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William Faulkner

William Faulkner

William Faulkner: Trouble in Oxford

Despite his creative outpourings and the commercial success of Sanctuary, Faulkner's personal life was in perpetual disarray. By the late 1920s, his drinking had gotten out of control. After finishing his revisions for The Sound and the Fury in 1929, Faulkner locked the door and drank until he blacked out.25 Though Faulkner's drinking periodically ebbed, he suffered repeated bouts of extreme alcoholic binging—many of which ended in a trip to the sanatorium—over the next thirty years. Faulkner experienced two tragedies that propelled his alcohol-fueled episodes: the death of his daughter Alabama, who was born prematurely (likely due to Estelle's heavy drinking during the pregnancy), and the untimely passing of his brother, Dean, who was killed in a plane crash in 1935. Dean's death hit Faulkner particularly hard; Faulkner, who had introduced his younger brother to aviation, blamed himself for the accident and had nightmares about the crash for years afterward.26

Faulkner's alcohol abuse took its toll on his second daughter, Jill, who was born in 1933. When Jill was twelve, she pled for her father to think of her and stop drinking; Faulkner sharply replied, "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children."27 Faulkner's drinking only increased in severity over time. In 1952, after Faulkner drank himself to the point of delirium and incontinence, his editor said that he was witnessing "the complete disintegration of a man."28

Faulkner's marriage to Estelle only compounded his difficulties. Their relationship was volatile (largely due to alcohol abuse) and, increasingly, loveless. In December 1935, while working in Hollywood, Faulkner met a young, attractive woman named Meta Carpenter; the two soon embarked on a passionate affair that left Faulkner completely smitten. Despite his newfound happiness, Faulkner refused to leave Estelle. When Meta married another man in 1937, Faulkner was devastated, drinking himself into such a stupor that he accidentally scalded himself on a steam pipe in his New York City hotel room. When the doctor who treated his third-degree burns asked him why he drank so much, Faulkner replied, "Because I like to."29 His affair with Meta continued for over a decade.

In 1950, Faulkner began yet another affair with a young woman; this time, it was Joan Williams, a precocious Bard College student and aspiring writer whom Faulkner both seduced and mentored. Now well into his fifties, Faulkner was completely taken with Williams, who was thirty years his junior, and the two met frequently (and secretly) in New York City. When Estelle intercepted one of their love letters, she was enraged, and subsequently called Williams's parents to inform them of the affair. Though Estelle's efforts didn't end the relationship, they certainly complicated Faulkner's already chaotic personal life.

Throughout most of his adult life, Faulkner was also plagued by financial troubles. It got so bad that by January 1941, long after he had written and published some of the greatest American novels of all time, Faulkner couldn't even afford to pay his $15 electricity bill.30 In order to maintain Rowan Oak and to provide for Estelle and Jill, Faulkner was forced into writing screenplays for the movies. In 1932, Faulkner signed his first contract with MGM—he would be paid $500 a week—to work on film scripts. Over the next fifteen years, Faulkner helped write many screenplays, including those for the popular To Have and Have Not (based on a novel by Faulkner's literary rival Ernest Hemingway!) and The Big Sleep. Faulkner, however, hated the work and ceased traveling to Hollywood for good after a contract with Warner Brothers went sour in the mid-1940s.

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