William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897–1962) is considered the greatest literary voice of the American South. In his novels and short stories, he broke new stylistic ground while confronting the South’s considerable ghosts—the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the decline of the old aristocracy.

Faulkner was born and raised in Mississippi, which is the setting for most of his works. His family was prominent and well established, with roots in the state going back generations; his great-grandfather had been a Confederate colonel in the Civil War and a local legend. As a young man, Faulkner bounced around between various jobs, including a stint in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a position as a clerk in his grandfather’s bank. All the while he attempted to gain notoriety as a poet.

Faulkner’s first major success was not a poem but a novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), which is still considered his finest. It details the slow decline of the once-great Compson family, which reaches rock bottom in its dysfunctional final generation of children: suicidal Quentin, promiscuous Caddy, hateful Jason, and mentally retarded Benjy. Throughout, Faulkner writes in a stream-of-consciousness narrative and discards any notion of a chronological plot.

The Sound and the Fury is just one of many novels in which Faulkner explores the decline of the old South and the seeming irrelevance of its values in the modern world. Many of these works share the same setting—fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi—with many of the same places and family names popping up in different books. Foremost among Faulkner’s other Yoknapatawpha novels are: As I Lay Dying (1930), which describes a family’s journey to bury its deceased matriarch; Light in August (1932), which recounts the tribulations of man of uncertain racial heritage; and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which portrays a man obsessed with building his own southern dynasty. Faulkner’s works are notorious for their thematic and narrative difficulty.

Absurdly long sentences overflowing with adjectives, stream-ofconsciousness narration, twists and turns of time, and multiple (and often unreliable) narrators lay a thorny path for the reader. But the end result of these techniques is a body of work that explores the South with greater depth than any other author. For this achievement, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. He died in Byhalia, Mississippi, in 1962.

ADDITIONAL FACT

  1. Due to Faulkner’s thick southern drawl, few in the audience at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech had any idea what he said until the text of his remarks was published in newspapers the next day. Since then, it has been
 
 
 

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