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||William (Cuthbert) Faulkner (1897-1962) - original surname until 1924 Falkner|
American short story writer, novelist, best known for his Yoknapatawpha cycle, a comédie humaine of the American South, which started in 1929 with Sartoris / Flags in the Dust and completed with The Mansion ( 1959). Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Faulkner's style is not very easy-in this he has connections to European literary modernism. His sentences are long and hypnotic, sometimes he withholds important details, or refers to people or events that the reader will not learn about until much later.
"The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies." (from Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 1959)
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, the oldest of four sons of Murray Charles Faulkner and Maud (Butler) Faulkner. While he was still a child, the family settled in Oxford in north-central Mississippi. Faulkner lived most of his life in the town. While still at school, he began to write poetry. At the Oxford High School he played quarterback on football team and suffered a broken nose. Before graduating, he dropped his studies and worked briefly in his grandfather's bank.
After being rejected from the army because he was too short (5' 5''), Faulkner enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and had basic training in Toronto. He served with the RAF in World War I, but did not see any action. Before he could make his first solo flight, the war was over. This did not stop him later telling that he was shot down in France.
After the war he studied literature at the University of Mississippi for a short time. He also wrote some poems and drew cartoons for the university's humor magazine, The Scream. "I liked the cartoons better than the poetry," recalled later George W. Healy Jr., who edited the magazine. In 1920 Faulkner left the university without taking a degree. Years later he wrote in a letter, "what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made."
Faulkner moved to New York City, where he worked as a clerk in
bookstore, and then returned to Oxford. For a time Faulkner supported
himself as a postmaster at the University of Mississppi, but was fired
for reading on the job. He drifted to New Orleans, where Sherwood
Anderson encouraged him to write fiction rather than poetry. In July
1925 he sailed out of New Orleans for Genoa, Italy, and from there he
traveled to Paris. During his four months stay, he visited the famous
bookshop Shakespeare & Co., but didn't meet Sylvia Beach. Just to
get a glimpse of James Joyce, he made a habit
of hanging out at the Café Voltaire, that Joyce frequented. Faulker
also toured the WWI battlefields and spent ten days hiking in England.
The early works of Faulkner bear witness to his reading of
Tennyson, Swinburne, and the fin-de-siècle English poetry. His first
book was The Marble Faun (1924), a collection of poems. It
did not gain success. After a hiatus in Paris, he published Soldier's
The novel centered on the return of a soldier, who has been physically
and psychologically disabled in WW I. It was followed by Mosquitoes
a satirical portrait of Bohemian life, artist and
intellectuals, in New Orleans. Most of the book was written in the Gulf
Coast resort of Pascagoula. He often worked outdoors early in the
morning. His room was equipped with daybed, a chair and a table for his
portable typewriter. Faulkner bought his typewriters used, and pounded
them with two fingers until they were worn out. He favored Underwood
In 1929 Faulkner wrote Sartoris, the first of fifteen novels set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional region of Mississippi-actually Yoknapatawpha was Lafayette County. The Chickasaw Indian term meant "water passes slowly through flatlands." Sartoris was later reissued entitled Flags in the Dust (1973). The Yoknapatawpha novels spanned the decades of economic decline from the American Civil War through the Depression. Racism, class division, family as both life force and curse, are the recurring themes along with recurring characters and places. Faulkner used various writing styles. The narrative varies from the traditional storytelling (Light in August) to series of snapshots (As I Lay Dying) or collage (The Sound and the Fury). Go Down, Moses (1942) was a short story cycle about Yoknapatawpha blacks and includes one of Faulkner's most frequently anthologized stories, 'The Bear', about a ritual hunt, standing as a symbol of accepting traditional cultural values.
Absalom, Absalom! is generally considered Faulkner's masterpiece. It recods a range of voices and vocabularies, all trying to unravel the mysteries of Thomas Sutpen's violent life. "Hemingway," Faulkner said once, "has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
In 1929 Faulkner married Estelle Oldham Franklin, his childhood sweetheart, who had divorced his first husband, a lawyer. Next year he purchased the traditional Southern pillared house in Oxford, which he named Rowan Oak. Architecture was important for the author-he obsessively restored his own house, named his books after buildings ('the mansion'), and depicted them carefully: "It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street." (from 'A Rose for Emily')
With The Sound and the Fury (1929), his first masterwork, Faulkner gained recognition as a writer. Its title originated from the famous lines in Shakespeare's play Macbeth: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."
