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William Faulkner

The sleepy little hamlet of New Albany, Mississippi, gave America one of its greatest writers when, on September 25, 1897, novelist William Faulkner was born.  Best known for his Yoknapatawpha cycle, a human comedy of the American South that began in 1929 with Sartoris/Flags in the Dust and finished with The Mansion in 1959.

Faulkner--who had changed the spelling of his last name from Falkner upon publishing his first book of poetry in 1924--was the oldest of four sons born to Murray Charles and Maud Butler Falkner.  While he was still a child, the family settled in Oxford in northern Mississippi.  Faulkner lived most of his life in the town, which he called "a little postage stamp of native soil," a village of unpaved streets with a population of 1500 people.  When he reached the age of 13, he began to write poetry.  He also enjoyed sports and played quarterback at Oxford High School until he had has nose broken.  He dropped out of school after receiving a "D" in English before he received his diploma to go to work in his grandfather's bank.

As war loomed across the horizon, Faulkner tried enlisting in the army but was turned away for being too short.  He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and received his basic training in Toronto.  He served with the RAF in World War I but did not see any action, which didn't stop him from telling people later that he had been shot down over France.

"The writer's only responsibility is to his art.  He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.  He has a dream.  It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it.  He has no peace until then.  Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.  If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." - from Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 1959

After the war, Faulkner briefly studied literature at the University of Mississippi.  He continued writing poetry and also drew cartoons for the university's humor magazine, The Scream.  The magazine's editor recalled, "I liked the cartoons better than the poetry."

In 1920, Faulkner left the university without receiving a degree and moved to New York City, where he worked as a clerk in a bookstore.  After that, he returned to Oxford where he supported himself as postmaster at the University of Mississippi until he was fired for reading on the job.  He drifted to New Orleans, where Sherwood Anderson encouraged him to write fiction rather than poetry.  Faulkner took him up on the suggestion.

In 1926, after publishing his first novel, Soldier's Pay, about a young soldier returning from the war physically and psychologically disabled, he followed up with Mosquitoes, a satirical account of the Bohemian life of the poets and intellectuals living in New Orleans.  The author's early writing shows the influence of Keats, Tennyson, and the literature of the 1890s.

Faulkner wrote Sartoris (1929), the first of fifteen novels set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional region of Mississippi loosely patterned after Lafayette County.  It was a Chickasaw Indian word that meant "water passes slowly through flatlands." Sartoris was later reissued under the title, Flags in the Dust (1973).  The Yoknapatawpha novels spanned the decades of the South's post-Civil War economic decline through the Great Depression.  They are filled with racism, class distinction, and the vagaries of the southern family, all recurring Faulknerian themes.  Along the way, the author used various writing styles.  The narrative varies from the traditional storytelling of Light in August and a series of vignette-like snapshots in As I Lay Dying to the collage of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom, which is often considered Faulkner's masterpiece.  It records a range of voices and varying points-of-view, all trying to unravel the mysteries of Thomas Sutpen's violent life.

He wrote all of his books in longhand, often struggling with words and definitions.  He didn't own a dictionary.  Often, he would make up his own words to suit the moment, combine two words into one, or turn nouns into verbs and vice versa.  If he couldn't spell something, he would walk down to the local drugstore and ask someone there to look it up for him.  Sometimes, he would stop people on the street and ask them for the meaning of a word.  "I'm looking for a word.  It means the same as 'running fast' but I don't want to use 'running fast.'"

In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham Franklin, his childhood sweetheart, who had recently been divorced.  The following year, the young couple purchased a traditional Southern pillared house in Oxford, which he named Rowan Oak.  It was typically ornate, with immaculate grounds and mature trees.  Architecture was important to the author.  He restored Rowan Oak to its previous glory, named some of his books after various buildings (The Mansion), and depicted them in his writings with great care and deliberation:

"It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street." - from A Rose for Emily

With The Sound and the Fury (1929), his first master work, Faulkner gained recognition as a serious writer.  He followed that up with As I Lay Dying the following year, while still working at an electrical power station in a nightshift job.  The book follows the illness, death, and burial of Addie Bundren.  Her dying wish is to be buried in her home town.  The family struggles through flood and fire to carry her coffin to the graveyard in Jefferson, Mississippi.  The journey becomes Addie's curse: "Now you are aware of me!  Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever." 

