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William Faulkner Biography

(1897–1962), The White Rose of Memphis, Mississippian, The Marble Faun, Heart of Darkness

American novelist, poet, and short-story writer, born in New Albany, Mississippi, educated at the University of Mississippi; he served with the Royal Air Force in Canada in 1918. Faulkner's great-grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner (Faulkner added the ‘u’ to his surname in 1924), commanded a Southern regiment during the American Civil War and wrote one of the most popular Southern novels of the nineteenth century, The White Rose of Memphis (1881), which went through thirty-six editions; his father owned a livery store and, in later years, became business manager of the state university of Mississippi. The family moved to Oxford, Mississippi in 1902; when Faulkner was five, and it was here that he was educated and spent most of his life. In 1918, after being rejected by the US military, he travelled to New York and, passing himself off as an Englishman, enrolled in the Royal Air Force and was sent to Canada for training; the First World War ended before Faulkner saw active service and he was discharged in December 1918, returned to Oxford, became a student at the University of Mississippi and, whilst there, published poems and drawings in the student newspaper, the Mississippian. Faulkner exerted considerable effort to get his poetry published in book form and, after two years of employment as the fourth class postmaster of the University of Mississippi and several publishers' rejections, he finally succeeded in placing a volume of verse, The Marble Faun (1924), with the Four Seas Company in Boston. By that time he had begun writing prose, and a meeting with Sherwood Anderson, whose influence on young American writers was considerable, in New Orleans in November 1924 is thought by one biographer to be ‘perhaps the single most important contact of his literary life’ (Faulkner considered Anderson's ‘I'm a Fool’ second only, as a short story, to Conrad's Heart of Darkness). In January 1925 Faulkner began work on his first novel, Soldier's Pay, and in the summer of the same year he visited Europe, travelling through Italy, France, and, briefly, England before returning to Oxford at Christmas. With the publication of Soldier's Pay in 1926 Faulkner's career as a novelist and short-story writer had begun, and his brief and unsuccessful flirtation with verse, prompted in part by his reading of the French symboliste poets, was quickly forgotten.

Over the subsequent ten years Faulkner wrote a series of novels which have secured his critical reputation as the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century. The key works brought forward as evidence for this claim are The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), though there are many critics who would also admit later works such as Go Down, Moses (1942), Requiem for a Nun (1951), and the Snopes Trilogy, The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959), to the canon of his major achievements. In the 1930s, however, Faulkner did not enjoy great commercial success and in July 1933 he began working in Hollywood, a connection with the centre of the American film industry which was to continue, intermittently, until 1948; his most notable achievements are his screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, both for Howard Hawks. Faulkner was held in high esteem as a novelist in Europe, particularly in France where he was actively promoted by the novelist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, but it was not until the publication in 1946 of The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley and containing an immensely influential introduction by Cowley, that his critical reputation in the USA began to grow. In recognition of his contribution to literature Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. The last twelve years of his life were spent in the limelight that has sometimes attached to literary celebrity in the USA: he travelled on behalf of the State Department to Peru and Brazil in 1954 and to Japan, under the same auspices, in 1955; he was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia and Charlottesville in 1957 and for part of each year from 1958 until his death in 1962. Faulkner was also the recipient of the French Legion of Honour, the O. Henry Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

As an imaginative artist Faulkner had an advantage enjoyed by few of his American contemporaries, that of having been born and raised in a complex society, the American South, at a critical period in its transition from a quasi-aristocratic agrarian community to a modern, industrial, and increasingly suburban society (see Agrarians). Those features of the ‘Old South’ which the modern South has slowly, and with varying degrees of success, sought to divest itself of—distinctions of class and race, a manorial social pattern, economic backwardness, one-party politics, a taste for the romantic and the sentimental coupled, contradictorily, with a predisposition to violence as a means of resolving disputes—were the features which provided such fertile soil for Faulkner's imagination. Like Thomas Hardy, Faulkner began with a narrow corner of a previously uncharted world and peopled it with an immense gallery of characters, so much so that comparisons with the range of fictionally imagined lives in Balzac and Dickens seem entirely appropriate. His treatment of this world encompasses both the grandly tragic and the farcically comic (his prodigious gift for comedy is his most striking novelistic virtue). Much of the fiction of what might be called his ‘middle years’ is difficult and obscure, and his detractors have frequently criticized the exaggerated and inflated rhetoric of his prose in novels such as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!.

Faulkner's work has been the subject of more critical discussion than that of any other modern American writer, but many of the earlier studies remain the best introductions to his work, notably William Faulkner: A Critical Study (1952) by Irving Howe, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) by Cleanth Brooks, and The Achievement of William Faulkner (1966) by Michael Millgate; Robert Penn Warren's introduction to his edition of critical essays, Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966), is one of the best short pieces. Faulkner: A Biography (2 volumes, 1974), by Joseph Blotner, is an immensely detailed account of the life, while William Faulkner: American Writer (1989), by Frederick R. Karl, is a biography containing much valuable critical commentary.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Englefield Green Surrey to William Faulkner Biography