While working at an electrical power station in a nightshift job, Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying (1930), about the illness, death, and burial of Addie Bundren. The book consists of interior monologues, most of them spoken by members of the Bundren family. The deceased herself has one monologue; her dying wish is to be buried in her home town. Struggling through flood and fire the family carries her coffin to the graveyard in Jefferson, Mississippi. Ultimately, the journey becomes Addie's curse. "Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever." Cash, Addie's son, breaks his leg, Darl, another son, attempts to cremate his mother's body by setting fire to the barn, and Dewey Dell is raped in the cellar of a pharmacy. Addie is buried next to her father in the family plot. Darl's sanity dies with her mother and he is taken finally to an asylum. Anse, the father, appears with a woman, introducing her as the new 'Mrs Bundren'.
Sanctuary (1931), dedicated to Sherwood Anderson for
services rendered, was according to the author "deliberately conceived
to make money." In the story a young woman is raped by a murderer. She
finds sanctuary in a brothel, but none of the sexual acts there is
described in detail. Sanctuary
was one of nine novel identified as obscene in the criminal proceedings
in the Court of Quarter sessions in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.
The other allegedly obscene novels were Harold Robbins's Never Love a Stranger, James T.
Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy,
and A World I Never Made,
Erskine Caldwell's God Little Acre,
Calder Willingham's End as a Man,
and Faulkner's Wild Palms.
In 1933 Faulkner started to take flying lessons and he bought
own plane. To earn money and support Estelle, their three children, and
some of the Oldhams, Faulker worked over the next 20 years in Hollywood
on several screenplays, from Today We Live (1933) to Land
of the Pharaos (1955). Hollywood provided him a reliable source of income.
Under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox, Faulkner produced five screenplays based on popular novels – Banjo on My Knee, The Last Slaver, Splinter Fleet, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Left Hand of God. The Road to Glory, co-written with Joel Sayre, was loosely adapted from a French war film, Les croix de bois
(Wooded Crosses, 1932), made by Raymond Bernard and based on
Roland Dorgelès's autobiographical novel from 1919. At times, Faulkner
called his Hollywood contracts his "sojourn downriver," an analogy of
being sold as a slave into the deepest South. (Student Companion to William Faulkner by John Dennis Anderson, 2007, p. 15) His own stories were for the conservative
producers too daring: they dealt with rape, incest, suicide etc.
Moreover, Faulkner experimented with methods of narration, using
sentences, and forcing the reader to hold in mind details and phrases
that are meaningful only at the end of the story.
Between scriptwriting Faulkner published several novels. Pylon (1934) was a story of four adults and a child, who travel from air show to another; it did not sell as well as Faulkner had hoped. Absalom, Absalom! focused on Thomas Sutpen's attempts to found a Southern dynasty in the 19th-century Mississippi. The Wild Palms (1939) was a story of the Snopes family, in which the character McCord is based on Ernest Hemingway and parallels A Farwell to Arms. Go Down Moses, and Other Stories (1942) contained 'The Bear,' one of his most celebrates pieces of short fiction.
"He wrote A Fable in my house. He'd be typing away in the middle of the night. Worked right on the typewriter, typed all night. I walked in on him, asked him what he was working on there in the middle of the night. He said, "Oh... on a novel." "Well... what's it about?" He said, "Oh, it's about Jesus Christ coming to earth during the World War." ( A.I. Bezzerides in The Big Book of Noir, ed. by Ed Gorman, Lee Server and Martin H. Greenberg, 1998)
By 1945, when Faulkner's novels were out of print, he moved again to Hollywood to write under contract movie scripts, mostly for director Howard Hawks, with whom he had befriended at MGM in the early 1930s. Hawks had read Faulkner's 1926 novel Soldier's Pay when it had just appeared and recommended it to his friends. Faulkner wrote for the director an adaptation from his short story 'Turn About'. Their first meeting ended in heavy drinking. "Just a year apart in age, with Hawks the senior, both were reserved to the point of noncommunicativemess; Nunnally Johnson was astonished by the sight of the two of them just sitting together not saying a word. When they did talk, they did do slowly, in a drawling manner." (Todd McCarthy in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, 1997) Faulkner cooperated with Hawks among others in the films To Have and Have Not (1944), based freely on Ernest Hemingway's novel, and The Big Sleep (1946), based on Raymond Chandler's novel. When Hemingway had turned down Hawk's offer to work with his own book, the director had said, "I'll get Faulkner to do it; he can write better than you can anyway."