The following year saw the publication of Sanctuary (1931), which, according to the author, was "deliberately conceived to make money."  In it, a young woman is raped by a murderer.  She finds sanctuary in a brothel.  Faulkner experimented with various methods of narration, using page-long sentences and forcing the reader to hold in mind details and phrases that are meaningful only at the end of the story.

One of Faulkner's primary themes is the abuse of blacks by the Southern whites. Because his novels treat the decay and anguish of the South following the Civil War, they are rich in violent and sordid events.  But they are grounded in a profound and compassionate humanism that celebrates the tragedy, energy, and humor of ordinary human life.

To earn money, Faulkner worked in Hollywood off and on for two decades, contributing to screenplays such as Today We Live (1933) and Land of the Pharaos (1955).  His own stories were considered too wild for Hollywood during the Hays Code of Decency days, dealing, as they did, with rape, incest, suicide, and more.  Between scriptwriting, Faulkner published several novels.  Pylon (1934), the story of four adults and a child who travel from one air show to another, Absalom, Absalom!, The Wild Palms (1939), a story of the Snopes family in which the character McCord is based on Ernest Hemingway and parallels that author's A Farwell to Arms, and Go Down Moses and Other Stories (1942), containing "The Bear," one of his best short fiction pieces.

By 1945, with Faulkner's novels out of print, the author again turned to Hollywood and began writing scripts, mostly for director Howard Hawks, who had read Faulkner's first novel and recommended it to his friends.  Hawks' biographer Todd McCarthy wrote," "Just a year apart in age, with Hawks the senior, both were reserved to the point of non-communicativemess.  Nunnally Johnson was astonished by the sight of the two of them just sitting together not saying a word.  When they did talk, they did so slowly, in a drawling manner." 

Faulkner worked with Hawks, among others, on the film The Big Sleep (1946), based on Raymond Chandler's novel and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  He also worked with him on To Have and Have Not (1944), based freely on Ernest Hemingway's novel.  Hemingway had just turned down Hawks' offer to work on the screenplay of his own book, to which Hawks replied, "I'll get Faulkner to do it; he can write better than you can anyway."

In 1946, Faulkner underwent a second period of success with the publication of The Portable Faulkner.  Three years later, he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in the category of literature.  But by then, the author had done some serious damage to his health by hard drinking.  His wife's drug addiction and declining health only added to a stressful family situation.  "I will always believe that my first responsibility is to the artist, the work," he wrote in a letter; '"it is terrible that my wife does not realize or at least accept that."

His stints in Hollywood didn't do much to strengthen his family life, either.  Securely away from home, he carried on a series of affairs, from secretive to flamboyant.  One of his paramours, script-girl Meta Carpenter Wilde, wrote a book about their relationship.  Meanwhile, Faulkner continued writing novels.  In 1951, he published Requiem for a Nun, followed three years later by A Fable, which was poorly received.  His The Town in 1957 and The Mansion continued the saga of the Snopes family. 

His last book, The Reivers (1962), placed the author back in the childhood setting he knew and loved so well from Sanctuary.  It was to be a final reuinion: on June 17 of that year, Faulkner was thrown from a horse.  He died of a coronary occlusion three weeks later.

In his obituary, The New York Times (July 7, 1962) cited his critics and stated that "Mr. Faulkner's writings showed an obsession with murder, rape, incest, suicide, greed and general depravity that did not exist anywhere but in the author's mind."

How wrong that assessment has turned out to be.

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