William Cuthbert Faulkner (/ˈfɔːknər/, September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, a play, poetry, essays and screenplays. He is primarily known for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi where he spent most of his life.
Faulkner is one of the most important writers in American literature generally and Southern literature specifically. Though his work was published as early as 1919, and largely during the 1920s and 1930s, Faulkner was relatively unknown until receiving the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. Two of his works, A Fable (1954) and his last novel The Reivers (1962), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; also on the list were As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932). Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is often included on similar lists.
Faulkner was born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi, the first of four sons of Murry Cuthbert Falkner (August 17, 1870 – August 7, 1932) and Maud Butler (November 27, 1871 – October 19, 1960). He had three younger brothers: Murry Charles "Jack" Falkner (June 26, 1899 – December 24, 1975), author John Falkner (September 24, 1901 – March 28, 1963) and Dean Swift Falkner (August 15, 1907 – November 10, 1935). Soon after his first birthday, his family moved to Ripley, Mississippi where his father worked as the treasurer for the family-owned Gulf & Chicago Railroad Company. Murry hoped to inherit the railroad from his father, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, but John had little confidence in Murry's ability to run a business and sold it for $75,000. Following the sale of the railroad business, Murry became disappointed and planned a new start for his family by moving to Texas and becoming a rancher. Maud, however, disagreed with this proposition, and it was decided that they would move to Oxford, Mississippi, where Murry's father owned several businesses, making it easy for Murry to find work. Thus, four days prior to William's sixth birthday on September 21 1902 the Falkner family settled in Oxford where he lived on and off for the rest of his life.
His family, particularly his mother Maud, his maternal grandmother Lelia Butler, and Caroline Barr (the black woman who raised him from infancy) crucially influenced the development of Faulkner's artistic imagination. Both his mother and grandmother were great readers and also painters and photographers, educating him in visual language. While Murry enjoyed the outdoors and taught his sons to hunt, track, and fish, Maud valued education and took pleasure in reading and going to church. She taught her sons to read before sending them to public school and exposed them to classics such as Charles Dickens and Grimms' Fairy Tales. Faulkner's lifelong education by Callie Barr is central to his novels' preoccupations with the politics of sexuality and race.
As a schoolchild, Faulkner had much success early on. He excelled in the first grade, skipped the second, and continued doing well through the third and fourth grades. However, beginning somewhere in the fourth and fifth grades of his schooling, Faulkner became a much more quiet and withdrawn child. He began to play hooky occasionally and became somewhat indifferent to his schoolwork, even though he began to study the history of Mississippi on his own time in the seventh grade. The decline of his performance in school continued and Faulkner wound up repeating the eleventh, and then final grade, and never graduating from high school.
Faulkner also spent much of his boyhood listening to stories told to him by his elders. These included war stories shared by the old men of Oxford and stories told by Mammy Callie of the Civil War, slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Falkner family. Faulkner's grandfather would also tell him of the exploits of William's great-grandfather, after whom he was named, William Clark Falkner, who was a successful businessman, writer, and a Civil War hero. Telling stories about William Clark Falkner, whom the family called "Old Colonel," had already become something of a family pastime when Faulkner was a boy. According to one of Faulkner's biographers, by the time William was born, his great-grandfather had "been enshrined long since as a household deity."
In adolescence, Faulkner began writing poetry almost exclusively. He did not write his first novel until 1925. His literary influences are deep and wide. He once stated that he modeled his early writing on the Romantic era in late 18th century and early 19th century England. He attended the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford, and was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon social fraternity. He enrolled at Ole Miss in 1919, and attended three semesters before dropping out in November 1920. William was able to attend classes at the university due to his father having a job there as a business manager. He skipped classes often and received a "D" grade in English. However, some of his poems were published in campus journals.
When he was 17, Faulkner met Philip Stone, who would become an important early influence on his writing. Stone was four years his senior and came from one of Oxford's older families. He was passionate about literature and had already earned bachelor's degrees from Yale and the University of Mississippi. At the University of Mississippi, Faulkner joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. There he was supported in his dream to become a writer. Stone read and was impressed by some of Faulkner's early poetry and was one of the first to discover Faulkner's talent and artistic potential. Stone became a literary mentor to the young Faulkner, introducing him to writers such as James Joyce, who would come to have an influence on Faulkner's own writing. In his early twenties, Faulkner would give poems and short stories he had written to Stone, in hopes of them being published. Stone would in turn send these to publishers, but they were uniformly rejected.
