William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897, in Mississippi. To understand the background of his works and life one must get to know the history of his family. It could easily be called a typical “self-made” American family story.
William’s ancestors came from Scotland. They moved to North America in the mid XVIII century and were part of the pioneer movement of crowds who started to explore the new land. They were young, courageous and strong people, driven by a sole dream – to get rich. The great-grandfather of the writer managed to fulfill this dreams thanks to his adventurism and entrepreneurship spirit. He was involved in many activities – from fighting the wars between the North and the South, obtaining a title of the colonel, to building a railway and even writing two novels.
William Faulkner inherited many of these traits, all but the entrepreneurship. William’s father, Murry, was the owner of a private stable and the boy grew up in the atmosphere of “royal poverty”. He was one of the four sons and he chose his own way to fulfill his dreams in the literature creations. This creativity was inherited from William’s mother Maud. She and her own mother were avid readers and masters of visual arts.
William didn’t graduate from the high school and went on continuing his education on his own. He was hungry for reading, swallowing classical books of English, French and Russian writers. He attended a couple of courses at the University of Mississippi, but never really obtained a finished academic degree.
William grew up surrounded by stories of his great-grandfather, referred to as “The Old Colonel”, the Civil War and the exploits his family had to go through. This played a great role and influenced the writer to sign up for the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War (even though this fact is disputed by some later historians). He never actively participated in the war, however.
The topics of Southern American life, including slavery and rights suppression, and also the World War I became major themes of his writing works.
His first book "The Marble Faun" (1924) is a compilation of poems, most of them aren’t known today. The critics of that time called it a failed attempt to copy the French symbolism movements.
Finally, under the influence of Sherwood Anderson Faulkner started to write prose. His first prose books are “Soldiers’ Pay” (1926), that talks about the lost generation of people who didn’t find their place after the war, and “Mosquitoes” (1927). He himself admitted that he wrote them for the sake of “having fun”. These works are often called weak and lacking unity, but they also started to shape Faulkner’s own literary style.
Anderson helped Faulkner to develop his talent. He told William that his knowledge of a small piece of land, such as Mississippi where he grew up, is enough to make a great piece of text. He pushed Faulkner to understand and interpret his past experiences, opening it to his readers. That was the start of a fictional Yoknapatawpha County that served as a nondepletable source of inspiration for Faulkner.
His native land appeared for the first time in the third novel, “Sartoris” (1929). At first, it was entitled “ Flags in the Dust” and dwelled heavily on the heritage of South America. After being turned down by the publisher, the book was edited and published under a title “Sartoris”.
Faulkner’s novels present drama of the new generation that had to face a cruel and tough reality. It is a mix of courageous legends about heroic past of our ancestors, and the differences of the 20th century with its devaluation of values.
The world of Faulkner’s novels – is a world of fictional Yoknapatawpha County and its surroundings in the Mississippi state. Its center Jefferson remotely reminds Oxford, where Faulkner spent most of his childhood. It is the land that was bought or stolen by the adventurists, mostly ruled by the aristocratic families of Sartoris and Compsons until the Civil War of 1861-1865 changed the balance. It is the land where the stories of the descendants of these aristocratic families live side by side with the patient and exhausted African Americans who learned to demonstrate more virtue than their unstable and mentally disabled white neighbors. The dark clouds of human passions, mistrust and hatred are hanging upon them. The human interactions under such difficult and unsettling conditions – are the main themes of Faulkner’s novels. His picture of life is sometimes funny and grotesque, partly tragic, but always vivid and bright.
Faulkner used to claim that he didn’t care about the writing techniques and was more concerned about the meaning of his texts. However, he is known for his text experimentations and developing his own unique writing style.
“The Sound and the Fury” (1929) is considered to be one of his best books. Its background is the degradation of used-to-be rich and glorious family of Compsons. The keynotes of the book are the pessimism philosophy, the destruction of traditional ways of life, the wreckage of a personality and the fear of the time and progress.
“Light in August” (1932) is not as intense and complex in terms of its composition. It demonstrates slight hints of the Christian symbolism. The protagonist, Joe Christmas, is a depressed young man who is convinced that he has black blood running in his white body. He killed his ex-partner, Joanna Burden, and the whole town hunts him, kills and then emasculates him. This mixture of sexual, racial and religious motifs makes the book high in emotions.
“As I Lay Dying” (1930) is a novel composed of a series of monologues.
“The Sanctuary” (1931) is one of the most read books of William Faulkner. It was written with an aim to become a sensation. It is abundant with horror scenes, obscure images. This novel also brought commercial success to the writer. After some reworking the novel turned into a story of a martyrdom of a spoiled girl Temple Drake. 20 years later Faulkner published a continuation of this story entitled “Requiem for a Nun” (1950).
Altogether the writer wrote 19 novels, over 120 short stories and many more poems, screenplays, essays and etc. Among his creations are two Pulitzer Prize winners: “A Fable” (1954) and “The Reivers” (1962).
After obtaining a popular literary name and popularity, Faulkner followed his own passions and style. He maintained a calm lifestyle, didn’t like to attend literary dinners or parties, and didn’t follow the critics and newspapers. In 1949, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for the bright and unique input into modern American prose, the writer gained a reputation of a calm and not talkative man. His speech was so short and inaudible, that the public only appreciated it once it was published in the paper the next day.
William Faulkner died in Oxford on July 6th, 1962 after an injury he got when falling off the horse.