William Faulkner: Writing & Marriage
Although Faulkner was a lazy postal employee, he was a tremendously hard-working writer. In 1922, he had his first piece of poetry published in The Double Dealer, a literary magazine that featured the work of notable southern authors. Just two years later, Faulkner also published (with financial assistance from Phil Stone) a collection of poems entitled The Marble Faun. But he was soon to discover that his true strength was in writing prose, not poetry. At age 27, the budding author moved back to New Orleans, where he met Sherwood Anderson, the highly regarded author of Winesburg, Ohio. The two men hit it off immediately—Faulkner even stayed with Anderson and his wife for a short time—and the relationship sparked a creative breakthrough. Under Anderson's mentorship, Faulkner's writing blossomed. In 1924, he began work on Soldiers' Pay, a novel about a veteran returning home from the war.
Though he continued to drink heavily while in New Orleans, Faulkner wrote diligently, waking at seven o'clock each morning to begin work on the novel. In fact, Faulkner was so absorbed in his writing that he lost touch with old friend and mentor Phil Stone. In the spring of 1925, Stone sent him a telegram: "WHAT'S THE MATTER. DO YOU HAVE A MISTRESS," to which Faulkner replied, "YES, AND SHES 3,000 WORDS LONG."15 Faulkner finished the novel in May 1925 and submitted it to a publishing company in New York. With a completed manuscript under his belt and $70 in his pocket, Faulkner embarked on a trip to Europe. 16 He eventually settled in Paris, where he rented a room and started working on the first few chapters of his next book. However, in the fall of 1925, Faulkner received a notice that Soldiers' Pay would be published (Sherwood Anderson played a large role in securing this), and he was given a $200 advance. It was time to come back home.
Soldiers' Pay earned the first-time novelist positive reviews (including one in The New York Times), and Faulkner was inspired to finish a draft of his sophomore effort, Mosquitoes. The novel, set in New Orleans, was published in 1927, but only received a lukewarm response from critics and readers. Undeterred, Faulkner commenced work on yet another novel, Flags in the Dust, which delved into the world of the fictional Sartoris family (we'll hear more about them later on). The writing of Flags signaled another shift in Faulkner's career, when he began to create characters that would appear in multiple works. In the fall of 1927, Faulkner submitted Flags in the Dust to his publishing company, believing the novel was his greatest work to date. His publisher, however, wasn't on the same page, declaring the manuscript to be "diffuse and non-integral with neither very much plot development nor character development."17 Faulkner was ultimately able to secure a publishing deal for Flags in the Dust on the condition that it was trimmed down into a shorter novel, Sartoris. At this point, Faulkner's writing career was still anything but lucrative; to make ends meet, he sold refreshments at a golf course and painted houses and signs.18
In the midst of these professional setbacks, one of Faulkner's lifelong personal goals—to marry Estelle Oldham—finally came to fruition. In the spring of 1929, Estelle divorced her husband and moved back to Oxford, where she reconnected with Faulkner. The two childhood sweethearts wed soon after, on 20 June 1929, then headed for a beach "honeymoon" on the coast of Mississippi. But it wasn't the fabled romance Faulkner and Estelle may have dreamed of. Both husband and wife were heavy drinkers by this time, and their alcoholism led to angry disputes and irresponsible behavior. Shortly after they were married, Estelle attempted suicide by drunkenly wandering into the ocean, only to be rescued by a neighbor.19 Later in life, Faulkner said that his marriage to Estelle was prompted primarily by a sense of duty and guilt—he claimed that he had impregnated Estelle while she was still married to Franklin and gotten her an abortion.20 (Given Faulkner's lifelong penchant for fictionalizing events in his own biography, it's hard to know whether or not this really happened.) Whatever the case, the couple eventually returned to Oxford, where Faulkner took a job as a supervisor at the Ole Miss power plant. In June 1930, Faulkner purchased a large, pre-Civil War home, which he named "Rowan Oak." Though the estate was in shambles (leaking roof, no electricity or plumbing) Faulkner was eager to restore the house to its prior glory.