William Faulkner Biography


The Unvanquished is the novel that is most often recommended as an introduction to Faulkner's fiction. It is, in one sense, his easiest novel to read, and it presents many of the characters and ideas that are found in his other greater novels. Furthermore, the novel is based in large part on Faulkner's own great-grandfather's exploits, and it presents both a romantic view of the South and the flaws in the southern culture which caused its downfall. Faulkner shows "the old order" of the South fighting for survival and, ultimately, failing. Most of the characters in the novel think that the southern way of life is the "right" way of life, the best way of life — in short, a way of life in accordance with divine law. In Miss Rosa Millard's prayer to God, she says, "now that You have seen to make our cause a lost cause," indicating that she still believes the ways of the South are right; she question's God's purpose, but she cannot deny God.

William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, but his family soon moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Almost all of his novels take place in and around Oxford, which he renamed Jefferson, Mississippi. Even though Faulkner is a contemporary American writer, he is already considered to be one of the world's greatest writers. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the highest literary prize that can be awarded to a writer. When he accepted this prize, he maintained that the duty of the artist is to depict the human heart in conflict with itself. This attitude is best realized in the final story of this collection, "An Odor of Verbena," when Bayard Sartoris must decide what course of action he must take to avenge his father's murder.

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 Gulbert Falkner (the "u" was added to Faulkner's name by mistake when his first novel was published, and Faulkner retained the misspelling), came to Mississippi from South Carolina during the first part of the nineteenth century. The Colonel appears in many of Faulkner's novels under the name of Colonel John Sartoris. Colonel William Falkner had a rather distinguished career as a soldier both in the Mexican War and in the American Civil War. During the Civil War, Falkner's hot temper caused him to be demoted from full colonel to lieutenant colonel. After the war, Falkner was heavily involved in the trials of the Reconstruction period. He killed several men during this time and became a rather notorious figure. He also joined in with a partner and built the first railroad during Reconstruction; then he quarreled with his partner, and the partnership broke up. When his former partner ran for the state legislature, Colonel Falkner ran against him and soundly defeated him. Thus, as one can easily see, the character of Colonel Sartoris in The Unvanquished is based rather heavily upon the career of Faulkner's own great-grandfather. This could account for some of the ambivalent characterization associated with Colonel Sartoris.

Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia, where he was a guest lecturer, how much he drew his characterization of Colonel Sartoris from his own great-grandfather, Colonel Falkner. 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 animals 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 go through to — page by page and remember, Did I hear this or did I imagine this?

What does not appear in the novel is that during all of these involved activities, Colonel Falkner took out time to write one of the nation's bestsellers, The White Rose of Memphis, which appeared in 1880. He also wrote two other novels, but only his first was an outstanding success. As was Colonel Sattoris in The Unvanquished, Colonel Falkner was finally killed by one of his rivals, and his death was never avenged. Today, one can travel to the cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi, and see a statue of Colonel Falkner, dressed in his Confederate uniform, gazing out at his railroad, and looking over the region that he fought so desperately and valiantly for. Only William Faulkner himself, of all the interceding members of the Falkner family, was as distinguished — and ultimately more distinguished — than his great-grandfather was.

Except for his novel Sanctuary, Faulkner's early novels were never commercial successes. Consequently, he would often interrupt a novel and write short stories for magazines; most of the stories in The Unvanquished, for example, first appeared in magazines. He would also take frequent trips to Hollywood, where he wrote or collaborated in writing film scripts purely for financial reasons. When Intruder in the Dust was published in 1948 and was almost immediately made into a movie, the novel and the movie both called attention to all of Faulkner's other works. Almost overnight, Faulkner was acclaimed by all sorts of critics, writers, and teachers. Ironically, virtually all of his books were out of print at that time, but today one can readily purchase a copy of almost every book that Faulkner ever wrote.

In his later life, in 1955, Faulkner moved to Virginia, where he was artist-in-residence at the University of Virginia; there, in informal class settings, he answered many questions about his books, his writing, and his artistic concepts. While he was not always accurate, his answers to many of the questions are expansions on his entire Yoknapatawpha series. Of The Unvanquished, he said that it should be the first of his novels that one should read because "it's easy to read. Compared to the others, I mean." When asked if he had written the stories with the idea in mind that they would someday become a novel, Faulkner responded:

I saw them as a long series. I had never thought of it in terms of a novel, exactly. I realized that they would be too episodic to be what I considered a novel, so I thought of them as a series of stories . . . when I got into the first one I could see two more, but by the time I'd finished the first one I saw that it was going further than that, and then when I'd finished the fourth one, I had postulated too many questions that I had to answer for my own satisfaction. So the others had to be . . . written then.

In all of his work, Faulkner used new techniques to express his views of people's positions in the modern world. In his early works, Faulkner viewed with despair our position in the universe. He saw humans as weak creatures incapable of rising above our selfish needs. Later Faulkner's view changed. In his more recent works, it is clear that he believed humans to be potentially great, or, in the words of Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, man shall "not only endure; he will prevail." In almost all of his novels, Faulkner penetrated deeply into the psychological motivations for our actions and investigated people's dilemma in the modern world.