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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

William Faulkner

The great-grandson and namesake of Colonel William C. Falkner, a Civil War hero who was also a popular writer, William Cuthbert Faulkner aspired to greatness, even as a small child, when he listened mesmerized to tales and legends from his distinguished family’s past, a history that had paled by the time it reached his rather ordinary and sometimes hostile father, Murray Falkner. William was born in New Albany, Mississippi, but the family soon moved to nearby Oxford, where Faulkner would spend most of his life.

In June 1918, Faulkner joined the Royal Air Force of Canada; he trained as a cadet pilot in Toronto until November, when the Armistice sent him homeward again. Back in Oxford, after swaggering around the square in his uniform, telling spurious tales about his combat in France, he renewed his attempts to become both an artist and a poet. He had learned to draw from his artistically inclined grandmother and mother; enrolling as a special student at the University of Mississippi, he illustrated several campus publications, as well as some poetry sequences he wrote for various girlfriends. After dropping out of the university in 1921, Faulkner took a brief job in a New York bookstore; there he met the future wife of Sherwood Anderson, Elizabeth Prall. Returning to Oxford in December, he accepted a position as postmaster at the university, a job he held, despite a lackadaisical attitude, until late 1924. His first book of poetry, The Marble Faun (1924), continued his work in the decadent/neo-romantic vein.

Faulkner moved to New Orleans in 1925, where his friendship with Elizabeth Prall led to an apprenticeship with Sherwood Anderson, whom she had married. In Anderson’s literary circle Faulkner became acquainted with Freud’s theories of sexuality, the mythic world of anthropologist Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough, and the sweeping implications of the literary innovations of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. He also absorbed the ennui and despair of the post-war generation, and melded all these influences, first in a series of literary sketches published by the New Orleans Times Picayune and The Double Dealer (a literary magazine) and then in a first novel, Soldier’s Pay. Faulkner meanwhile left for Europe, spending time in Italy and England but reacting most strongly to France, beginning a lifelong love affair with that country. Returning to Mississippi, Faulkner took a series of jobs while working on his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927).

For Faulkner, 1929 marked the beginning of what critics have come to call “the great years” (extending to 1942), when he wrote the seven novels (in a total of twenty) that have been judged masterworks. The impetus for this extraordinary outburst came in Sartoris (1929), when Faulkner, on the advice of Anderson, decided to concentrate on what he came to call his “little postage-stamp of soil,” Yoknapatawpha County; all the great novels are set there, in or around Jefferson, the county seat. The town and county obviously depict Oxford and its surrounding Lafayette County. As a result of this focus, Faulkner was able to create a mythic “cosmos” of his own, with interconnected mythic structures and characters, populating his world with all the various folk he had encountered in life; he made a determined effort to render the experience of women, blacks, and American Indians as well, and showed nostalgia for lost traditions and the vanishing wilderness while simultaneously decrying rampant materialist culture and racial injustice.

Faulkner’s first masterwork, The Sound and the Fury, was published in 1929. Faulkner wrote this book thinking of a little girl with muddy drawers climbing a pear tree to look in on her grandmother’s body lying in state in the parlor, thereby finding a metaphor for the narrative of the fall of a proud southern family. The story, told in three successive first person narrations by three brothers and finally through the consciousness of their black nurse/housekeeper, keeps circling back to the same issues in different voices, adding new levels of understanding. Documenting, in a radical new prose style, both the loss of familial love and honor and the decline of a great culture, the book caused a sensation among critics but sold poorly, as did its successor, As I Lay Dying (1930), which detailed the efforts of a poor-white family to bury their unembalmed mother.

Faulkner, desperate for money, embarked on the first of several unhappy stints in Hollywood as a scriptwriter (1932–1936; 1942–1945; parts of 1951 and 1954). He found intermittent happiness during his Hollywood years. He wrote much of his next novel, Light in August (1932), during a trip to New York. One of his two or three greatest works, it details the deceptively simple frame story of Lena Grove, a country woman wandering the South searching for the father of her unborn child. This narrative interconnects on many levels with the one it encloses, the much longer and tragic tale of Joe Christmas, an orphan like Lena, who may or may not have black blood. The novel probes deeply into race, religion, and sexuality, and the role of memory and the past in the human consciousness.

Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is generally considered Faulkner’s most monumental achievement. Four narrators, including Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury and his Harvard roommate, Shreve McCannon, attempt to decipher the mysteries surrounding the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a self-made planter and God-like creator of Supten’s Hundreds, a huge plantation. The novel plunges into the darker recesses of personal histories, exploring incest, inter-racial love, psychic perversion, and materialist obsession, while simultaneously rendering the sufferings of blacks and whites during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the South’s attempts to come to terms with its tragic history.

Faulkner experimented with counterpoint in The Wild Palms (1939), alternating chapters of two discrete narratives, one concerning a convict’s efforts to bring a woman and her baby safely out of a Mississippi flood, the other focusing on a tragic and adulterous love affair. He returned to form in his last two masterworks, The Hamlet (1940) and Go Down Moses (1942). The former, Faulkner’s finest comedy, begins a trilogy of novels about the rise of the Snopes family which continues in The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959). Go Down Moses, generated by Faulkner’s revision and union of existing stories, concerns the efforts of Ike McCaslin to repudiate the tragic racial history of his family, which includes his grandfather’s siring of a child on his mulatto daughter. The narrative builds to a climax in what is perhaps Faulkner’s most powerful and sustained piece of writing, “The Bear,” which uses a hunt to explore the meaning of history, manhood, and responsibility to nature.

The course of his career was always uncertain, and all of his books except Sanctuary were out of print before Malcolm Cowley’s publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946, which began a reassessment of Faulkner’s career. Faulkner’s Collected Stories appeared in 1950, setting the stage for his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm, where his short but powerful acceptance speech caused a sensation; he predicted that man would not only endure; he would prevail.

Faulkner’s last decade combined increasing bouts with illness, accident, and alcoholism, with public appearances and pronouncements. He traveled widely for the State Department (most memorably to Japan in 1955) and eventually accepted a position at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

His dogged, often heroic commitment to a dissection of racism indicates an agreement with W.E.B. Du Bois’s assertion that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Faulkner’s profound sense of history and tradition was in no way a curb on his appetite for modernist solutions—both stylistic and philosophical—to literary, social, and spiritual problems. He stated, a few years before his death, that “the writer’s first job...” is “always to search the soul...To search his own soul, and to give a proper, moving picture of man in the human dilemma.” At its best, Faulkner’s complex work courageously meets this standard.

John Lowe
Louisiana State University

In the Heath Anthology
Dry September (1931)
Barn Burning (1938)

Other Works
The Marble Faun (1924)
Soldier's Pay (1926)
Mosquitoes (1927)
Sartoris (1929)
The Sound and the Fury (1929)
As I Lay Dying (1930)
Sanctuary (1931)
Light in August (1932)
Pylon (1935)
Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
The Unvanquished (1938)
The Wild Palms (1939)
The Hamlet (1940)
Go Down, Moses (1942)
Intruder in the Dust (1948)
Collected Stories of William Faulkner (1950)
Requiem for a Nun (1951)
A Fable (1954)
The Town (1957)
The Mansion (1959)

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Faulkner Resources on the World Wide Web
Annotated list of web references.

The William Faulkner Foundation, France
Bibliography, chronology, and introduction to a Southern U.S. studies program in France.

William Faulkner on the Web
A biography, character analysis, FAQs, and numerous links provided by John Padgett (an Ole Miss grad student).

William Faulkner: Nobel Prize Speech
Electronic transcription of Faulkner's acceptance speech given in Sweden in 1950.

Secondary Sources

J. Blotner, Faulkner, A Biography, 1984

Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner, First Encounters, 1983

Faulkner, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. R. Warren, 1966

F. Hoffman and O. Vickery, eds., William Faulkner, Three Decades of Criticism, 1960

D. Kartiganer, The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner's Novels, 1979

Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner, 1966

D. Minter, William Faulkner, His Life and Work, 1980