Absalom, Absalom!: Biography: William Faulkner
William Cuthbert Faulkner was born (as Falkner, with no "u" yet) on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. His father, Murry Falkner, was the humble son of John Wesley Thompson Falkner, a prominent banker in Oxford, Mississippi.
Faulkner spent most of his childhood in Oxford, Mississippi, where his father was employed by the University of Mississippi. He had three younger brothers, and his parents employed an African-American governess, Caroline Barr, who Faulkner and his family affectionately referred to as Mammy Callie. Faulkner was short, and though he showed some athletic ability, he was too small to be taken seriously as an athlete. Later, when he tried to enlist for service in the "Great War" (World War I), he was denied because of his height.
Faulkner spent considerable time listening to people tell stories, and telling some of his own. He came in contact with Phil Stone, an older Oxford resident who took an interest in Faulkner's poetic talents and gave him access to a considerable library of European and Classical authors. After dropping out of high school without finishing, Faulkner began to publish verse in a University of Mississippi publication. Another important Oxford contact was Estelle Oldham, a young woman that Faulkner courted until she married Cornell Franklin, a law student, in 1918.
After this disappointment, Faulkner tried to enlist in the U.S. Army and was turned down. He took a train to Connecticut to visit Phil Stone at Yale, where he became interested in military service again. He became a cadet in the Royal Air Force in Canada in June of 1918, and began spelling his name with the "u." The war ended before he completed training, and Faulkner returned to Oxford wearing his uniform and allowing people to think that he had seen combat. He finally enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a "special student" because of his veteran status, but stayed only a year. He published his first poem in The New Republic, "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune," in August of 1919.
At this point in his life, Faulkner began traveling, writing poetry, and working at whatever odd jobs he could find. He worked as the postmaster in Oxford for a few years, spent a few months in New York, and published a book of poetry, The Marble Faun, in 1924. He then spent some time in New Orleans with Sherwood Anderson, who became instrumental in the publication of Faulkner's first book of fiction, Soldier's Pay, in 1926. He traveled in Europe for a brief period, but he was uncomfortable among fellow expatriate writers, and returned to Oxford in late 1926. He continued to circulate among friends in New Orleans, Pascagoula (Mississippi), and Oxford. His second novel, Mosquitoes, was published in 1927. Neither his first nor his second novels attracted very much attention.
Faulkner's third novel, published in 1929 as Sartoris, was the first novel that referred to the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, and that took place wholly in Mississippi. Faulkner took the advice of Sherwood Anderson to write about this, and would continue to write about this fictional county, often re-using characters and events, for much of the rest of his life.
Faulkner was pleased to discover that his childhood sweetheart, Estelle, had divorced Cornell Franklin. Faulkner and Estelle were married in 1929. He published one of his most famous novels shortly thereafter, The Sound and the Fury, which also took place in Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner purchased an old Oxford home in 1930, named it Rowan Oak, and took up regular residence there.
Faulkner began working at the University of Mississippi power plant at about this time, where he famously claimed (probably falsely) that he wrote As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks "without changing a word." The book was published in 1930. His most scandalous novel, the "potboiler" Sanctuary, was also published that year, and became a motion picture in 1933 as The Story of Temple Drake. Faulkner became a successful short-story writer, and he continued to publish novels on a regular basis, publishing Light in August in 1932, Pylon in 1935, Absalom, Absalom (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942).
His first daughter, Alabama, was born in 1931 but lived only nine days. His second daughter, Jill, was born in 1933. At this time, Faulkner also began spending part of his year in Hollywood writing screenplays, often without credit, for MGM, Universal, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Warner Brothers. In Hollywood, he began an affair with Meta Carpenter that would last fifteen years.
Faulkner was writing Absalom, Absalom in 1935 when his brother Dean died (November 1935). He also appears to have brought the manuscript with him to Hollywood in 1935, and worked on the novel there. His novel Pylon, which is not about Yoknapatawpha, appeared while he was writing Absalom, Absalom. Faulkner would later say (in Faulkner in the University, an extensive collection of his remarks about his novels collected while he was at the University of Virginia) that he wrote Pylon because he was struggling with Absalom, Absalom, and that he needed to "get away" from the latter book. Faulkner used the title "Dark House" for the manuscript, and changed the title late in composition.
Though Faulkner achieved renown in academic circles, and though some of his books (especially Sanctuary) had some minor sales success, he earned much of his income from his Hollywood writing and from selling short stories to large national magazines. Faulkner wrote the screenplay for two famous Bogart and Bacall movies, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. But by 1946, almost all of his novels were out of print.
Faulkner's fortunes changed with the publication of The Portable Faulkner, a compilation of stories and novel excerpts edited by Malcolm Cowley. Faulkner's work then began to appear in cheap paperback editions published by the Modern Library, and the reissue of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury contributed greatly to his rise to prominence. His book Intruder in the Dust became a film shortly after its publication.
Faulkner's position as "Great American Author" was assured when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He continued to write fiction, though critics suggest that much of his best work was completed by 1942. Several of his books won major awards. His Collected Stories won the National Book Award in 1951, and he won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for A Fable in 1955. He was invited to become author-in-residence at the University of Virginia in 1956, and eventually joined the faculty in 1960.
Faulkner traveled extensively after winning the Nobel Prize, including trips to Japan, much of Europe, Brazil, Venezuela, and Peru. He became a celebrity and was repeatedly asked by the State Department to represent the United States at international cultural events (such as the International Writer's Conference in Sao Paulo in 1954). Faulkner spoke out against segregation in Mississippi at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association in 1955. He was against segregation, but also against federal involvement in Mississippi affairs. Faulkner's mostly moderate position made him enemies on both sides, including his brother.
After a long career as a writer and public figure, William Faulkner died in July, 1962, of a heart attack.