William Faulkner was born William Cuthbert Falkner in 1897 to Murry Cuthbert Falkner and Maud Butler in New Albany, Mississippi. Five years later, the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, the town which would fire the young boy’s literary imagination and provide the setting for numerous novels. In Oxford, he and his three younger brothers were raised by Caroline Barr, a former slave whose stories helped shape Faulkner’s view of the South and who appears in The Sound and the Fury as Dilsey.
Though his family had been prominent in the area for generations, Falkner himself cut rather an odd figure in the eyes of his fellow townsmen. He did not excel academically and failed to complete high school, but he devoured the literature of the 18th century European Romantics and modernists such as Joyce and Eliot. These writers had a profound influence on his creativity, and he began writing poetry in his teens, publishing his work in local papers. To his fellow Oxfordians, however, he didn’t seem to do much of anything. His stints in employment were humble and brief: he held a short-lived position as a clerk at his grandfather’s bank and another at the post-office. His open detestation of his duties eventually led to him being sacked, news he greeted with the immortal words, “I reckon I'll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won't ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who's got two cents to buy a stamp.”
Thus Faulkner gained a reputation as a spiky, heavy-drinking dilettante whose time was mainly spent hanging around with the town drunk, a man famed locally for urinating on lamp-posts. This was not helped by his tendency to parade around town dressed in full air force officer's regalia (he enlisted in the British Royal Flying Corps in 1918) despite never having experienced any wartime action. His emulation of British speech and manners also amused his fellow townsmen, as did his decision to change his name to Faulkner in order to sound more English. Behind his back, they jokingly referred to him as ‘Count No 'Count’.
Meanwhile Faulkner’s writing was burgeoning. A catalyst was his move to New Orleans in 1925. There he met Sherwood Anderson who encouraged him to focus on prose rather than poetry, and by 1926 he had published his first novel, Soldiers' Pay. Along with Mosquitoes (1927) it was well reviewed, but after that he seemed to hit a dead end, struggling to find publishers for works that were considered either too obscure or too obscene. This did not dampen his determination; rather than accept defeat or modify his vision, he made a living while writing by selling refreshments at a golf course and painting signs.
In 1929 Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury. His publishers were sceptical and few copies were sold, but this was the book that would cement his style and which would come to be seen as his greatest achievement. 1929 was also the year he finally married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. The two of them had dated at high school, but Estelle’s father disapproved of the match and she had instead married a powerful international lawyer, sending Faulkner into a severe depression. The marriage was not a success, and after her divorce she married Faulkner almost immediately. But although they would go on to have four children, this long-desired union did not fare much better than Estelle’s previous marriage. Like Faulkner, she was prone to heavy drinking and erratic behaviour (not long after their marriage, she attempted suicide by drunkenly walking out into the sea) and Faulkner later claimed that guilt had been his main motivation for marrying her.
1932 saw the beginning of a decades-long involvement with Hollywood, where financial necessity drove him to become a script-writer for hire. Though he looked down on this work as the prostitution of his talent, he would contribute to hugely successful and critically-acclaimed adaptations including Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. It was whilst in Hollywood that he embarked on the first of a series of extra-marital affairs. Meta Carpenter, a script-clerk for Twentieth Century Fox, brought a passion and intimacy into his life that had long ebbed out of his relationship with Estelle. Nevertheless, he refused to get divorced.
Over the course of his life, Faulkner produced a huge body of work: 19 novels, six volumes of poetry, 125 short stories, 20 screenplays and one play. Despite this, by 1945 all but one of his novels (the racy pot-boiler Sanctuary) were out of print and he himself was so poor that he couldn’t pay his bills. His fortunes changed in 1946 when the literary critic Malcolm Cowley published The Portable Faulkner, a volume which catapulted him out of obscurity and helped to make him the revered literary figure he is today. His contribution to literature was formally recognized in 1949 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”. An intensely private man who shunned the limelight, he neglected to tell even his own family members about this honour, and donated the money to charitable foundations for new fiction writers and African American education.
Faulkner continued to write over the following decades, but nothing rivalled the brilliance of his earlier works. After a dreadful back injury from falling off his horse, he sought alleviation from his pain in tranquilizers and vast quantities of alcohol. On 6 July 1962 he was admitted to hospital. He succumbed to a heart attack just 6 hours later, aged 64.
Though his life echoes many of the themes that shaped his art, he himself rejected any outside interest in it. His desire for his writing to stand as his sole memorial is pithily summed up in a letter he wrote to Malcolm Cowley in 1948: “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.”
Listen to Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech here.