William Faulkner: Yoknapatawpha County
It was inside the rooms of the renovated Rowan Oak that Faulkner, within the span of seven years—1929 to 1936—wrote four of his most famous and highly regarded novels: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! The speed with which these books were written is astonishing, given the complexity of the narratives and the richness of the language. All four works are set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional world based closely on the people and places of Faulkner's native Lafayette County in Mississippi. As Faulkner conceived it, Yoknapatawpha County was a veritable universe, replete with its own geography, history, and interrelated narratives. Faulkner didn't conduct any specialized research for his books. Instead, he used his own experiences, as well as the stories passed down to him as a child, as fuel for his literary imagination. Faulkner had been fascinated by southern history—particularly the history of the Falkner clan—since childhood, so it comes as little surprise that all four of these formidable novels deal with issues of identity, family, race, and gender in the post-Civil War deep South. As fellow author Robert Penn Warren said of Faulkner, "He was besotted with history, his own and those of people around him. He lived within history, and the history became him."21
Earlier, in April 1928, Faulkner began work on a short story that would ultimately morph into The Sound and the Fury, which was widely considered to be his first "great" novel. Because Faulkner had no audience and no publisher (after the release of Sartoris, he had been dropped by his publishing company), his writing flowed organically, with characters freely emerging from his imagination. The Sound and the Fury—the title is a reference to a line from Macbeth—featured a non-traditional, non-linear structure that became one of Faulkner's hallmarks and established the young author as a major literary innovator. The Sound and the Fury received good reviews, but in terms of dollars and cents, Faulkner's timing couldn't have been worse; the book was released in the midst of the 1929 Wall Street collapse, when Americans struggling to make ends meet were unlikely to buy a strange, experimental novel.
After the release of Sound, Faulkner nonetheless began work on his next book, As I Lay Dying, which he completed in only 47 days.22 Like Sound, As I Lay Dying featured multiple narrators (fifteen, to be exact), fifty-nine chapters, and a non-linear plotline. Faulkner continued to push the envelope with his 1932 book, Light in August. The novel's main character, Joe Christmas, struggles with his ambiguous (and ultimately unknowable) racial legacy. Faulkner's attempt here to delve into the murky waters of racial identity ultimately made the novel one of his most enduring creations. While all three of these novels helped establish Faulkner as a talented artist, it was not until the 1936 release of Absalom, Absalom! that Faulkner cemented his status as one of the truly great authors of the twentieth century (though the world wouldn't fully acknowledge this for another ten years). Framed broadly as a murder mystery, the dense—and sometimes arcane—novel featured several different families from Yoknapatawpha County and their search for truth.
During this seven-year period of productivity, Faulkner produced two novels—Sanctuary and Pylon—that did not take place in Yoknapatawpha County. While Pylon brought little success, Sanctuary was an important novel for Faulkner, both financially and professionally. Under pressure to write a book that would actually make money, a debt-ridden Faulkner penned this sensational novel, in which a young college student is kidnapped by an impotent psychopath and raped with a corncob (sounds pretty crazy, huh?). Remarkably, the racy Sanctuary sold more copies in just three weeks than The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying combined.23 The book, however, engendered outrage in Faulkner's hometown of Oxford and garnered a great deal of negative publicity for the young author. One reviewer said that Sanctuary was a "devastating, inhuman monstrosity of a book that leaves one with the impression of having been vomited bodily from the sensual cruelty of its pages."24 Scathing reviews aside, the novel was a bestseller and landed Faulkner a much-needed paycheck for the book's movie rights.