The younger Faulkner was greatly influenced by the history of his family and the region in which he lived. Mississippi marked his sense of humor, his sense of the tragic position of Black and White Americans, his characterization of Southern characters, and his timeless themes, including fiercely intelligent people dwelling behind the façades of good old boys and simpletons. Unable to join the United States Army due to his height (he was 5' 5½"), Faulkner enlisted in a reservist unit of the British Armed Forces in Toronto. Despite his claims to have done so, records now available to the public indicate that Faulkner was never actually a member of the British Royal Flying Corps and never saw service during the First World War.
In 1918, Faulkner himself made the change to his surname from the original "Falkner." However, according to one story, a careless typesetter simply made an error. When the misprint appeared on the title page of his first book, Faulkner was asked whether he wanted a change. He supposedly replied, "Either way suits me." Although Faulkner is heavily identified with Mississippi, he was residing in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1925 when he wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, after being directly influenced by Sherwood Anderson to attempt fiction writing. Anderson also assisted in the publication of Soldier's Pay and of Mosquitoes, Faulkner's second novel, by recommending them both to his own publisher. The miniature house at 624 Pirate's Alley, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans is now the premises of Faulkner House Books, where it also serves as the headquarters of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society.
During the summer of 1927, Faulkner wrote his first novel set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, entitled Flags in the Dust. This novel drew heavily on the traditions and history of the South, in which Faulkner had been engrossed in his youth. He was very proud of his novel upon its completion and he believed it to be a significant improvement from his previous two novels. However, when submitted for publication, it was rejected by the publishers Boni & Liveright. This came as a huge shock to Faulkner, but he eventually allowed his literary agent, Ben Wasson, to significantly edit the text and the novel was finally published in 1928 as Sartoris.
In the fall of 1928, when Faulkner was thirty years old, he began working on The Sound and the Fury. He started by writing three short stories about a group of children with the last name Compson, but Faulkner soon began to feel that the characters he had created would be better suited for a full-length novel. Perhaps as a result of his disappointment in the initial rejection of Flags in the Dust, Faulkner had now become indifferent to his publishers and wrote this novel in a much more experimental style. In describing his writing process for this work, Faulkner would later say, "One day I seemed to shut the door between me and all publisher's addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write." After its completion, Faulkner this time insisted that Ben Wasson not do any editing or add any punctuation for clarity.
In 1929 Faulkner married Estelle Oldham. His best man was Andrew Kuhn. Estelle brought with her two children from her previous marriage to Cornell Franklin and Faulkner intended to support his new family as a writer. Beginning in 1930, Faulkner sent out some of his short stories to various national magazines. Several of his stories were published and this brought him enough income to buy a house in Oxford for his family to live in, which he named "Rowan Oak."
By 1932, however, Faulkner was in a much less secure financial position. He had asked his agent, Ben Wasson to sell the serialization rights for his newly completed novel, Light in August, to a magazine for $5,000, but no magazine accepted the offer. Then, MGM Studios offered Faulkner work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. While Faulkner was not a fan of film, he needed the money, and so he accepted the job offer and arrived in Culver City California in May 1932. There he worked with director Howard Hawks, with whom he got along well, as they both enjoyed drinking and hunting. Howard Hawks' brother William Hawks became Faulkner's Hollywood agent. Faulkner would continue to find work as a screenwriter for years to come throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Faulkner served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville from February to June 1957 and again in 1958. He suffered serious injuries in a horse-riding accident in 1959, and died from a myocardial infarction, aged 64, on July 6, 1962, at Wright's Sanitorium in Byhalia, Mississippi. He is buried along with his family in St. Peter's Cemetery in Oxford, along with a family friend with the mysterious initials E.T.
As a teenager in Oxford, Faulkner dated Estelle Oldham (1897-1972), the popular daughter of Major Lemuel and Lida Oldham, and believed he would some day marry her. However, Estelle dated other boys during their romance, and one of them, Cornell Franklin, ended up proposing marriage to her before Faulkner did, in 1918. Estelle's parents insisted she marry Cornell, as he was an Ole Miss law graduate, had recently been commissioned as a major in the Hawaiian Territorial Forces, and came from a respectable family with which they were old friends. Estelle's marriage to Franklin fell apart ten years later, and she was divorced in April 1929. Faulkner married Estelle in June 1929 at College Hill Presbyterian Church just outside of Oxford, Mississippi. They honeymooned on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at Pascagoula, then returned to Oxford, first living with relatives while they searched for a home of their own to purchase. In 1930 Faulkner purchased the antebellum home Rowan Oak, known at that time as "The Shegog Place" from Irish planter Robert Shegog. After his death, Estelle and their daughter, Jill, lived at Rowan Oak until Estelle's death in 1972. The property was sold to the University of Mississippi in 1972. The house and furnishings are maintained much as they were in Faulkner's day. Faulkner's scribblings are still preserved on the wall there, including the day-by-day outline covering an entire week that he wrote out on the walls of his small study to help him keep track of the plot twists in the novel A Fable.
