William Faulkner Biography


Reading William Faulkner's short stories is an excellent way to approach his major works. Although his novels are better known and more widely read, many of the same characters and ideas found in them are introduced in his stories.

Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, but soon thereafter his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, a site he would rename Jefferson in his fiction and would use as the setting for almost all of his novels and short stories.

Faulkner came from an old, proud, and distinguished Mississippi family, which included a governor, a colonel in the Confederate Army, and notable business pioneers. His great-grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner (the "u" was added to Faulkner's name by mistake when his first novel was published, and he retained the misspelling), emigrated from Tennessee to Mississippi during the first part of the nineteenth century. Colonel Falkner, who appears as Colonel John Sartoris in Faulkner's fiction, had a distinguished career as a soldier, both in the Mexican War and the American Civil War. During the Civil War, his fiery temper caused him to be demoted from colonel to lieutenant colonel.

Falkner was heavily involved in events taking place during Reconstruction, the twelve years following the end of the Civil War in 1865, when the Union governed the secessional Confederate states before readmitting them. He killed several men during this time and became a rather notorious figure. With a partner, he oversaw the financing and construction of the first post-Civil War railroad in the South; then, after quarreling with his partner, the relationship dissolved. When this former business associate ran for the state legislature, Falkner ran against him and soundly defeated him.

Once asked how much he based his characterization of the genteel Colonel Sartoris on his great-grandfather, Faulkner responded:

"That's difficult to say. That comes back to what we spoke of — the three sources the writer draws from — and I myself would have to stop and go page by page to see just how much I drew from family annals that I had listened to from these old undefeated spinster aunts that children of my time grew up with. Probably, well, the similarity of raising of that infantry regiment, that was the same, the — his death was about — was pretty close, pretty close parallel, but the rest of it I would have to go through to — page by page and remember, did I hear this or did I imagine this?"

What does not appear in Faulkner's fiction is that during all of his great-grandfather's projects and designs, the colonel took time to write one of the nation's bestsellers, The White Rose of Memphis, which was published in book form in 1881. He also wrote two other novels, but only The White Rose of Memphis was successful.

Falkner was finally killed by one of his rivals, and his death was never avenged. Today, a statue of him stands in the Oxford, Mississippi, cemetery. Dressed in a Confederate uniform, he looks out over the region for which he fought so desperately and so valiantly. Only William Faulkner, of all the Falkner clan, is as distinguished and, ultimately, became more distinguished than his great-grandfather.

Faulkner's personal life fits seemingly into the romantic cliché of what a writer's life is like, and he often contributed deliberately to the various stories circulating about him. For example, in 1919, during the final months of World War I, he was rejected for service in the U.S. Armed Forces because he was too short. Not easily deterred, he went to Canada and was accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force, but World War I ended before he finished his training. Returning to Oxford, he adopted an English accent and walked around his hometown in a Royal Canadian Air Force uniform, which he had purchased, along with some medals to adorn the uniform.

To write about Faulkner's personal life is to put oneself at risk of not being able to separate the facts from the imaginary life he conceived for himself. Critics generally agree that he did not graduate from high school, and that he dropped out of the University of Mississippi after a couple of years. He moved to New York City's Greenwich Village at the invitation of an established Mississippi writer, Stark Young, who used his influence to get Faulkner a position as a bookstore clerk, but he returned to Oxford after a few months. He then traveled to New Orleans, where he got a job running a boat that carried bootleg liquor. There, he met the established American writer Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio. Observing the leisurely life Anderson led, Faulkner decided that he wanted to become a writer, and Anderson helped get his first novel, Soldiers' Pay (1926), published — with the promise that he would never have to read it.

Because Soldiers' Pay was not successful commercially, Faulkner again was forced to find employment. This time, however, he found an ideal job: He shipped out as a deck hand on a freighter bound for Europe, where he spent many weeks loafing about the Mediterranean, especially in France and in Italy. His own imaginative reports of his life abroad have never been corroborated.

In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham Franklin, a high-school sweetheart who had been married previously, and he began a period of serious writing. Over the next few years, three of his greatest novels-The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932)-were published. Despite his numerous publications, however, he still did not earn enough money to support his and Estelle's lifestyle. In 1933, a daughter, Jill, was born, and by the mid-1930s, Faulkner was deeply troubled with debt: In addition to his own family and servants, he supported his brother Dean's children after Dean died in a plane crash, in a plane Faulkner had bought for him.

Mounting financial problems forced Faulkner to publish short stories as quickly as he could, and he finally capitulated to the monetary rewards of working as a screenwriter in Hollywood for a thousand dollars a week. He hated the work, but he returned to it off and on during the 1930s, working long enough to pay off his significant debts, and then returning to Oxford, where he wrote at least three novels — Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Wild Palms (1939), and The Hamlet (1940), in addition to several short stories.

Despite Faulkner's having produced some of the finest twentieth-century novels, his early works were never commercial successes; the exception is Sanctuary (1931), at first thought to be a sensational potboiler but later viewed otherwise. He struggled financially until the 1948 publication of Intruder in the Dust. The novel was made into a movie, filmed in Oxford, and Faulkner found himself an important figure in and around the town, the same town that earlier had spurned him, calling him such names as "Count No 'Count."

When Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, only one of his novels was in print. Almost overnight, he was acclaimed by critics, writers, teachers, and reporters. From being an obscure, backwoods country writer, he was catapulted suddenly to the highest echelons of literary achievement. He took advantage of this newfound acclaim by encouraging young writers not to quit their craft. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he seized the spotlight of worldwide attention "as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing."

In 1957, Faulkner accepted a position as writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. There, in informal class settings, he answered many questions about his novels and his artistic vision. Although he sometimes confused aspects of one novel with another, his answers attest to his characters' vibrant personalities and expand on his panoramic vision for the Yoknapatawpha saga.

In June 1962, Faulkner was thrown from his horse and injured his back. He suffered intense pain and was admitted to Wright's Sanitarium, in Byhalia, Mississippi, on July 5. The next day — ironically the date of the old Colonel's birthday — he died, leaving behind him a body of work unsurpassed in twentieth-century literature.

Faulkner uses new techniques to express man's position in the modern world. The complexity of his narrative structures mirrors the complex lives we lead. Most of his novels and short stories probe into the mores and morals of the South, which he was not hesitant to criticize. In his early fiction, Faulkner views despairingly man's position in the universe. He briefly voices this same sense of futility and defeat in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?" Man is a weak creature incapable of rising above his selfish needs.

In his latter works, however, Faulkner's tone changes, and he emphasizes humankind's survival. He believes human beings to be potentially great, affirming that "man shall not only endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance." Penetrating deeply the psychological motivations for human beings' actions, Faulkner concludes that hope remains for our salvation from despair.