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Faulkner, William

family novel south people

(US 1897–1962)

Unarguably one of the greats of twentieth-century American literature, credited with writing no fewer than eighteen masterpieces. Faulkner briefly attended university and spent some time with writers and artists in Paris. However, he chose to write most often about the rural communities of Mississippi where he grew up and lived for most of his life, redefining this territory as the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County. He uses this imaginary county to mirror the whole of the Deep South, and writes about it with an archivist's obsessiveness. Faulkner's major theme is the decline of the South, the moral degeneration of white people, and the inability of black people to shake off the impact of slavery. His work is challenging, but supremely rewarding.

In The Sound and the Fury (1929), a novel with four narrative voices, we meet the Compson family who recur in several books. The dynasty has been traced from 1699 to 1945. In this novel the siblings Caddy and Quentin degenerate from a state of original innocence, succumbing to the family pattern of incest, erotomania, and suicide. One of their brothers, Benjy, is severely mentally handicapped; the first section, in his stream of consciousness voice, is extraordinary. Another brother, Jason, self-pitying and tyrannical, succeeds their father as head of the family. In the background, the Compson's negro servants watch and witness; in Faulkner's own words: ‘They endured.’

As I Lay Dying (1930) is a shorter novel, and a good place for a reader to start. Written in six weeks, it charts the journey of a poor family to bury their mother Addie among her own people in Jefferson, Mississippi. The coffin is carried on their wagon, and at one point has to be rescued from the flooding Mississippi river. Again, the novel is told in the intercut voices of different family members—each with their own secrets—as they make their dramatic journey.

Critics have claimed Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom (1936) as Faulkner's finest novels. In them he returns to the same territory that features in The Sound and the Fury, writing about it with a ‘feverish intensity and biblical grandeur’. Faulkner himself once claimed that the only books he read were the Bible and Greek tragedies, from which he derived his style. The compelling blend of epic, stream of consciousness, and Gothic has had a tremendous impact on writing from the South. Just as writers in Ireland have written in the shadow of Joyce, few writers from the South have escaped the visionary influence of Faulkner. Faulkner also worked in Hollywood, scripting films like To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Ralph Ellison.

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