The quality and quantity of Faulkner's literary output were achieved despite a lifelong drinking problem. He rarely drank while writing, preferring instead to binge after a project's completion.
Faulkner is known to have had several extramarital affairs. One was with Howard Hawks's secretary and script girl, Meta Carpenter. Another, from 1949–53, was with a young writer, Joan Williams, who made her relationship with Faulkner the subject of her 1971 novel, The Wintering.
When Faulkner visited Stockholm in December 1950 to receive the Nobel Prize, he met Else Jonsson (1912–1996) and they had an affair that lasted until the end of 1953. Else was the widow of journalist Thorsten Jonsson (1910–1950), reporter for Dagens Nyheter in New York 1943–1946, who had interviewed Faulkner in 1946 and introduced his works to Swedish readers. At the banquet in 1950 where they met, publisher Tor Bonnier referred to Else as widow of the man responsible for Faulkner being awarded the prize.
From the early 1920s to the outbreak of World War II, when Faulkner left for California, he published 13 novels and numerous short stories. This body of work formed the basis of his reputation and led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize at age 52. This prodigious output, mainly driven by an obscure writer's need for money, includes his most celebrated novels such as The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner was also a prolific writer of short stories.
His first short story collection, These 13 (1931), includes many of his most acclaimed (and most frequently anthologized) stories, including "A Rose for Emily", "Red Leaves", "That Evening Sun", and "Dry September". Faulkner set many of his short stories and novels in Yoknapatawpha County—based on, and nearly geographically identical to, Lafayette County, of which his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, is the county seat. Yoknapatawpha was Faulkner's "postage stamp", and the bulk of work that it represents is widely considered by critics to amount to one of the most monumental fictional creations in the history of literature. Three novels, The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion, known collectively as the Snopes Trilogy, document the town of Jefferson and its environs, as an extended family headed by Flem Snopes insinuates itself into the lives and psyches of the general populace.
Faulkner was known for his experimental style with meticulous attention to diction and cadence. In contrast to the minimalist understatement of his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner made frequent use of "stream of consciousness" in his writing, and wrote often highly emotional, subtle, cerebral, complex, and sometimes Gothic or grotesque stories of a wide variety of characters including former slaves or descendants of slaves, poor white, agrarian, or working-class Southerners, and Southern aristocrats.
In an interview with The Paris Review in 1956, Faulkner remarked:
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.
Another esteemed Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor, stated that "the presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."
Faulkner wrote two volumes of poetry which were published in small printings, The Marble Faun (1924) and A Green Bough (1933), and a collection of crime-fiction short stories, Knight's Gambit (1949).
Faulkner's work has been examined by many critics from a wide variety of critical perspectives. The New Critics became very interested in Faulkner's work, with Cleanth Brooks writing The Yoknapatawpha Country and Michael Millgate writing The Achievement of William Faulkner. Since then, critics have looked at Faulkner's work using other approaches, such as feminist and psychoanalytic methods. Faulkner's works have been placed within the literary traditions of modernism and the Southern Renaissance.
Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature for "his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel." It was awarded at the following year's banquet along with the 1950 Prize to Bertrand Russell. Faulkner detested the fame and glory that resulted from his recognition. His aversion was so great that his 17-year-old daughter learned of the Nobel Prize only when she was called to the principal's office during the school day.
He donated part of his Nobel money "to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers", eventually resulting in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and donated another part to a local Oxford bank, establishing a scholarship fund to help educate African-American teachers at Rust College in nearby Holly Springs, Mississippi. The government of France made Faulkner a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur in 1951.
Faulkner was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for what are considered "minor" novels: his 1954 novel A Fable, which took the Pulitzer in 1955, and the 1962 novel, The Reivers, which was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer in 1963. He also won the U.S. National Book Award twice, for Collected Stories in 1951 and A Fable in 1955. In 1946 he was one of three finalists for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award and placed second to Rhea Galati.
The United States Postal Service issued a 22-cent postage stamp in his honor on August 3, 1987. It is noteworthy that Faulkner had once served as Postmaster at the University of Mississippi, and in his letter of resignation in 1923 wrote:
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.