1897 -- 1962
William Cuthbert Faulkner's forebears first came into Northeast Mississippi about the same time -- circa 1840 -- the town of Oxford and, a few years later, the University of Mississippi were founded. The Falkner family history is typical of the struggle of the American pioneer: fraught with sickness, violence, despair, fortune, and war. This history presented a variety of colorful incidents and people who would appear in somewhat altered forms as events and characters in William Faulkner's literature, as was the case with the "the Old Colonel," William Clark Falkner, William Faulkner's great-grandfather, dead for eight years at the time William Cuthbert Faulkner was born, September 25, 1897.
Faulkner's birth truly marked the end of an era and the beginning of another. Between 1897, when Faulkner was born in New Albany, and 1903, when Faulkner moved to Oxford just three days shy of his fifth birthday, Oxford's first telephones were installed. The first water tower also went up at that time, providing Oxford residents sewerage and plumbing. Electricity turned on in 1908.
As Faulkner grew up in Oxford "a shy and troubled boy who would become a shy and troubled man," according to biographer David Minter -- working in his father's livery stable, dropping out of high school, meeting his sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, whom he would later wed, enrolling as a student at the University of Mississippi -- his views would be shaped dramatically and continually by family and local life.
In spite of his disdain for formal schooling, literary people had a very early influence upon him, and Oxford then had a rough literati, much as it does today. These included Phil Stone, the Yale-educated lawyer who encouraged Faulkner to read Keats and Swinburne and who read Faulkner's own first poems, saying later that "anyone could have seen he had real talent," and Ben Wasson, a University student who later would become his first agent.
Through his early acquaintances, Faulkner gained access to the libraries of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar and Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Oxford's first writer (his Georgia Scenes was published in 1835), and Stark Young who, Stone once told Faulkner, "opened my mind." Young was a drama critic for the New York Times, an early editor of the New Republic, translator of the first English edition of Chekhov's The Seagull, and author of the 1934 best seller So Red the Rose. Young introduced Faulkner to Elizabeth Prall, who managed the Doubleday Bookstore in New York and, in 1921, offered Faulkner a job there, giving him his first big ride out of town.
Faulkner's writing aspirations were also no doubt influenced by his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, who wrote, in serial form for the Ripley Advertiser, The White Rose of Memphis and Rapid Ramblings in Europe. The former, when published as a book in 1881, went through thirty-five printings, selling 160,000 copies.
Faulkner's life was characterized by ambivalent desires for fame and privacy. In his youth he cultivated a bohemian look, "put on airs," according to some townspeople, and became known as "Count No 'Count." His mother brought him up to be a proud person, which he rightfully was, but he was also withdrawn. Perhaps, as Faulkner scholar Dianne Roberts told me, he invited ambivalence and ambiguity because "as a writer you get a lot of energy from conflict -- conflict is where writing comes from."
His writing career was defined by the explosive and prolific genius of his early years when he wrote his greatest books -- The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary -- and for which he received very little critical attention and, through the depth of the Depression, almost no monetary compensation.
Midway through his career in the early 1940s, all but one of his books were out of print. Malcolm Cowley proposed in 1945 to Faulkner that they do The Portable Faulkner, saying he wanted in the book "nothing that doesn't deal with Mississippi." The Portable Faulkner launched Faulkner's career anew and his reading audience and acclaim have grown ever since.
Later, as many critics and Faulkner himself admitted, his career was marked by a diminishing of his genius but a more finely developed craftsmanship, as demonstrated in Go Down, Moses, the Snopes trilogy, and The Reivers. This period was also punctuated by growing acclaim -- the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize (twice), and the National Book Award (twice).
Faulkner died after an illness July 6, 1962, in Wright's Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi.
-- Richard Howorth