William Cuthbert Falkner (as the family spelled its name) was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, the oldest of four brothers. Both parents came from wealthy families reduced to poverty by the Civil War (1861–65). A great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner, had written The White Rose of Memphis, a popular novel of the 1880s. William was named in honor of his great-grandfather. William’s father owned a hardware store and
livery stable in Oxford and later became business manager of the state university. William did not attend public school consistently after the fifth grade; he left high school prior to graduation in order to work in his grandfather’s bank. William never earned his high school diploma despite being an avid reader and a lover of poetry.
In 1918, after the U.S. Army rejected him for being underweight and too short (5 feet 5 inches), Faulkner enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. During his brief service in World War I (1914–18), he suffered a leg injury in a plane accident. In 1918 he left the air force and returned home to Oxford.
In 1919 Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a special student, but left the next year for New York City. After several odd jobs in New York he left and again returned to Mississippi, where he became postmaster at the Mississippi University Station. He was fired in 1924 for reading on the job. In 1925 he and a friend made a walking tour of Europe, returning home in 1926.
During the years 1926 to 1930 Faulkner published a series of novels, none commercially successful. But in 1931 the success of Sanctuary freed him of financial worries. He went to Hollywood for a year as a scriptwriter and an adviser.
It was not until after World War II (1939–45) that Faulkner received critical acclaim. The turning point for Faulkner’s reputation came in 1946, when Malcolm Cowley published the influential The Portable Faulkner (at this time all of Faulkner’s books were out of print). The rapid and widespread praise for Faulkner’s work was recognized in a 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Faulkner had married Estelle Oldham, his childhood sweetheart, in 1929, and they lived together in Oxford until his death. He was a quiet, dashing, courteous man, mustachioed and sharp-eyed. He constantly refused the role of celebrity: he permitted no prying into his private life and rarely granted interviews. William Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, in a hospital in Byhalia, Mississippi. He was sixty-four years of age.
During the early 1920s Faulkner wrote poetry and fiction. In the volume of verse The Marble Faun (1922), a printer’s error allegedly introduced the “u” into the author’s name, which he decided to retain. His friend, Philip Stone, supplied money for another book of poems, The Green Bough (1933).
Faulkner is considered a fine writer of the short story, and some of his stories, such as “A Rose for Emily,” are widely anthologized. His collections— These Thirteen (1931), Doctor Martino and Other Stories (1934), Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (1942), and Knight’s Gambit (1949)—deal with themes similar to those in his novels and include many of the same characters.
Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927) precede Sartoris (1927), Faulkner’s first important work, in which he begins his Yoknapatawpha saga. This saga, Faulkner’s imaginative re-creation of the tragedy of the American South, is written so that each novel works with the others to clarify and redefine the characters. The novel introduces families that reappear in many of Faulkner’s novels and stories: the Sartoris and Compson families, representing the land-owning, aristocratic Old South; and the Snopes clan, representing the ruthless, commercial New South.
The book generally regarded as Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury (1929), is written in a style that differs from most novels of the time. It uses a stream-of-consciousness method, creating a different manner of thought in each of its four sections. The novel records the breakdown of the Compson family, which serves to suggest a breakdown of the southern ways of the past. Each section takes place in a single day; three sections are set in 1928 and one in 1910. The difficulties begin with the fact that the section set in 1910 is placed second in the book, while the other three set in 1928 are not in the order in which they occur during their three-day span.
The Benjy section (April 7, 1928) is the most difficult section to read. Because the mentally impaired Benjy lives in a state where things rarely change, his report is purely physical, and the reader must figure out his own order of time. Faulkner gives two aids, however: the device of signaling time shifts by alternating the typeface between bold and italic, and the different people attending Benjy.
Out of Benjy’s jumbled report comes background information for the novel. He is thirty-three years old, and in the constant care of an African American youth named Luster. Benjy is troubled by the absence of his sister, Candace, though she has been out of the household for eighteen years. The oldest son, Quentin, was sent to Harvard, where he committed suicide. Mrs. Compson is a self-pitying woman; Mr. Compson is a drunkard; Uncle Maury is a womanizer; Candace is lacking in morals and, in turn, her daughter, confusingly called Quentin (after her dead uncle), is also morally loose.
Ironically, the most sensitive and intelligent Compson, Quentin (whose day in the novel is June 1, 1910), shares Benjy’s obsession about their sister. Candace and the past dominate Quentin’s section, which is set in Boston on the day he commits suicide. He is oppressed by the knowledge that the pregnant Candace is to be married off to a northern banker. The upcoming marriage is the reason for his suicidal state.
Jason, the third Compson brother, whose day in the novel is April 6, 1928, is one of the great comic villains of literature. He has an irrational, jealous hatred of Candace. Now head of the family, he complains of his responsibilities as guardian of Candace’s daughter, Quentin, while systematically stealing the money Candace sends for her care. Jason is greedy, cunning, and concerned only with money and possessions. What makes him humorous is his self-pity. Jason’s lack of soul is evident in all of his habits. He leaves no mark on anything and lives totally in the present, which serves to represent the New South.
The novel’s final section, the only one told in the third person, gives the point of view of the sensible old black servant, Dilsey (her day is April 8, 1928). As with other Faulkner African American characters, her presence is chiefly practical: her good sense and solidity point at the selfishness and self-absorption of the white characters. In this section Jason meets with an overwhelming defeat. The novel’s chief assumption is that the Southern way of life is doomed.
As I Lay Dying (1930) is an absurd epic that uses the multiple stream-of-consciousness method to tell the ridiculous, humorous story of a family of poor whites intent on fulfilling the mother’s deathbed request for burial. The story in Light in August (1932) takes place in a single day. Although complicated by a subplot, Light in August generates enormous power and stands as one of Faulkner’s greatest books.