William Faulkner – A Brief Biography (1897-1962)
William Faulkner. Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
William Faulkner was an American writer and Nobel laureate, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in Southern and American literature.
His well-known novels such as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying are now considered classics of American literature and are taught and studied in schools and universities across America.
William Faulkner was born on 25th September 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi to Maud and Murry Faulkner. He was the first of four sons.
From an early age, his parents imbibed in him various interests which would go on to influence his writing in the future. His father cultivated in him a love for the outdoors by encouraging him and his brothers to fish, hunt, and track. While on the other hand, his mother cultivated in him a love for all things artistic such as reading, painting, photography, etc. Even before he was sent to school, Faulkner’s mother had already taught him to read by exposing him to the works of the Brothers Grimm, Charles Dickens, and other classic writers.
Faulkner and his brothers also grew up on stories told to them by the elders of the family. These stories were about subjects regarding their own family history, slavery, the Civil War, the Klu Klux Klan, and, most importantly, his great-grandfather William Clark Faulkner, who was a writer, businessman, and confederate hero.
William Clark was highly respected and admired in the Faulkner family and the stories of his exploits would go on to have a great influence on Faulkner’s writings.
These stories of his family’s history and about the region he lived in would influence the themes, subjects, characters, sense of humor, and the relationship between blacks and whites found in his works.
When William Faulkner was enrolled at a school, he excelled in the first year, so much so that he was directly promoted to the third grade while skipping the second grade.
However, his initial enthusiasm for school did not last long. From the fourth grade onward, he began to lose interest in school and slowly became a withdrawn and introverted child. By the time he reached the fifth grade, he was indifferent to his schoolwork and instead became more interested in studying the history of Mississippi.
Faulkner struggled in school in the following years and even ended up repeating the eleventh and twelfth grades. Eventually, he never graduated from high school.
In his mid-teens, William Faulkner began writing some poetry and short stories, which he mainly kept to himself at first.
However, when he met Mississippi attorney Phil Stone at the age of 17, he found the mentor he had been looking for. Stone, who was four years older than Faulkner, was passionate about literature and introduced Faulkner to the works of modernist writers such as James Joyce, who influenced his future writing style.
Faulkner showed his poems to Stone, who was impressed by them and quickly recognized and encouraged Faulkner’s talent.
While in his early 20s, Faulkner began to send his poems and short stories to Stone with the hope of getting them published. Stone, in turn, would send these writings to publishers, all of whom would reject them.
In 1918, Faulkner, aged 21, traveled to Yale to live with Stone.
Serving in the Army
After staying with Stone for barely some time, William Faulkner soon left Yale with the intention of joining the British Army in the hopes of being commissioned as an officer. However, things did not go as per plan and he ended up joining the Royal Canadian Air Force with the help of a letter of reference and made his way to Toronto for training.
Faulkner would later claim that he was a member of the British Royal Flying Corps and actively served in World War I after receiving cockpit training. However, as per official records, none of it is true. He would even often narrate fake war stories and show fake war wounds to his acquaintances.
Literary Influences and Early Minor Success
William Faulkner would later state that apart from his early readings of classics and the works of modernist writers like Joyce, he was also greatly influenced by the writers and poets of the Romantic Era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
These writers and poets influenced his early writings.
In the year 1919, Faulkner, aged 22, enrolled at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where he only attended three semesters before dropping out the following year. It is said that he did not care much for his classes and skipped them very often.
Although he only managed to get a D grade in English, a few of his poems were published in campus publications.
In 1922, Faulkner, aged 25, found his first minor success when his poem Portrait was published in the New Orleans literary magazine Double Dealer. Three years later, the same magazine would publish his short-story collection titled New Orleans.
Moving to New Orleans
William Faulkner moved to New Orleans, Louisiana in early 1925, where he began living in the French Quarter among many other writers and artists.
It was in New Orleans that he decided to shift his focus from writing poems to writing prose. Many of his short stories were published by the New Orleans-based newspaper The Times-Picayune. It was only after meeting and befriending fellow writer Sherwood Anderson, who by then was an established writer, that Faulkner decided to attempt to write his first novel Soldier’s Pay. The writing style of the novel was similar to his short stories and to the writing style of his contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
Anderson helped Faulkner in getting the novel published by recommending it to his publisher, and would do the same for Faulkner’s second novel Mosquitoes as well.
Soldier’s Pay and Mosquitoes were published in 1926 and 1927 respectively.
Introducing Yoknapatawpha County and Facing Rejection
In the summer of 1927, William Faulkner completed his third novel, Flags in the Dust, which was his first novel set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County.
Faulkner was extremely proud of this novel and regarded it as a better work than his first two novels as it was inspired by the history and traditions of the South, which he knew and loved so much about.
However, when he submitted the novel to his publisher, it was rejected, leaving him surprised and devastated. No other publishing houses were willing to publish the work as well.
Two years later, a publisher accepted the novel on the condition that it be heavily edited. Faulkner reluctantly agreed, and around 40,000 words were removed after the publisher was done with the editing. The novel was finally published in 1929 as Sartoris and was his first novel dealing with the Civil War period.
The Sound and the Fury
After all the rejections he faced from publishers for his last novel, William Faulkner decided to ignore the publishers and became indifferent to them. Disenchanted and disappointed with all the rejections, he now gave himself complete freedom to write in any way he wanted without thinking about whether a publisher would accept it or not.
