William Faulkner

One of the greatest writers that America has produced was a high school and college drop-out named William Faulkner.  The man who earned the moniker “Count No’count” and described himself as a “literary carpenter” portrayed some of the most evocative and harrowing Southern life in America (Chin, Wolfe, Copeland, Dudzinski, Ray and Wilhelm, 2005, p. 802; Adams, 1994, p. 616).  Faulkner was responsible for creating the legendary Yoknapatawpha Country, Mississippi, filling it with treasured Southern characters that mirrored the “old and new South” (Miller, de Dwyer, Wood, 1985, p. 373). Known for his unconventional style punctuated with flashbacks, stream-of consciousness, multiple points of view, repetition, and lengthy and confusing sentences, Faulkner emerged as one of the greatest Americans novelists of the twentieth century (p. 802).  He is lauded for his unmatched and stylistic depth. In fact, some of his novels served as inspiration for various Hollywood films- The Long Hot Summer, The Sound and the Fury, and Two Soldiers (Oprah.com, n.d.). Yet, the greatest professional accolade this drop-out achieved was his conferment of the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.  In his acceptance speech, Faulkner underlined the inherent nobility of a man and a writer.  Man, he said, is “immortal” because he has a “soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” (p. 812). Moreover, Faulkner believed that it is the writer’s “privilege” to not only document man’s history but  use writing as a tool to help man “endure and prevail” (p. 812).  This paper will look at the life of William Faulkner, his biography and works. This way, his story will live on, continuing on what he has said sixty years ago.  Recalling his life and works will keep William Faulkner alive.

William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897 in Albany, Mississippi (Padgett, 2006). The eldest son of Murry Cuthbert and Maud Falkner, the American literary genius came from a family of glorious Southern background (Mautner, 2002, p. 699). William added the “u” to his surname as means to distinguish himself from his father (Parini, n.d.). His grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner, figured in the Civil War, built a railway, and was himself a published novelist, creating the popular romantic read The White Rose of Memphis (p. 699).   The family then moved to Ripley before finally settling in Oxford, where the elder Faulkner worked as a business manager for the University of Mississippi (p. 699).  William was brought up as a Southern white of middle-class background- riding ponies and going hunting (p. 699).  After finishing high school, he went in and out of high school and started attending some classes at the University of Mississippi (Adams, 1994, p. 615).  He was not a keen student.  Nursing a broken heart, Faulkner enlisted in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in July 1918 (p. 699).  But he was not able to get some action for the war ended abruptly (Miller, de Dwyer, and Wood, 1985, p. 373).  Returning home to Mississippi, Faulkner immersed himself in writing and poetry. He had been drawn to poetry earlier, when he became friends with lawyer Phil Stone. It was even Stone who helped finance Faulkner’s first book, The Marble Faun in 1924 (p. 699).   The Marble Faun is a collection of poetry. Five years before, Faulkner’s poem L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune was published in The New Republic (n.d.).  As a student in University in Mississippi, Faulkner honed his writing skills, creating poems for The Mississippian and the Oxford Eagle (n.d.). He even won $10 as poetry prize (n.d.). In between studies, Faulkner took on several jobs, from house painting, fireman to being a post master (Adams, 1994, p. 615). He led the life of a bohemian, traveling to New Orleans and overseas. It was in New Orleans where he befriended Sherwood Anderson who gave confidence in his writing (p. 373). Under his influence, Faulkner published Soldier’s Pay.

Soldier’s Pay, published in 1926, deals with the alienation experienced by World War I soldiers (Mautner, 2002, p. 699).  The material was raw, thus was not given enough compliments but Faulkner did not cave in. He continued writing and published his second novel the following year- Mosquitoes (p. 699). The novel attacks the New Orleans “literary scene” to the point of naming various personalities (p. 699). Faulkner was still struggling with his subject and niche in the literary world.  It was not until he published Sartoris that Faulkner finally opened his spot in American literature.

Sartoris opened the world for Faulkner. Creating the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner found his true material.  Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi is based on Faulkner’s own Ripley (Mautner, 2002, p. 699). Oxford is mirrored by Jefferson as the county seat.  Yoknapatawpha is said to be either bought or stolen in the 19th century by “adventurers” from Indians (p. 699).  Ruled by aristocratic families Sartoris, Compson and Sutpen, the land was soon overrun by the Snopeses following Civil War. The Snopeses represented the new South, greedy “white trash” (p. 699). The Snopeses, obviously incompetent, ruled politics and businesses in Yoknapatawpha against the behest of the more dignified citizenry, wronged blacks who stood for human decay. The arc is completed with the presence of the poor illiterate white farmers- the Armstids, Bundrens, Varners and Winterbottoms (p. 699). Together, they live in Faulkner’s mythical setting, tackling the social differences woven into an eclectic Petri dish called Yoknapatawpha.

