William Faulkner

It is impossible to discuss the great writers of the 20th century without mentioning the name William Faulkner. The Nobel-Prize winning Mississippi-native was responsible for writing some of the most enduring American novels of the 20th century, and his modernist writing techniques, such as the use of changing viewpoints, inner monologues, and stream-of-consciousness writing, have influenced writers around the world.

William Faulkner William Faulkner

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Table of contents

    William Faulkner's Biography

    William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25th, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He belonged to an upper-middle-class family and was the oldest of four sons. His father, a treasurer for a railroad company, was named Murry Cuthbert Falkner, and his mother was Maud Butler. When William was a young child, the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, and he would continue to live in the Mississippi town for most of his life.

    Growing up in Mississippi, Faulkner was surrounded by stories of the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan, and family history. These included stories about his great-grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner, who had been a Confederate hero. These stories and his Mississippi childhood had a significant influence on his writings.

    William Faulkner Photograph of Mississippi Setting StudySmarterMississippi setting, pixabay.com

    Another early influence was Faulkner's mother, who loved to read and taught her sons to value education and literature.

    Faulkner worked hard in school as a young child, skipping the second grade. However, later in his school career, he was forced to repeat the eleventh and twelfth grades and did not ultimately graduate high school. Despite the lack of academic success, Faulkner remained independently interested in literature and the study of Mississippian history.

    Did you notice that the last name Faulkner is spelled Falkner in William's father's name? This is reportedly because of a typesetter's error in 1918, which introduced the extra letter. Unconcerned, William Faulkner adopted this new spelling.

    As a young man, Faulkner began writing poetry and short stories. He met Mississippi attorney Phil Stone, a well-educated man who recognized Faulkner's talent and became his mentor. Stone helped Faulkner try unsuccessfully to publish some of his first short stories and introduced the young writer to literature that would become a life-long influence.

    In 1918, William Faulkner joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, hoping to realize his dreams of flying. World War I ended before he completed training, however, leaving Faulkner to return to Mississippi full of stories of false combat. That next year, back home in Oxford, Faulkner enrolled in the University of Mississippi, but he dropped out after only three semesters.

    The Start of a Literary Career

    In 1925, Faulkner spent time in New Orleans, where he began to move away from poetry and focus more explicitly on prose. He published several short stories as well as wrote his first two novels over the next two years.

    In 1927, Faulkner wrote his third novel, Flags in the Dust, the heavily edited version of which was published in 1929 as Sartoris. This novel was significant because it was his first set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on his hometown in Mississippi, where many of his other novels and stories would take place.

    Faulkner in Hollywood

    In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham, becoming the stepfather of her two children and having their own daughter in 1933.

    William Faulkner Photograph of the famous Hollywood Sign on the hills StudySmarterFaulkner worked for a time as a writer in Hollywood. Pixabay.com

    Working only as a writer, Faulkner struggled to support his family as the Great Depression began. In search of a more stable income, he went to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, he worked on close to fifty films in total and had a memorable affair with a script supervisor named Meta Carpenter.

    During these years, he also continued writing and publishing his own novels and short stories.

    William Faulkner's Death

    In 1962, William Faulkner fell from a horse, suffering an injury that resulted in thrombosis, a life-threatening blood clot. Just a few weeks later, on July 6th, 1962, Faulkner suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 64 years old.

    Prizes and Awards

    William Faulkner is generally considered one of the greatest American authors of all time and won numerous literary awards, including:

    • Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949
    • National Book Award for Fiction (for Collected Stories of William Faulkner) in 1951.
    • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction (The Fable) in 1955.
    • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Reivers) in 1963, the year after Faulkner died.

    William Faulkner was the recipient of the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature; however, he actually received the award in 1950. This was because the committee decided that none of the candidates for 1949's Nobel Prize met the selection criteria, so the prize was deferred until the next year.

    William Faulkner's Books

    William Faulkner is best known for his Southern gothic, modernist novels and short stories. His writing involves long, detailed sentences, changing viewpoints between characters, and the use of inner monologues and stream-of-consciousness writing. Colloquial language grounds his texts firmly in the American South, and much of his work is set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional place in Mississippi.