Faulkner's second period of success started with the publication of The Portable Faulkner (1946), which rescued him from near-oblivion. However, Faulkner's physique and mental functioning was weakened by hard drinking. "When I have one martini I feel bigger, wiser, taller," he confessed. "When I have a second I feel superlative. After that there's no holding me." Besides problems with alcohol his wife's drug addiction and declining health shadowed his life. "I will always believe that my first responsibility is to the artist, the work," he wrote in a letter; "it is terrible that my wife does not realise or at least accept that." Their daughter Jill later said that "Nothing about the marriage was right."
Moreover, Hollywood was not the best refuge from domestic problems, because Faulkner also had there series of affairs, among others with Meta Carpenter Wilde, a script girl, who wrote a book about their relationship. Faulkner did not hide his fear and contempt of the city: "Sometimes I think if I do one more treatment or screenplay, I'll lose whatever power I have as a writer," he told Carpenter. Faulkner published in 1951 Requiem for a Nun, and badly received magnum opus A Fable in 1954.The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959) continued the story of the Snopes family, which he had begun in The Hamlet (1940).
With The Reivers (1962), set early in the 20th-century, Faulkner nostalgically revisited his childhood, and extends the world of Sanctuary. On June 17, 1962, he was thrown from a horse, and a few weeks later, on July 6, Faulkner died of a coronary occlusion. The New York Times cited his critics in his obituary and stated that "Mr. Faulkner's writings showed an obsession with murder, rape, incest, suicide, greed and general depravity that did not exist anywhere but in the author's mind". (July 7, 1962) Fourty-three years later, in his review of Jay Parini's book One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner (2004) the Nobel writer J.M. Coetzee defined Faulkner not only as "the most radical innovator in the annals of American fiction," but "a writer to whom the avant-garde of Europe and Latin America would go to school." (The New York Review of Books, April 7, 2005)
For further reading: William Faulkner: His South by R.P. Warren (1951); William Faulkner: A Critical Study by I. Howe (1952); The Literary Career of William Faulkner by J.B. Meriwether (1961); William Faulkner by C. Brooks (1963); A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner by E.L. Volpe (1964); Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by R.P. Warren (1966); Faulkner: A Biography by J.L. Blotner (1974, 2 vols.); William Faulkner by W. Beck (1976); A Loving Gentleman by Meta Carpenter Wilde and Orin Borsten (1976); William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond by C. Brooks (1978); William Faulkner, His Life and Work by D. Minter (1980); The Origins of Faulkner's Art by J.L. Sensibar (1984); William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Fiction, ed. by A. Robert Lee (1987); Faulkner's Apocrypha by Joseph R. Urgo (1989); The Feminine and Faulkner by Minrose C. Gwin (1990); Faulkner's Subject by Philip M. Weinstein (1992); Critical Essays on William Faulkner, ed. by Arthur F. Kinney (1996); William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha by Thomas S. Hines (1997); Existential-Phenomenological Readings on Faulkner by William J. Sowder (1997); Faulkner: Masks and Metaphors by Lothar Honninghausen (1997); Faulkner. The Return of the Repressed by Doreen Fowler (1997); Conversations with William Faulkner, ed. by M. Thomas Inge (1999); One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner by Jay Parini (2004); Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner by Philip Weinstein (2009); 'Introduction,' in William Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox: The Annotated Screenplays by Sarah Gleeson-White (2017); William Faulkner: A Life through Novels by André Bleikasten (2017) - See: publications of Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Series: Faulkner and Gender; Faulkner and Psychology; Faulkner and Ideology; Faulkner and the Short Story; Faulkner and Natural World; Faulkner and the Artist; Faulkner in Cultural Context - See also: Ben Hecht, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler, Sherwood Anderson - Note: Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, wrote her thesis at Cornell University on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. James Hadley Chase based his famous mystery story No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) on Faulkner's Sanctuary.