been castrated at his brother Jason's order.
Ironically, the most sensitive and intelligent Compson, Quentin (whose day in the novel is June 1, 1910), shares Benjy's obsession about their sister. Candace and the past dominate Quentin's section, which is set in Boston on the day he commits suicide. His musings add more facts in the novel's mosaic. The head of the family, Mr. Compson, is wise but cynical and despairing. Quentin has falsely confessed incest with Candace to his father; the father has not believed him. Quentin had fought one of Candace's lovers over her "honor." He is oppressed by knowing that the pregnant Candace is to be married off to a northern banker; the impending marriage is symbolic to Quentin of his irremediable and intolerable severance from Candace and is the reason for his suicidal state. Quentin's ludicrously methodical preparations for his suicide culminate when the last thing he does before leaving to kill himself is brush his teeth.
Jason (his day in the novel is April 6, 1928) is one of the great comic villains of literature. He has an irrational, jealous loathing of Candace. Now head of the family, he complains bitterly of his responsibilities as guardian of Candace's daughter, Quentin, while systematically stealing the money Candace sends for her care. Jason is cast in the Snopes mold—materialistic, greedy, and cunning. What makes him humorous is his self-pity. He sees himself as victim—of Candace, who he feels has cost him a desired job; of his niece, whose promiscuity seems a personal affront; of Benjy, whose condition causes embarrassment; of Mrs. Compson, whom he constantly bullies and whose inefficiency has burdened him; of the Jews, whom he blames for his stock market losses; of the servants, whose employment necessitates his own work at a menial job. Jason's lack of soul is evident in all his habits. He leaves no mark on anything and lives totally in the present—the perfect Philistine of the New South.
The novel's final section, the only one told in the third person, gives the point of view of the sensible old black servant, Dilsey (her day is April 8, 1928). As with other Faulkner African Americans, her presence is chiefly functional: her good sense and solidity point up the decadence of the whites. In this section Jason meets with an ironic, overwhelming defeat. The novel's chief social implication is that the South is doomed.
Novels of the 1930s
As I Lay Dying (1930) is a farcical burlesque epic, again using the multiple stream-of-consciousness method to tell the grotesque, humorous story of a family of poor whites intent on fulfilling the mother's deathbed request for burial. Sanctuary (1931), taken seriously by most critics, was discounted by Faulkner as a "potboiler." It is the lurid tale of Popeye, a sexually mutilated bootlegger, who has degenerate sexual acts performed for his gratification. One of his victims is a college girl whose lie in Popeye's behalf at the trial of another bootlegger results in the latter's conviction of Popeye's crime. In an ironic ending, Popeye is hanged for a crime of which he is innocent.
The story in Light in August (1932) takes place in a single day. It is overly complicated by a subplot. Beginning with a pregnant girl searching for her lover, this plot is subordinated to the story of Joe Christmas (same initials as Jesus Christ), whose uncertain racial identity perplexes him. Though structurally unsound, Light in August generates enormous power and probably ranks second among Faulkner's books.
Faulkner's creativity ebbed after 1935. Though occasionally interesting and fitfully brilliant, his work tended to be increasingly repetitious, perverse, and mannered to the point of self-parody.
Pylon (1935), one of Faulkner's weakest novels, is the story of a flying circus team. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is an extremely complex novel; the title comes from the biblical cry of David ("My son, my son!"). This novel tells of a poor white from the Virginia hills who marries an aristocractic Mississippi woman, inadvertently launching a three-generation family cycle of violence, degeneracy, and mental retardation.
Two minor novels, The Unvanquished (1938) and The Wild Palms (1939), were followed by an uneven but intriguing satire of the Snopes clan, The Hamlet (1940). Of this novel's four parts, the first and the last manifest Faulkner's greatest faults: they are talky and oblique and seem out of focus. The middle sections, however, are Faulkner at his best.
Intruder in the Dust (1948) takes a liberal view of southern race relations. Lucas Beauchamp, an eccentric old African American, is saved from a false murder charge through the efforts of fair-minded whites. A Fable (1954) is a very poor parable of Christ and Judas. The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962), a trilogy that is part of the Yoknapatawpha saga, are generally regarded as minor works.
Further Reading on William Faulkner
Faulkner's thoughts on literature and many other subjects can be found in James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, eds., Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 (1968). Faulkner is discussed in several memoirs: John Faulkner, My Brother Bill: An Affectionate Reminiscence (1963), and Murry C. Falkner, The Falkners of Mississippi: A Memoir (1967). A biography of Faulkner is in the introduction of Edmond L. Volpe, A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner (1964). Some of the best critical work on Faulkner is in Frederick J.
Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery, eds., William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism (1960). Although Joseph Blotner's biography, in progress, should be the definitive work, useful studies of Faulkner's life and work include Irving Malin, William Faulkner: An Interpretation (1957); William Van O'Connor, William Faulkner (1959); Hyatt Howe Waggoner, William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World (1959); Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (1966); and H. Edward Richardson, William Faulkner: Journey to Self-Discovery (1969). See also Robert Penn Warren, ed., Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966), and Richard P. Adams, Faulkner: Myth and Motion (1968).