William Faulkner biography
American writer William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi in 1897. Much of his early work was poetry, but he became famous for his novels set in the American South, frequently in his fabricated Yoknapatawpha County, including Sartoris. In 1933, his controversial novel Sanctuary was turned into a Hollywood film. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature before his death in 1962.
A Southern writer through and through, William Cuthbert Falkner (the original spelling of his last name) was born in the small town of New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. His parents, Murry Falkner and Maud Butler Faulkner, named him after his paternal great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, an adventurous and shrewd man who seven years prior was shot dead in the town square of Ripley, Mississippi. Throughout his life, William Clark Falkner worked as a railroad financier, politician, soldier, farmer, businessman, lawyer and—in his twilight years—best-selling author (The White Rose of Memphis).
The grandeur of the “Old Colonel,” as almost everyone called him, loomed large in the minds of William Clark Falkner's children and grandchildren. The Old Colonel’s son, John Wesley Thompson, opened the First National Bank of Oxford in 1910. Instead of later bequeathing the railroad business to his son, Murry, however, Thompson sold it. Murry worked as the business manager for the University of Mississippi. Murry’s son, author William Falkner, held tightly to his great grandfather’s legacy, writing about him in his earliest novels set in the American South.
As much as the older men in Faulkner’s family made an impression on him, so did the women. Faulkner’s mother, Maud, and grandmother, Lelia Butler, were voracious readers, as well as fine painters and photographers. They taught him the beauty of line and color. Faulkner’s “mammy,” as he called her, was a black woman named Caroline Barr. She raised him from birth until the day he left home and was fundamental to his development. At her wake, Faulkner told the mourning crowd that it was a privilege to see her out, that she had taught him right from wrong and was loyal to his family despite having borne none of them. In later documents, Faulkner points to Barr as the impetuous for his fascination with the politics of sexuality and race.
As a teenager, Faulkner was taken by drawing. He also greatly enjoyed reading and writing poetry. In fact, by the age of twelve, he began intentionally mimicking the English romantics, specifically Robert Burns, A.E. Housman and A.C. Swinburne. Despite his remarkable intelligence, or perhaps because of it, school bored him. He never earned a high school diploma. After dropping out, he worked in carpentry and sporadically as a clerk at his grandfather’s bank.
During this time, Faulkner met Estelle Oldham. At the time of their meeting, she was both popular and exceedingly effervescent. She immediately stole his heart. The two dated for a while, but another man named Cornell Franklin proposed to her before Faulker did.
Estelle took the proposal lightheartedly, partly because Franklin had just been commissioned as a major in the Hawaiian Territorial Forces and was leaving soon to report for duty. Estelle hoped it would dissolve naturally, but several months later, he mailed her an engagement ring. Estelle’s parents bid her to accept the offer, as Franklin was a law graduate of the University of Mississippi and came from a family of high repute.
Afflicted by Estelle’s engagement, Faulkner turned to a new mentor Phil Stone, a local attorney who was impressed by the his poetry. Stone invited Faulkner to move and live with him in New Haven, Connecticut. There, Stone nurtured Faulkner’s passion for writing. While delving into prose, Faulkner worked at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, a distinguished rifle manufacturer. Lured by the war in Europe, he joined he joined the British Royale Flying Corps in 1918. He had earlier tried to enlist the U.S. Forces, but they wouldn’t admit him due to his height (he was a little under 5’ 6”). To enlist in the Royal Air Force, he lied about several facts, changing his birthplace and surname—from Falkner to Faulkner—to appear more British.
Faulkner trained on British and Canadian bases, and finished his time in Toronto just before the war ended, never putting him in harm’s way. A man of skilled exaggeration, Faulkner told embellished military stories, and sometimes completely fabricated war stories, to his friends back home. He even donned the uniform of a lieutenant to bolster his reputation, a rank he never achieved.
By 1919, he was enrolled in the University of Mississippi. He wrote for the student newspaper, the Mississippian, submitting his first published poem and other short works. After three semesters as an entirely inattentive student, he dropped out. For the next few years, before going on to become the Southern writer history reveres, he spent a few months in New York City as a bookseller’s assistant, two years as the postmaster for the university, and a short stint as a scoutmaster for a local troop.
In 1924, Phil Stone escorted a collection of Faulkner’s poetry, The Marble Faun, to a publisher. Shortly after its 1,000-copy run, Faulkner moved in New Orleans. He published several essays for The Double Dealer, a local literary magazine that served to unite and nurture the city’s literary crowd. In 1925, Faulkner succeeded in having his first novel published, Soldiers’ Pay. As soon as it was accepted for print, he sailed from New Orleans to Europe to live for a few months just outside of Paris. During his stay, he wrote about the Luxembourg Gardens that were a short walk from his apartment.
Back in Louisiana, American writer Sherwood Anderson, who had become a friend, gave Faulkner some advice: He told the young author to write about his native region of Mississippi—a place that Faulkner surely knew better than northern France. Inspired by the concept, Faulkner began writing about the places and people of his childhood.
He developed a great many colorful characters based on real people he had grown up with or heard about, including his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner. For his famous novel, The Sound and the Fury, he developed the fictional Yoknapatawpha County—a place nearly identical to Lafayette County, in which Oxford, Mississippi, is located. A year later, in 1930, Faulkner released As I Lay Dying.
Faulkner became known for his faithful and accurate dictation of Southern speech. He also boldly illuminated social issues that many Americans writers left in the dark, including slavery, the good old boys club, and Southern aristocracy. In 1931, after much deliberation, Faulkner decided to publish Sanctuary, a story that focused on the rape and kidnapping of a young woman at Ole Miss. It shocked and appalled some readers, but it was a commercial success and a critical breakthrough for his career.
Personally, Faulkner experienced both elation and soul-shocking sadness during this time in his career. Between the publishing of The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary, his old flame Estelle Oldham divorced Cornell Franklin. Still deeply in love with her, Faulkner promptly made his feelings known and the two were married within six months. Estelle became pregnant, and in January of 1931, she gave birth to a daughter. They named her Alabama. Tragically, the premature baby lived for just a few days. Faulkner’s collection of short stories, titled These 13, is dedicated to “Estelle and Alabama.”
Faulkner’s next novel, Light in August (1932) tells the story of Yoknapatawpha County outcasts. In it, he introduces his readers to Joe Christmas, a man of uncertain racial makeup; Joanna Burden, a woman who supports voting rights for blacks and later is killed in the town square; Lena Grove, an alert and determined young woman in search of her baby’s father; and Rev. Gail Hightower, a man who eventually commits suicide. Time magazine listed it on their 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
After publishing several notable books, Faulkner turned to screenwriting. He started with a six-weeks contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and co-write Today We Live. After Faulkner’s father died, and in need of money, he decided to sell the rights to film Sanctuary, later titled The Story of Temple Drake (1933). That same year, Estelle gave birth to Jill, the couple’s only surviving child. Between 1932 and 1945, Faulkner traveled to Hollywood a dozen times to toil as a scriptwriter. Uninspired by the task, he did it purely for financial gain.
In January 1961, he willed all his major manuscripts and many of his personal papers to the William Faulkner Foundation at the University of Virginia. On July 6, 1962, coincidently the same date as the Old Colonel’s birthday, William Faulkner died of a heart attack. He remains a revered writer of the rural American South, having expertly captured the immense complexities of both the region’s beauty and dark past.