This led to him writing his fourth novel The Sound and the Fury in an experimental modernist style, making use of different narrative styles, including the stream-of-consciousness style for which he would come to be known. Upon completing the novel, he told his agent that he would not permit any editing of the work, including the addition of punctuation for clarity and better understanding.
The novel was published in 1929. Although it was not an instant success, it would go on to garner much critical acclaim and commercial success after the publication of his sixth novel Sanctuary.
In 1929, William Faulkner, aged 32, married Estelle Oldham, who already had two children from her previous marriage. The couple would go on to have a daughter of their own in 1933.
Faulkner now needed to earn more money in order to provide for his family. As he tried to establish himself financially through his writing, he also began working night shifts at the University of Mississippi Power House.
As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary
In 1929, while working at the Power House, William Faulkner began writing his fifth novel As I Lay Dying, once again using experimental styles such as multiple narrators, varying chapter lengths, and stream-of-consciousness.
The novel was published in 1930 and would go on to be considered not only one of his greatest novels but one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
Faulkner also wrote several short stories during this period which were published in various national magazines. This earned him some additional income to buy a house in Oxford, which he called Rowan Oak. When he bought it in 1930, the house was in despair and he renovated it himself.
In 1931, his sixth novel Sanctuary was published. It was a commercial and critical success, making it his first real breakthrough in the literary scene. The novel is about the rape and abduction of an upper-class Mississippi college girl during the Prohibition Era.
The success of the novel also led to an increase in interest in Faulkner’s previous novels, especially The Sound and the Fury. However, in spite of its commercial and critical success, Faulkner himself referred to it as a potboiler written purely for money.
Financial Struggles and Hollywood Years
In spite of his new-found commercial success, William Faulkner still struggled to make a comfortable living as a writer during this period.
He tried to sell the serialization rights for his newly completed novel Light in August to a magazine for $5,000 but no magazine would accept the offer.
Faulkner was then in desperate need of money and had nowhere to go to get it. It was around this time that MGM Studios asked him to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He was reluctant as he did not have any real interest in Hollywood or movies in general. But since he was so desperate for money, he accepted the offer and went to Hollywood in early 1932.
The first screenplay he wrote was for Today We Live, which was an adaptation of his own short story Turnabout. The movie starred Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford and it received a mixed response. He then wrote a screenplay for Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Although Faulkner found steady and reliable work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, he despised Hollywood and found it difficult. He was unhappy there and he wrote scathing letters criticizing Hollywood and its culture and felt trapped there as a serious literary writer whose creative freedom was limited.
Nevertheless, he endured Hollywood and screenwriting as it gave him a consistent and steady income, allowing him to support his family back home.
During the mid to late 1930s, Faulkner published several novels such as Light in August, Pylon, Absalom, Absalom!, The Unvanquished, and The Wild Palms.
World War II Years and Final Years
While the Second World War was in full swing, William Faulkner tried to enroll in the United States Air Force in 1942 but was rejected. Instead, he was given a post on the local civil defense.
This period would mark the start of his creative slowdown. The war affected his enthusiasm for writing, and he would later describe war as being bad for writing.
But this did not mean he stopped writing completely. In 1943, he began working on a novel that would be published a decade later in 1954 as A Fable, which would go on to win the 1955 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award after much controversy.
In the meanwhile, his novel Intruder in the Dust was published in 1948, and Requiem for a Nun, which was the sequel to Sanctuary, was published in 1951.
In 1949, Faulkner, aged 52, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel. He was given the award at the following year’s banquet along with the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Bertrand Russell.
Although it was an honor to receive the Nobel Prize, Faulkner did not like the fame and attention it attracted. He went on to donate part of the prize money to a local Oxford bank, establishing a scholarship fund to help educate African-American teachers at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and another part of it to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers.
Before his death in 1962, Faulkner would complete his Snopes Trilogy, which included The Hamlet (published in 1940), The Town (published in 1957), and The Mansion (published in 1959).
William Faulkner completed the first draft of his last novel The Reivers in the summer of 1961, and on 4th June 1962, the novel was published. It would go on to win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
On 17th June 1962, Faulkner fell from his horse and suffered a serious injury which led to thrombosis (the formation of a blood clot inside a blood vessel that obstructs the flow of blood through the circulatory system).
On 6th July 1962, while at Wright’s Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 64 years old.
Faulkner was interred at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford.
William Faulkner is now widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century, deeply influencing not just American literature but Latin American literature as well.
Faulkner’s use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, his experimental style with meticulous attention to diction and cadence, and his highly subtle, complex, emotional, cerebral, Southern gothic, and grotesque stories of deeply flawed, vulnerable, and eccentric characters went on to have a tremendous influence on Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Juan Carlos Onetti Borges.
American writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy have also been influenced by the works of Faulkner.
In France, Faulkner was and still remains highly popular and influential in the literary community, so much so that Jean-Paul Sartre stated that for the young people in France, Faulkner was a God.
In 1951, the government of France made Faulkner a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, which is the highest French order of merit, both military and civil. He was also voted the second most popular writer in France in 2009, behind Marcel Proust.
French writer Albert Camus even wrote a stage adaptation of Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun.
Over the years, Faulkner’s influence has spread and expanded all across the world. Several of his works such as The Sound and The Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! often find themselves in various lists of some of the greatest novels ever written.
His works continue to be adapted into plays and movies and are widely taught, studied, examined, analyzed, praised, and criticized by scholars, critics, students, and literature lovers in general.