Skip to main content

Who Was William Faulkner?

John is a retired English teacher, world traveler, and sports enthusiast. He has studied the writings of William Faulkner for decades.

William Faulkner in 1940

William Faulkner in 1940

William Faulkner's Place in American and World Literature

According to his page on Britannica, the American novelist and short-story writer William Faulkner is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He is remembered for his pioneering use of the stream-of-consciousness technique as well as the range and depth of his characterization. In 1949, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, though it was not actually awarded until 1950. This award places him in the first class of modern writers.

After a typographical error in the publication of a book with the wrong spelling of his name in 1918, Faulkner changed the spelling from "Falkner" to "Faulkner." According to one source, after being asked about whether or not he wanted the change, he said, "Either way suits me." Besides winning the Nobel Prize, Faulkner was also awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, once in 1955 and again in 1962. These awards and others ensure Faulkner's high place in American and world literature in the 20th and following centuries..

The Life of William Faulkner

William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 24, 1897. He died on July 6, 1962, in Byhalia, Mississippi. He lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, in Jefferson County, the seat of the fictional Yokanapatawpha County, the setting of most of Faulkner's stories.

Both of his parents were descended from well-to-do Southerners before the Civil War who had had most of their family's wealth destroyed by the War. Faulkner's grandfather, Col. William Falkner (as he spelled his name), fought famously in the Civil War, had a novel published, The White Rose of Memphis, and built his own short railroad in the vicinity of Oxford.

Faulkner attended school irregularly through high school and never graduated. After leaving high school, he attempted to enlist in the US Army in 1918 but was rejected for being too short (5'4" tall) and underweight. Then he went to Canada and enlisted in the Canadian Air Force, where he received a leg injury: When World War I ended, he returned to Oxford. He enrolled in the University of Mississippi for most of one year, then dropped out. He went to New York City for a while and then to Europe for a walking tour of the continent in 1924 and 1925.

In 1925 Faulkner spent half a year in New Orleans, where he knew Sherwood Anderson and his wife and where he spent much of his time writing. Anderson advised him to go back home to Oxford and write about life there rather than about subjects concerning the World War and other subjects that he was writing about at the time. (The tiny apartment where Faulkner lived in New Orleans is around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral, in Pirate's Alley, now operating as a bookstore with a wonderful collection of First Edition novels by Faulkner.)

Faulkner was able to publish important novels between 1926 and 1931, including Sartoris, his first Yoknapatawpha novel, then The Sound and the Fury in 1929. He published Sanctuary in 1931, which was a financial success and provided him financial security for this period in his life. He also went to Hollywood to work for about a year on screenplays before returning to Oxford.

Faulkner's real fame as a writer did not come until after World War II, and first from French, not American, critics, including Jean-Paul Sartre. Then in 1946, Malcolm Cowley published The Portable Faulkner with excerpts from various selected works, producing much fame for him. It was in 1949 that Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he did not accept until 1950. He traveled to Stockholm to receive the prize. He later received a number of recognitions, including a stay at the University of Virginia as Writer in Residence, from which came the book Faulkner in the University.

Faulkner and Estelle Oldham were married in 1929. He had fallen in love years earlier, but then she was married to someone else, who later died. They had one daughter, Jill.

He has been described as a "quiet, dapper, courteous man, mustachioed and sharp-eyed. He steadfastly refused the role of celebrity: he permitted no prying into his private life and rarely granted interviews" (YourDictionary).

Faulkner's Reputation

Dr. Jay Watson, Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies at the University of Mississippi wrote the following about Faulkner:

At the Time of his death, he was considered the most important American novelist of his generation and arguably the entire 20th century, eclipsing the reputation of contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and even Ernest Hemingway. His death was front page news in the New York Times, which quoted a statement by President John F. Kennedy that "since Henry James, no writer has left behind such a vast and enduring monument to the strength of American literature." (Mississippi History Now, 2002)

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner spoke of the modern writer's goal of being able to

[T]each himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he lives under a curse. He writes not of love but lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars." (Nobel Prize)

This statement by Faulkner expresses his positive evaluation of the human race and our future possibilities as a species.

The Sound and the Fury

First, the title of this great novel was taken from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5. After Macbeth has killed his King, Duncan, and his wife, Lady Macbeth, has committed suicide, Macbeth sinks into madness. He sees his life as meaningless, "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Faulker, in this quote states his evaluation of the whole of humankind, if and when humankind has gone wrong.

The Sound and the Fury symbolizes the destruction of the power of the Compson family of the novel, in Jefferson, and the Compson family, in turn, stands for the old South's possession of absolute dominance and power in its slave-based society, which was then gone for the Compsons in their struggles and failing to survive in their former social position.

The novel begins with a section narrated told by the severely mentally challenged of the family, Benjy, who survives to the end of the novel, "the tale told by an idiot", in Faulker's words. The second is narrated by the oldest of the children, Quentin, who went to Harvard paid for by the money from the sale of much of his family's property, from which the town's golf course was built. He committed suicide by jumping into the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston.

The third section is narrated by Jason, a small-minded and mean-spirited person who survives to the end of the novel, unhappy to the end of his days, as far as we know. The final section is written by Faulkner, an unnamed omniscient author who tells the story somewhat as, Dilsey, an aged, black woman in the center of the Compson family, as housekeeper, babysitter, and cook, a strength in the middle of the failure and despair of the family. Of her and her family, Faulkner said, "They endured."

Much of the novel revolves around Candace, a sister,or "Caddy", as she is called. She buckled under the strain of her dissolving family and escaped by running away from home after leaving her daughter to be raised by her mother. She sends money from time to time for her daughter, but Jason steals it.

Following is the opening paragraph of the novel, the Benjy section.

Through the fence between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back in and went to the table and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and they stopped, and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

These are the words of Benjy as he and his caretaker, Luster, were walking beside the golf course on the land that the Compsons had sold for money to send Quentin to Harvard. Luster Has lost money which he was going to use to "go to the show" that evening.

The most compelling facet of Benjy's narration is that he has no concept of time. He completely runs times together in the five-time periods of the novel: April Seventh, 1928, June Second, 1910, April Sixth, 1928, April Eighth, 1928. In much the same way that Benjy's times are "mixed up," so are the times of the story in the novel, with different happenings being told about in different times in the lives of the characters and what those happenings mean.

Faulkner's Overall Career Evaluation

William Faulkner wrote works of psychological drama and emotional; depth, typically with long serpentine prose and meticulously-chosen diction...He is the only true American Modernist prose fiction writer of the 1930's...and known for using groundbreaking literary devices such as stream of consciousness, multiple narrations of points of view , and time-shifts within narrative. (Biblio)

This short list of literary techniques lifts Faulkner above other writers of his time, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald, as far as I am concerned. I most appreciate Faulkner's long literary career of hard work in producing fiction that I consider to be at the highest artistic level of his time in America. In addition to novels, he wrote marvelous short stories and worked on movie scripts in Hollywood for a time.

Faulkner published 20 novels, novellas, and short stories between his first novel in 1926 and his last one in 1962. He won two Pulitzer Pulitzer Prizes and one Nobel Prize. These awards and many others speak to his greatness in relation to other writers.

Reading Faulkner requires interest and determination, which many people never acquire. Those who do find Faulkner's writing to be gems of both artistry and wisdom which amply reward our time, patience, and determination.

My personal study of Faulkner, in addition to my sources, has informed this article. Most important were my three years of work on his informal theory of literary dialect and the study of his use of literary dialect at Ball State University under the Chairman of the Linguistics Department, Dr. Charles Houck.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 John Murphree