Modernist Mythographer from Mississippi
US-American novelist William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1949 for his technically and thematically complex fiction.
Faulkner1 was born on 25 September 1897 in the city of New Albany, the county seat of Union County located in northern Mississippi. He came from an old-stock Southern family that was losing its influence and fortune in the years of reconstruction following the American Civil War. His great-grandfather William Clark Falkner (1825-1889) had fought in the Confederate Army, built a railway line and written books. His grandfather John Wesley Thompson Falkner (1848-1922) had made a name for himself as a successful lawyer, politician and banker. His father Murry Cuthbert Falkner (1870– 1932), however, was considered a failure until 1902, when he moved with his wife Maud Butler Falkner (1871– 1960) and their three children to Oxford, the county seat of Lafayette County, roughly 50 km away from New Albany. The city of about 2000 inhabitants offered him a well-paid job in the administration of the University of Mississippi, his growing family a spacious house in a respectable residential area and the eldest of his four sons2 an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration for later works.
Faulkner's early years in Oxford were marked by failure and frustration. Although he started out as a good pupil, the lessons soon began to bore him. At the age of 17, he dropped out of school without a degree and entered his grandfather's bank. While his work turned out to be a real drag, his thoughts and feelings were dominated by high-flying ideas. When his plan to fight as an airplane pilot in the First World War and his wish to marry his childhood sweetheart Lida Estelle Oldham (1896–1972) fell through, he followed the advice of his friend and mentor Phil Stone (1893-1967) and enrolled as a guest student at the University of Mississippi. Even though the university’s theatre troupe never performed his experimental play "The Marionettes", some of his poems and drawings were printed in the yearbook of Ole Miss and in the student magazine The Mississipian. After a disappointing short-term stint as bookseller in New York, he returned to Oxford and took on the job of post office director at the university.
In 1924, Faulkner’s life was changing for the better. With the publication of his first book of poems "The Marble Faun"3 he made the decision to become a professional author. He quit his hateful employment at the university and moved to the French Quarter in New Orleans. At the suggestion of the writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), Faulkner devoted himself to drafting his debut novel, "Soldiers’ Pay" (1925). After taking a six-month trip to Europe with the designer William Spratling (1900-1967), he came back to Oxford, where he worked in the university boiler house at night and wrote his second novel, "Mosquitoes" (1927), in the daytime. While these two works remained conventional in style and technique and met with little positive response from critics, Faulkner's "Sartoris" (1929) became his first literary success. The heavily abbreviated version of the novel—it was first published in full length as "Flags in the Dust" in 1973—combines the story of two disillusioned war veterans and Faulkner's legendary family history in the American South4.
Faulkner's intensive preoccupation with his own origins resulted in the production of literary masterpieces. Over the next seven years, four modernist novels with changing narrative perspectives, complex symbolic images and discontinuous plot structures were created. Their common setting is the city of Jefferson, the country seat of Yoknapatawpha County, i.e. “Faulkner’s mythic Mississippi kingdom” (Oates, 89). "The Sound and the Fury" (1929) depicts the destructive power of incestuous entanglements within the aristocratic Compson family. "As I Lay Dying" (1930) recounts the hilarious adventures and encounters of the raffish Bundren family during their transportation of a corpse at the time of a Mississippi flood. "Light in August" (1932) illustrates the dangerous effects of a racist society on the identity of the white migrant worker Joe Christmas. "Absalom, Absalom!” (1936) demonstrates the devastating impact of shady events in the past upon the family of the wealthy planter Thomas Sutpen.
Financial difficulties and marital conflicts accompanied Faulkner's literary career. Although he married Lida Estelle Oldham after her divorce in 1929, their happiness as a couple did not last long. Her extravagant lifestyle soon exceeded Faulkner's limited financial resources. The small sales proceeds from his artistically demanding literature and the high purchase price of Rowan Oak, a dilapidated antebellum mansion in Oxford, plunged them into debt. In addition, the death of their first daughter Alabama only a few days after her birth in 1931 put a strain on their relationship. More and more often the spouses got drunk to forget their problems. Even before their second daughter Jill was born in 1933, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hired Faulkner as a screenwriter. The dialogue scenes to the commercially successful film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s "To Have and Have Not" (1944) and Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" (1946) came from his pen. His long and frequent absences from home increasingly estranged him from his wife so that he started a passionate affair with Meta Carpenter (1908-1994), the secretary and script girl of the well-known Hollywood director Howard Hawkes (1896-1977).
