Study Guide

William Faulkner Biography

  • Biography

    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.

    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.

  • Air Force & Ole Miss

    After leaving high school, Billy seemed content with his life in Oxford. He spent his time working at the bank, writing poetry, and hanging out with Estelle, who was taking classes at Ole Miss. However, Faulkner's world was turned upside-down in the winter of 1918, when Estelle discovered that her parents had arranged for her to marry Cornell Franklin, a handsome Ole Miss grad and a Major in the National Guard. Faulkner had long assumed that he and Estelle would one day wed, and the news sent him into a downward spiral of depression and heavy drinking. Estelle wasn't happy either; she cried all night before her wedding, lamenting, "I don't know if I love Cornell or if I want to marry him."

  • 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."oak/interactive.html">"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.

  • 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." Scathing reviews aside, the novel was a bestseller and landed Faulkner a much-needed paycheck for the book's movie rights.

  • 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. 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.

  • Nobel Prize & Death

    By 1945, William Faulkner was a part-time screenwriter and full-time alcoholic with only one of his seventeen novels—the racy Sanctuary—still in print. After publishing Absalom, Absalom!, he continued to write novels, but stayed financially afloat by penning short stories ("A Rose for Emily," "Red Leaves"), many of which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Though Faulkner's genius was recognized abroad—Jean-Paul Sartre said at the time that "for the young people of France, Faulkner is a god"

  • Family

    Father: Murry Falkner (1870-1932)
    Mother: Maud Butler (1871-1960)
    Brother: Murry Charles Falkner (1899-1975)
    Brother: John "Johncy" Wesley Thompson Falkner III (1901-1963)
    Brother: Dean Swift Falkner (1907-1935)

    Wife: Lida Estelle Oldham (1896-1972)
    Daughter: Alabama Faulkner (1931, died nine days after birth)
    Daughter: Jill Faulkner (1933-2008)
    Son-in-law: Paul D. Summers, Jr.

    Grandson: Paul D. Summers III (b. 1956)
    Grandson: William Cuthbert Faulkner Summers (b. 1958)
    Grandson: A. Burks Summers III (b. 1961)

  • Education

    Ole Miss, Oxford, MS (1919-1920)

  • Work Experience

    Bookstore clerk, New York, NY (1921)
    Postmaster, Ole Miss, Oxford, MS (1921-1924)
    Supervisor, Ole Miss Power Plant, Oxford, MS (1929)
    Screenwriter, Los Angeles, CA (1932-1945)

  • Fiction

    The Marble Faun (1924)
    Soldiers' Pay (1926)
    Mosquitoes (1927)
    Sartoris (1929)
    The Sound and the Fury (1929)
    As I Lay Dying (1930)
    Sanctuary (1931)
    Light in August (1932)
    Pylon (1935)
    Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
    The Unvanquished (1938)
    The Wild Palms (1939)
    The Hamlet (1940)
    Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories (1942)
    Intruder in the Dust (1948)
    Requiem for a Nun (1951)
    A Fable (1954)
    The Town (1957)
    The Mansion (1959)
    The Reivers, a Reminiscence (1962)

  • Awards

    Nobel Prize for Literature (1950)
    National Book Award, Collected Stories (1951)
    National Book Award, A Fable (1955)
    Pulitzer Prize, A Fable (1955)
    Pulitzer Prize, The Reivers (1963)