Faulkner was at his best writing masterpieces on his own backyard- the Southern locale.   Yoknapatawpha served as his inspirations for several novels.  The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, chronicled the lives of the crumbling Compson family (Adams, 1994, p. 616). The characters include the Compson brothers- Benjy, Quentin, Caddy and Jason, their relationships with their sister and parents and the Compson’s black servant named Dilsey (p. 616).  The novel was turned into a movie in 1959, starring Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward (Oprah.com, n.d.)

The novel utilizes a “stream-of-consciousness” technique which facilitates long, drawn-out monologues.  This technique is what makes differentiates Faulkner from other writers. It also makes reading Faulkner creations harder.  When a reader picks a Faulkner piece, the abundance of interior monologues may deter understanding especially since Faulkner seemed to present consciousness of a fool, a child or a person on the verge of breakdown. But as the monologues flow, the passions and prejudice of each character is unveiled, opening the road to a deeper understanding of the characters and the story as a whole. Majority of Faulkner’s works imbue a deep Southern roots- the setting and language (p. 616).  Faulkner’s writings are also deemed macabre with streaks of Christian symbolism (p. 616). The reason may probably due to the surrounding Faulkner grew up with.  In 1908, Faulkner was said to have witness a lynching of a black man in Oxford (Parini, n.d.).  That may be the reason why most of his works deal with the disparity of social status. Faulkner’s literary influences included Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, and Joseph Conrad (p. 700).

Another Faulkner work lifted from the Yoknapatawpha Country involves the Bundrens.  In 1930, Faulkner printed As I Lay Dying, a tragicomedy focusing on the poor Bundren family. The wife of Anse Bundren had a dying wish to be buried in Jefferson and the story unfolds from there, as a chain of disaster comes to family members- from breaking a leg to causing arson, etc. (Adams, 1994, p. 616).  The novel is narrated from the point of view of various characters and is said to be the most “systematically multi-voiced” of all Faulkner penned stories (Mautner, 2002, p. 700).   Likewise, Faulkner was said to be inspired by Browning’s The Ring and the Book, hence the monologue narrations (p. 616).

Creating stories one after the other, Faulkner’s life started to rise- professionally and personally.  In 1929, he married Estelle Oldham, the reason why he previously enlisted in RAF (Mautner, 2002, p. 700).  Faulkner and his wife settled in the outskirts of Oxford, buying Rowan Oak, a pre-Civil War house. Together, they raised a daughter Jill (Mautner,2002, p. 700).

Another Faulkner jewel is Sanctuary, which became a big hit due to its vivid violence (Miller, de Dwyer, and Wood, 1985, p. 373).   Along with The Sound and the Fury,  Absalom, Absalom! is considered Faulkner’s best works.  The latter recounts the rise and fall of the Sutpen family (Adams, 1994, p. 616).

Between 1928- 1942, Faulkner delivered stories after stories. He called this period “one matchless time” when his creativity seemed to go on full speed (Parini, n.d.). During this time, he wrote classics such as  A Rose for Emily, The Bear, Barn Burning, Light in August, Go Down, Moses and The Hamlet, and The Wild Palms [If  Forget Thee Jerusalem] (n.d.).  The truth is, only a handful of writers have produced masterpieces in a short period of time. For that, Faulkner is highly commended.

But Faulkner was not a perfect person. He was a big drinker and spent many months trying to get this demon out of this system- staying in alcohol clinics, refraining to drink (Parini, n.d).  But he was not able to do so. The writings he produced in late 40s-50s were not at par to the ones he completed in his prime.

In 1949, Faulkner received the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature, as aforementioned.  It made Faulkner known around the world; the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was a big fan; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Jorge Luis Borger were inspired by Faulkner to write (Parini, n.d.).

In closing, William Faulkner is one of the country’s greatest writers and it is not because he created the Yoknapatawpha Country. Faulkner is a literary genius because he was able to tell stories from the heart, creating depth and dimension from nothing. In his Nobel speech, he spoke of man’s compassion, sacrifice and his soul.   He spoke of the “old verities and the truths of the hearts, the old universal truths” (Chin, Wolfe, Copeland, Dudzinski, Ray and Wilhelm, 2005, p. 802; Adams, 1994, p. 616).  And he did.  His stories deal with life’s harsh realities. He did not sugarcoat the yarns he wove. While his themes may be macabre or downright grotesque, they tug at the reader’s heart. He had a unique way of showcasing the human condition.  He was a storyteller, whose characters reflect the fundamental human issues that life gives. His alcoholism, clearly not a positive trait, helped, in a weird way, strikes a balance.  It completes the portrait of man, who has good and bad sides but continues to struggle in life. That is real life and Faulkner (unknowingly) shared that. In Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, MO, there exists the Center for Faulkner Studies.  The center deals with anything Faulkner, whether in researches or public service.  The center not only cements Faulkner’s role in American literature but also carries on his endeavor, sixty years ago- to document human condition in order for man to triumph.