The many years that Faulkner spent working in the film industry led to a decline in his artistic creativity. Only after the outbreak of the Second World War did he turn to an ambitious literary project that would keep him busy him for almost ten years. "A Fable" (1954) is about a mutiny of a French regiment in the First World War, which caused a short armistice at the front. Even before his allegorically overloaded anti-war novel appeared in print, the liberal Faulkner finished two crime novels set in Yoknapatawpha County 5 about the contemporary issue of racial relations. "Intruder in the Dust" (1948) focuses on the black farmer Lucas Beauchamp who is accused of murdering a white man and is eventually saved from lynching by the white lawyer Gavin Stevens. The sale of the film rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer brought Faulkner the long-awaited financial security. In "Requiem for a Nun" (1951), lawyer Gavin Stevens solves a case of child murder committed by a white woman, for which the black nursemaid Nancy Mannigoe is inadvertently convicted and executed.
Professional success and personal recognition crowned the last years of Faulkner's life. In 1939 and 1949, the writer received the O. Henry Prize for his short stories "Barn Burning" and "A Courtship", respectively. In 1948 he was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was awarded their prestigious William Dean Howells Medal two years later. In December 1950, after his collected short stories had won the National Book Award, he travelled to Stockholm in the company of his daughter to be presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature 1949. His novel "A Fable" earned Faulkner the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 and the National Book Award in 1955. While his three novels about the rise to power of a greedy white-trash family in Yoknapatawpha County —the so called Snopes trilogy consists of "The Hamlet" (1940), "The Town" (1957) and "The Mansion" (1959) —remained without distinction, his last anecdotal novel, "The Reivers" (1962), was posthumously granted the Pulitzer Prize 1962. But at that time William Faulkner, aged 64, was already buried at St. Peter's Cemetery in Oxford, after suffering a serious injury from falling off a horse and dying of a heart attack on 6 July at Wright's Sanatorium in nearby Byhalia, Mississippi.
1 When Faulkner added a “u” to his family name, it has been contended that “he was acting out a family romance, by which while he identified himself as belonging he distinguished himself as someone unique, the prodigal son” (Karl, 18). Thereby, “he could suggest his independence from history and family, but also not make a change which stressed outright defiance. It was the kind of balance which foreshadowed a good deal in Faulkner’s later career: the ideological tightrope he walked on several issues, including racial ones” (Karl, 18).
2 Faulkner’s parents had a total of four sons: “Following their marriage in November 1896, their first son, William, was born in September 1897; their second, Murry, Jr., called Jack, in June 1899; their third, J.W.T. III, called Johncy, in September 1901” (Minter, 6). Note that“their fourth and last son, Dean, was not born until 1907” (Minter, 7).
3 Faulkner was to publish only two volumes of poetry during his life: “The first of these, ‘The Marble Faun’, was published in 1924 by the Four Seas Company in Boston, after Phil Stone had submitted the volume and agreed to pay the $400 required by the company for publication” (Gray, 95). “The one other collection of poetry Faulkner saw published during his lifetime, ‘A Green Bough’, did not appear until 1933, most of the poems in this collection had been written, in some form or other, considerably earlier.” (Gray, 97)
4 As to” Sartoris”/”Flags in the Dust”, it has been argued “the writing of this book marked the discovery of Yoknapatawpha. Given the central place that this fictional rendering of his home country would occupy in his career, it seems astonishing that virtually no hint of it can be found until this point. Just as astonishing is the way Yoknapatawpha should suddenly explode within his imagination, coming into being all at once and down to the most minute detail, as if it had been lurking there all along.” (Singal, 93).
5 It has been maintained that “Yoknapatawpha was not just a convenient tool for him; nor was it invented—or, as Faulkner usually preferred to put it, discovered—in a merely intuitive way. As an apocryphal country, that grew out of the stories and yet seemed to exist above and part from them, it supplied its ‘Sole Owner & Proprietor’ with a special position, a vantage point from which he could at once dramatize and investigate his ‘own little postage stamp of native soil’. It enabled him, in short, to represent history as experience” (Karl, 15).
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- William Faulkner Mississippi Nobel Prize for Literature Yoknapatawpha County Modernism Snopes Trilogy As I Lay Dying The Sound and the Fury Light in August Absalom Absalom! Mosquitoes Soldier's Pay Metro-Golwyn-Mayer Sartoris Flags in the Dust Rowan Oak Oxford A Fable Intruder in the Dust Requiem for a Nun Lida Estelle Oldham William Spratling Sherwood Anderson Phil Stone University of Mississippi Bertrand Russell The Marble Faun Jefferson New Albany