    The following are some of William Faulkner's published works, including novels, poems, and short stories:

    William Faulkner's Novels

    • The Sound and the Fury (1929): Faulkner's fourth novel takes place in Jefferson, Mississippi, and tells the decades-long story of the Compson family. Although it was not immediately successful, the novel is now considered an American classic. It was compared to James Joyce's Ulysses for its Modernist writing techniques, including stream-of-consciousness narration and shifts in points of view.
    • As I Lay Dying (1930): Perhaps Faulkner's best-known novel, As I Lay Dying is also considered a classic of American literature. It tells the story of the Burden family as they journey across Mississippi to bury their wife and mother, Addie. The novel is notable for the shifting points of view between many different narrators and Faulkner's use of stream-of-consciousness writing.
    • Light in August (1932): Light in August is a novel that also takes place in Jefferson, Mississippi. It interweaves the stories of several key characters, including Lena Grove, a pregnant woman searching for the father of her baby, the baby's father, Joe Brown, and Brown's partner in a bootleg whiskey operation, Joe Christmas.
    • Faulkner's other novels include Soldiers Pay (1926), Mosquitoes (1927), Flags in the Dust/Sartoris (1929), Sanctuary (1931), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) (1939), The Hamlet (1940), Intruder in the Dust (1948), Requiem for a Nun (1951), A Fable (1954), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1960), and The Reivers (1962).

    William Faulkner's Short Stories

    William Faulkner was also famous for publishing well over 100 short stories.

    Some of his short story collections include These 13 (1931), Go Down, Moses (1942), Knight's Gambit (1949), and Collected Stories of William Faulkner (1950).

    William Faulkner's Poems

    I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing." —Faulkner1

    William Faulkner's first forays into writing were romantic poems influenced by British poets. However, as he aged, Faulkner left poetry behind to focus on his prose. One critic argued that Faulkner would never have been well known as a poet, but rather "the fact that he is a great novelist gives his verse importance."2

    Faulkner wrote two collections of poetry, The Marble Faun (1924) and A Green Bough (1933), and many individual poems that were published in various publications.

    William Faulkner Quotes

    Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders." —Light in August (1932)

    This quote is the first line of Chapter 6 in Light in August. Here, the novel goes back in time to tell the story of five-year-old Joe Christmas growing up in an orphanage. It refers to the importance of memory and history in shaping Faulkner's characters. He writes about memories and impressions that are formed without conscious thought but have significant ramifications for an individual's core beliefs, influencing their character and actions for years to come. This phrase also highlights Faulkner's writing style, bending prose almost to the point of poetry.

    He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn't need a word for that any more than for pride or fear." —As I Lay Dying (1930)

    This quote comes from Addie, the dead wife and mother in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Addie expresses the belief that words are inadequate or unnecessary because they are created by someone who has never experienced the thing that the word conveys. The person who experiences pride or fear or love doesn't need a word for it. Here, Addie refers to her husband, Anse, a man she was never able to love and to whose love she was indifferent.

    Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life." —The Sound and the Fury (1929)

    This quote comes from the second chapter of The Sound and the Fury, narrated by Quentin, one of the Compson children. In the novel, Faulkner repeatedly questions our use and perception of time with the non-linear structure of his writing and also with the story itself. For example, the character Benjy has a mental disability and therefore has no concept of time. Quentin, on the other hand, is obsessed with the passage of time and continually wishes to stop time or live in the past.

    I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail." —Nobel Prize banquet speech (1950)

    This quote comes from Faulkner's speech after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Faulkner gave the speech during the start of the Cold War, and he spoke to the writer's role in society. The writer, and in particular the poet, does not exist solely to record the human experience but to contribute to it. Literature can uplift humanity by reflecting and reminding us of our merits.

    William Faulkner - Key takeaways

    • William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi.

    • Oxford, Mississippi, would become the inspiration for the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where many of Faulkner's novels and short stories are set.

    • Faulkner worked on films as a scriptwriter in Hollywood during the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

    • Some of William Faulkner's most important novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932).

    • Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.

    • William Faulkner died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962, when he was 64 years old.

    1Garrett, Jr., George P. "An Examination of the Poetry of William Faulkner." The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 18, no. 3, 1957.

    2Faulkner, William. "The Art of Fiction." The Paris Review, issue 12, 1956.

    Frequently Asked Questions about William Faulkner

    What is William Faulkner best known for?

    William Faulkner is best known for his contribution to American literature in the form of novels and short stories. Some of his best-known novels include As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. The majority of his work takes place in the American South, specifically the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha in Mississippi.

    What was William Faulkner's writing style?

    William Faulkner's writing style included long, complex sentences. He also used many Modernist writing techniques, including changing narrators and points of view and relying on inner monologues and stream of consciousness writing.

    What was William Faulkner's cause of death?

    William Faulkner died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962.

    Who was William Faulkner?

    William Faulkner was a Nobel Prize-winning American novelist, poet, and short-story writer.

    Why was William Faulkner important?

    William Faulkner was important because of his enormous contribution to American literature. His novels, including As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and The Sound and the Fury, are considered among the greatest American novels of all time. Faulkner was also important because he used writing techniques that were unconventional at the time, such as non-linear narratives and stream-of-consciousness writing.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Why does Lena Grove leave Alabama?

    What is the name of Jefferson's disgraced reverend?

    Is Yoknapatawpha county a real place?


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