William Faulkner entered the world in New Albany, Mississippi, just about 40 miles from the place where he would leave it some 60 years later. Born on 25 September 1897, William Cuthbert Falkner (we'll solve the case of the missing "u" a bit later) never strayed far from his southern roots. Aside from a few brief stints in New York City and New Orleans, Faulkner spent the vast majority of his life on Mississippi soil, breathing Mississippi air and writing about Mississippi people. Faulkner's ties to The Magnolia State run deep: his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner (known locally as the "Old Colonel"), was a prominent lawyer, railroad financier, slave-owner, and Civil War veteran in Mississippi. Though the author William Faulkner never met the predecessor for whom he was named—the Old Colonel was murdered by a business rival in 1889—the elder Falkner loomed large in his great-grandson's imagination, influencing his writing and his vision of the South.
As a result of his family's stake in the railroad business, William Faulkner grew up in a financially comfortable—but not always happy—home. His father, Murry, drank heavily (alcoholism was a constant in Faulkner's life) and presided over the family in a tyrannical fashion, imposing silence at the dinner table and unexpectedly skipping town for days at a time.1 Murry's behavior took its toll on Faulkner's mother, Maud, an independent, hardheaded woman, and his parents fought often. When young Billy was five years old, his grandfather—dubbed the "Young Colonel"—abruptly sold the family railroad company, forcing Murry to seek employment elsewhere.
The Falkner family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where Murry took a job running a livery stable (the horse-and-buggy business was booming in 1902!). In Oxford, the Falkners hired an African-American live-in nanny, Caroline Barr, to help raise Billy and his three younger brothers. Known to the boys as "Mammy Callie," Barr was born into slavery and told Faulkner countless stories about her experiences, accounts that undoubtedly helped shape the fictional world he would later create. Billy felt a great affinity toward Mammy Callie. In the dedication of his 1942 novel, Go Down, Moses, Faulkner describes her as someone "who gave to my family a fidelity without recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love."2 Faulkner's thoughtful exploration of race in his novels, as well as his somewhat progressive stance on civil rights issues, likely stem from his deep attachment to Barr.
From an early age, Faulkner possessed a love of storytelling. One of his cousins noted, "It got so that when Billy told you something, you never knew if it was the truth or just something he'd made up."3 Throughout his youth, Faulkner was also a voracious reader, immersing himself in classic literature and poetry. Although he was a perceptive, imaginative boy at home, Billy was a disinterested, mediocre student at school. His passion for art and writing—rather than football and guns—as well as his small stature and back brace (which his mother forced him to wear to improve his posture), made him the frequent subject of teasing by his peers.4 It didn't help that Faulkner's best friend was a girl—Estelle Oldham—with whom he spent most of his adolescence. Billy and Estelle shared a close bond for many years; in fact, as a girl, Estelle told her nanny that she would one day marry Billy.5
As a sophomore in high school, Faulkner met Phil Stone, an aspiring poet and graduate of Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) who taught Billy the basics of rhyme and verse. Billy loved meeting with Stone and discussing everything from Romantic poets to Civil War history to Mississippi politics, and he felt that this informal education was all he really needed in life. After eleventh grade, Billy—against his parents' wishes—dropped out of high school and took a job as a bookkeeper at a bank his grandfather owned. During his tenure at the bank, Faulkner began experimenting with alcohol and developed a taste for whiskey, something that remained with him throughout his life. Though Faulkner began to write poetry more seriously during this period, he had little direction in his life. When he wasn't at the bank, Billy spent a good deal of his time out carousing with the town drunk, a man known in Oxford for urinating on lampposts.6
Thus, by age eighteen, young Billy Falkner—social misfit, high school dropout, and budding alcoholic—had not managed to get his life off to a very auspicious start.