William Cuthbert Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, poetry, essays, and a play. 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 celebrated 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’s renown reached its peak upon the publication of Malcolm Cowley’s The Portable Faulkner and his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the only Mississippi-born Nobel winner. Two of his works, A Fable (1954) and his last novel The Reivers (1962), each 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) appears on similar lists.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi, William Faulkner was the first of four sons of Murry Cuthbert Falkner (August 17, 1870 – August 7, 1932) and Maud Butler (November 27, 1871 – October 16, 1960). He had three younger brothers: Murry Charles “Jack” Falkner (June 26, 1899 – December 24, 1975), author John Faulkner (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 Murry 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 proposed a plan to get a new start for his family by moving to Texas and becoming a rancher. Maud disagreed with this proposition, however, and they moved instead 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 fifth birthday, 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 “Callie” Barr (the African American nanny who raised him from infancy) crucially influenced the development of Faulkner’s artistic imagination. Both his mother and grandmother were avid readers as well as painters and photographers, educating him in visual language. While Murry enjoyed the outdoors and encouraged 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 success early on. He excelled in the first grade, skipped the second, and did well through the third and fourth grades. However, beginning somewhere in the fourth and fifth grades of his schooling, Faulkner became a much quieter and more withdrawn child. He began to play hooky occasionally and became somewhat indifferent to his schoolwork, instead taking interest in studying the history of Mississippi on his own time beginning in the seventh grade. The decline of his performance in school continued, and Faulkner wound up repeating the eleventh and twelfth grade, never graduating from high school.
Faulkner spent his boyhood listening to stories told to him by his elders including those 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 and namesake, William Clark Falkner, who was a successful businessman, writer, and Confederate hero. Telling stories about “Old Colonel”, as his family called him, 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.”
When he was 17, Faulkner met Phil Stone, who became 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. Faulkner also attended the latter, joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and pursued his dream to become a writer. Stone read and was impressed by some of Faulkner’s early poetry, becoming one of the first to recognize and encourage Faulkner’s talent. Stone mentored the young Faulkner, introducing him to the works of writers such as James Joyce, who influenced Faulkner’s own writing. In his early 20s, Faulkner gave poems and short stories he had written to Stone in hopes of their 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 ol’ 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 Army in Toronto. Despite his claims, records indicate that Faulkner was never actually a member of the British Royal Flying Corps and never saw active service during the First World War.
In 1918, Faulkner’s surname went from “Falkner” to Faulkner. 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 the change. He supposedly replied, “Either way suits me.”
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- and early 19th-century England. He attended the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) in Oxford, enrolling in 1919, going three semesters before dropping out in November 1920.
William was able to attend classes at the university because his father had 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 publications.
Although Faulkner is 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, he made his first attempt at fiction writing. Anderson assisted in the publication of Soldiers’ Pay and Mosquitoes, Faulkner’s second novel, set in New Orleans, by recommending them to his publisher.
The miniature house at 624 Pirate’s Alley, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, is now the site 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, titled 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 extremely proud of the novel upon its completion and he believed it to be a significant step up from his previous two novels. However, when submitted for publication, it was rejected by the publishers Boni & Liveright. Faulkner was devastated by this rejection, but he eventually allowed his literary agent, Ben Wasson, to significantly edit the text, and the novel was published in 1929 as Sartoris. (The original version was issued as Flags in the Dust in 1973.)
In the autumn of 1928, just after his 31st birthday, 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 soon began to feel that the characters he had created might be better suited for a full-length novel. Perhaps as a result of 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 the 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 insisted that Ben Wasson not do any editing or add any punctuation for clarity.
In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham, Andrew Kuhn serving as best man at the wedding. Estelle brought with her two children from her previous marriage to Cornell Franklin and Faulkner hoped to support his new family as a writer. Faulkner and Estelle later had a daughter, Jill, in 1933. He began writing As I Lay Dying in 1929 while working night shifts at the University of Mississippi Power House. The novel would be published in 1930. Beginning in 1930, Faulkner sent out some of his short stories to various national magazines. Several of his stories were published, which brought him enough income to buy a house in Oxford for his family to inhabit, which he named Rowan Oak. He made money on his 1931 novel, Sanctuary, which was widely reviewed and read (but widely disliked for its perceived criticism of the South).
By 1932, Faulkner was in need of money. He asked Wasson to sell the serialization rights for his newly completed novel, Light in August, to a magazine for $5,000, but none accepted the offer. Then MGM Studios offered Faulkner work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Faulkner was not an avid movie goer and had reservations about working in the movie industry. As André Bleikasten comments, he “was in dire need of money and had no idea how to get it…So he went to Hollywood.” It has been noted that authors like Faulkner were not always hired for their writing prowess but “to enhance the prestige of the …writers who hired them.”He arrived in Culver City, California, in May 1932. The job would begin a sporadic relationship with moviemaking and with California, which was difficult but he endured in order to earn “a consistent salary that would support his family back home.” As Stefan Solomon observes, Faulkner was highly critical of what he found in Hollywood, and he wrote letters that were “scathing in tone, painting a miserable portrait of a literary artist imprisoned in a cultural Babylon.” Many scholars have brought attention to the dilemma he experienced, and that the predicament had caused him serious unhappiness. In Hollywood he worked with director Howard Hawks, with whom he quickly developed a friendship, as they both enjoyed drinking and hunting. Howard Hawks’ brother, William Hawks, became Faulkner’s Hollywood agent. Faulkner would continue to find reliable work as a screenwriter from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Faulkner served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville from February to June 1957 and again in 1958.
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 in 1918 one of them, Cornell Franklin, proposed marriage to her before Faulkner did. 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 whom they were old friends. Estelle’s marriage to Franklin fell apart ten years later, and they divorced in April 1929.
Two months later, Faulkner and Estelle wed in June 1929 at College Hill Presbyterian Church just outside 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 that same year. The house and furnishings are maintained much as they were in Faulkner’s day. Faulkner’s scribblings are preserved on the wall, including the day-by-day outline covering a week he wrote on the walls of his small study to help him keep track of the plot twists in his 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 had several extramarital affairs. One was with Howard Hawks’s secretary and script girl, Meta Carpenter, later known as Meta Wilde. The affair was chronicled in her book A Loving Gentleman. 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), widow of journalist Thorsten Jonsson (1910–1950), reporter for Dagens Nyheter in New York from 1943–46, who had interviewed Faulkner in 1946 and introduced his works to Swedish readers. Faulkner and Else had an affair that lasted until the end of 1953. At the banquet where they met in 1950, publisher Tor Bonnier introduced Else as the widow of the man responsible for Faulkner’s winning the prize.
On June 17, 1962, Faulkner suffered a serious injury in a fall from his horse, which led to thrombosis. He suffered a fatal heart attack on July 6, 1962, at the age of 64, at Wright’s Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi. Faulkner is buried with his family in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, alongside the grave of an unidentified family friend, whose stone is marked only with the initials “E.T.”