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William Faulkner: The Quintessential Southern Writer
On September 25, 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, a son was born to Murry Cuthbert and Maud Butler Faulkner. This baby, born into a proud, genteel Southern family, would become a mischievous boy, an indifferent student, and drop out of school; yet “his mother’s faith in him was absolutely unshakable. When so many others easily and confidently pronounced her son a failure, she insisted that he was a genius and that the world would come to recognize that fact” (Zane). And she was right. Her son would become one of the most exalted American writers of the 20th century, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and two Pulitzers during his lifetime. Her son was William Faulkner.
As a child, Faulkner was well aware of his family background, especially the notoriety of his great-grandfather who had moved to the Mississippi Delta from Tennessee in 1841 (Zane). William Clark Faulkner was a Civil War Colonel, a lawyer, a planter, a politician, a railroad entrepreneur, and a best-selling novelist best known for The White Rose of Memphis. He died in the streets of Ripley, Mississippi, where a former business partner he had forced out of his railroad gunned him down (Padgett). While Faulkner had never met his great-grandfather, he was a powerful influence. When his third grade teacher asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the young William replied “I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy”(Padgett).
After dropping out of school, Faulkner worked as a clerk in his grandfather’s bank and in his spare time wrote short stories and poetry and contributed drawings to the University of Mississippi’s yearbook (Locher). His talent was recognized early on by his good friend Phil Stone, Faulkner’s first literary mentor. Stone encouraged and instructed him in his interests and was a constant source of current books and magazines (Faulkner 699). After short stints in the Royal Canadian Air Force and then as a postal service employee, Faulkner, with Stone’s financial assistance, published The Marble Faun, a collection of his poetry. Sales were poor, however, and it was evident that Faulkner’s real talent was in writing fictional short stories and novels. His first novel, Soldier’s Pay, was published in 1926 and was an “impressive achievement…strongly evocative of the sense of alienation experienced by soldiers returning from World War I to a civilian world of which they seemed no longer a part” (Faulkner 699).
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According to Stone, “anybody could have seen that he had a real talent,” for Faulkner was a born storyteller (Karl 94). According to his grandmother, “… when [he] told you something, you never knew if it was the truth or just something he’d made up” (Zane). Some of the yarns he would spin about himself were clearly tall tales, as when he claimed that he was born in 1826 to a negro slave and an alligator” (Locher 158). Faulkner had a vivid imagination, which he used to embellish the facts of his own life as well as the lives of his fictional characters.
He also had a deep affection for his Southern heritage. Remembering that Sherwood Anderson, a writer himself, once told him, “You have to have somewhere to start from…It don’t matter where it was, just so you remember it and ain’t ashamed of it…You’re a country boy; all you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from” (Padgett), he decided to set the remainder of his fiction in his homeland. “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it…,” Faulkner once quipped (Padgett). His next novel, Flags in the Dust, was the first set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County and failed to be published at the time. Frustrated by the entire publication process, Faulkner stopped worrying about other people’s opinions of his work and decided to simply write. The result was The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s first true masterpiece, considered by many to be his finest work. Faulkner dubs it his own favorite novel, primarily, he says, “because it is his ‘most splendid failure’” (Padgett). The story of a beautiful and tragic little girl, Caddy Compson, The Sound and the Fury depicts the decline of the once-aristocratic Compson family. It was this book that helped Faulkner establish a solid reputation among literary critics. “Stirred by [the novel], Lyle Saxon wrote, ‘I believe simply and sincerely this is a great book’” (Locher 159).
Even though his latest novel was successful among literary circles, Faulkner was virtually unnoticed and ignored by the general public until Sanctuary appeared in 1931 (Locher 159). One of his most violent and shocking novels, it was about the brutal rape of a Southern college student and its generally violent consequences. The scandalous subject matter appealed to the reading public, and it sold well, making Faulkner a minor celebrity. However, he did not fare so well the rest of the decade. “Although Faulkner wrote many of his finest books, including Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Wild Palms, and Go Down, Moses during the 1930’s and 1940’s, they brought in very little revenue. And, despite his stature in literary circles, his books gradually began dropping out of print, partly because of lack of popular interest, partly because of the war effort” (Locher 159). Accused of promoting immorality, readers considered Faulkner a naturalistic monster (Karl 774), and by 1945, all of Faulkner’s books were out of print. Faulkner would see a slight resurgence of interest in his writing, and in 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. If Faulkner failed greatly, he also succeeded mightily. Whatever the faults of his later books, few would dispute the general excellence of his canon. Even Faulkner seemed overwhelmed by his achievement. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a friend: And now I realize for the first time 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. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why God or gods or whoever it was, elected me to be the vessel. Believe me, this is not humility, false modesty: it is simply amazement. (Locher 164) Now known as the “quintessential Southern writer” (Zane), Faulkner would not live to see all of his works published. He died July 6, 1962.
“Faulkner, William.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia. 15th ed. 1998.
Karl, Frederick R. William Faulkner: American Writer. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.
Locher, Frances C., ed. “William Faulkner.” Contemporary Authors. Vols. 81-84. Detroit: Gale, 1979.
Padgett, John B. “William Faulkner: American Writer.” 7 July 99. n. pag. Online. Available 8 Sept. 1999. http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/faulkner.html
Zane, J. Peder. “William Faulkner’s Literary Legacy.” The News and Observer. 21 September 99. n. pag. Online. Available 9 Sept. 1999. http://www.news-observer.com/daily/1997/-0/21/arts00.html