William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Award-winning author of The Sound And The Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! (To name but a few…)
Born and raised in the American South, Faulkner spent his whole life in Mississippi, which formed the backdrop for his writing; many of his short stories and novels were set in Yoknapatawpha County, which critics consider to be a mirror-perfect reflection of Faulkner’s Mississippi hometown of Oxford.
Faulkner was heavily influenced by the women in his life: his mother and grandmother were both great readers and art lovers. He was also influenced by the stories of Oxford’s past: tales of the Civil War, slavery and Ku Klux Klan, as well as stories of his family’s past (including that of William Clark Falkner, Faulkner’s Civil-War-hero great-grandfather, who was “enshrined long since as a household diety”).
When Faulkner attempted to enlist for the First World War, he was rejected owing to his height (he stood at 5’5.5″); this bitter disappointment dogged him and he claimed to have enlisted in the British Flying Corps. However, this was later found to be untrue.
His first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, was printed in 1925; his second, Flags In The Dust, was initially rejected after he completed it in 1927. It was heavily edited and re-titled, and released in 1928 as Sartoris; this year also marked the beginning of Faulkner’s work on The Sound And The Fury. Ignoring his publishers – who had insisted on the changes to Flags In The Dust – he wrote the novel in an experimental style, and it was printed in 1929.
In 1929, Faulkner married the previously-married Estelle Oldham, who he had known since childhood. She brought with her two children, and for a while, Faulkner’s writing sustained the family financially. However, by 1932 it had become a struggle, and so Faulkner accepted an offer from MGM Studios to become a screenwriter; he was not a film-lover but put this aside so as to be able to provide for his family. In the late ’50s, he became the writer-in-residence at the University Of Virginia.
Faulkner was a heavy drinker but never touched the bottle whilst writing; rather, he preferred to indulge heavily once he’d completed
What inspired his work?
Arguably, Faulkner’s greatest influence was the South. His sense of identity stemmed from his location and its past – Mississippi was heavily embroiled in the Civil War, slavery and so on, and as such had a wealth of material that Faulkner could draw on. As someone who was seemingly so captivated by the entwined ideas of history and identity, Faulkner’s writing reflects his love-hate relationship with his home county.
What should I start with?
Try As I Lay Dying. It follows the Bundren family as they deal with the fall-out from the eventual death of matriarch Addie. Happy-go-lucky father Anse stands as a polar opposite to his jaded, dying wife, while their various children are all suffering with their own problems. Darkly humorous and throat-gulpingly tragic by turn, it’s a classic.
Why should I care about him?
The piercing clarity of his prose makes his novels as heart-breakingly beautiful as they are mind-twistingly warped. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949; he also received Pulitzer Awards for his books in 1955 and posthumously in 1963. His Nobel Prize was received for his “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”; he donated a portion of his prize money to helping up-and-coming fiction writers.
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”