William Faulkner's signature novel – The Sound and the Fury (1929) – captures the tumult of a collapsing world giving way to a new. Set across the first quarter of the twentieth century, in the fictional town of Jefferson, center of the imaginary Mississippi county Faulkner called Yoknapatawpha, The Sound and the Fury displays in four isolated segments the breakdown of the once distinguished Compson family. Descendants of planter gentry, the present generation of Compsons has been reduced to three hopeless brothers – a mental deficient (Benjy), a melancholic suicide (Quentin), and a resentful failure (Jason) – and their sister Caddy, a renegade from Southern decorum. The reader inhabits the mentalities of one pitiable martyr to lost causes after the next. Even the most “innocent” Compson brother proves a monster of selfish incomprehension, while another dwells in fantasies of a defunct past, and the last can't figure out how to translate former privilege into the future. The novel bursts open in its final section, with the servant Dilsey celebrating new hope in precincts unappreciated by the Compsons: the black church where faith grows from a collective determination to be free. Faulkner's great subject was the realization that the plantation South's “eternal verities,” finally surrendering to the upheavals of modernity, had never been other than illegitimate; his great artistry, an experimental method that slowed things down to comprehend change.
Born in 1897, Faulkner came of age with the Great War (1914–18). Following an abortive attempt to train as a combat pilot with the Royal Air Force in Toronto in 1918, he returned to Oxford, Mississippi, where he chafed under small-town proprieties. Faulkner already burned with literary ambition, and he began devouring the latest modern literature. Fleeing occasionally to the more cosmopolitan New Orleans, he was taken up by a set of bohemian artists and intellectuals. He published a volume of poems, The Marble Faun (1924), imitative of the French Symbolists; contributed prose sketches and reviews to The Double-Dealer, an avant garde journal; and completed his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay (1926), the story of a wounded pilot who returns from the war unfit to resume life in his Southern home town. Donald Mahon is literally blinded to the revolution in social, especially sexual, mores overtaking provincial America. Soldiers’ Pay resembles other novels of postwar anxiety like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), as it also shows off modernist narrative techniques indebted to Joyce.
Strong reviews encouraged the first-time novelist, and by 1927 he had published Mosquitoes. Aboard a yacht, writers, artists, patrons, and aspirants talk endlessly about art, while visions of sex romp through their heads. Faulkner modeled characters on the novelist Sherwood Anderson and an assortment of other French Quarter acquaintances – including a “funny little dark man” named “Faulkner,” a beachcomber obsessed with female anatomy. The mood of the book is caricature, self- and otherwise. It clears space for the swerve in Faulkner's career that created Faulkner: a return to Mississippi – both literal and imaginative – where he would lead the rest of his life.
Anderson had advised the aspiring writer to concentrate on the material he knew best – what Faulkner later called “his little postage-stamp of native soil.” In his next book, Faulkner embraced the region in what he understood as its entirety – its rambunctious history as well as its stressful modernization. He sent the manuscript, entitled Flags in the Dust, to his cutting-edge publisher, Horace Liveright, who had welcomed Faulkner's first two novels. Flags sought to tell the sprawling, intertwined stories of an elite planter community – too many stories, Liveright decided. He returned the manuscript to the shocked author, recommending sizable cuts. Pared down, the novel was published as Sartoris (1928). (The original manuscript was discovered after Faulkner's death and printed in 1975 as Flags in the Dust.) After the bitter experience of rejection, Faulkner claimed, he wrote his next book, the uncompromising The Sound and the Fury, for his own pleasure. The Sound and the Fury remains preoccupied with the plantation gentry, even as it develops an artistic method that distances the author from stories too close to his own family's. The Falkners (so spelled before William added the “u”) counted among its legends the Civil War hero, lawyer, and sometime author William Cuthbert Falkner, as well as his son, Faulkner's paternal grandfather, also a lawyer, and founder of Oxford's first bank. Sartoris mocks Southern plantocracy while lamenting its passing; The Sound and the Fury sees more deeply into the region's tragic past and accepts its demise as just.
Faulkner had now located the topics that would engage him over the next decade: the ruinous consequences of the South's foundation as a slaveholding plantation economy. The original crime: the seizure of lives and land, perpetrated as the outrages of Indian extermination and chattel slavery; its collateral damage: the physical, emotional, and moral integrity of all it touched, from mangled victims to corrupted beneficiaries. In his next novel, Sanctuary (1929), Faulkner confronts the monster not quite head-on. The story centers on a horrific episode in the life of a young woman, Temple Drake, the daughter of a prominent judge. With her well-born but feckless escort, she abandons a college outing and the two of them end up trapped in a bootleggers’ camp at the so-called old Frenchman's Place, an abandoned plantation mansion where Popeye bases his operations. Temple is assaulted by Popeye, who, since he is impotent, uses a corn cob to defile her. Compelled by a related sympathy for Caddy Compson, who turns fugitive from the velvet-gloved misogyny of racial and sexual untouchability, Faulkner conjures the nightmare of rampant Southern paternalism: a beast that thinks it is entitled to everything it touches – all black people, white women, the land – under the guise of protecting them for their own good. Faulkner had himself been prevented from marrying his young sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, by her father, a judge. (When Estelle eventually divorced her first husband, she and Faulkner wed – but disastrously, with finances, alcohol, and infidelity destroying, without ending, their marriage.)
Faulkner extends his survey of outworn Southern ways in a novel that turns to the plight of poor white farmers in the 1920s, As I Lay Dying (1930). The Bundren family suffers a blow when Addie, wife of Anse and mother to a brood, dies after a short illness. The family nearly spirals out of control as they execute Addie's last wish: to be buried in her home town of Jefferson, a 40-mile trip to be undertaken despite a flood that immobilizes the whole county. The crisis engulfing the family feels like a fable of Southern modernization, the maternal relation to the land failing, agricultural workers forced toward wage labor and commodity consumption, migration toward towns precipitated, social life reordered by modern state imperatives like public education, women's political and professional enfranchisement, and military conscription. The novel explores such upheaval as a series of interior monologues, each character idiosyncratically processing the shock of the new.
Faulkner's determination to write about the failings of Southern society organized his output during the 1930s and early 1940s. In one half of its bicameral plot, Light in August (1932) takes up a character who could belong to the Bundren family: Lena Grove, an orphan, gotten pregnant as a teenager, and abandoned to the open road when her “fiancé” deserts her. Faulkner crosses the wayward white girl with another fugitive: a misfit named Joe Christmas, raised as white but plagued by a suspicion that he has black ancestry. The novel charts the combustible mixture of uncertain race and unpoliced female desire. The resulting explosion pits the mad, violent enforcement of discredited beliefs about racial and sexual difference against an embryonic tolerance toward new “composite” forms of family, race, and sexuality.
The shadow of the South's plantation history will persist long into the future, the narrator of Light in August prophesies, as the memory of racial violence and guilt. Faulkner does not let the subject go either, returning to the curse of slavery behind modern white supremacy and segregation, economic inequity, desecration of the land, and the violation of marriage and family. Faulkner next searches out the origins of Yoknapatawpha. In Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Faulkner reconstructs the story of the South in epitome through the career of Thomas Sutpen, the county's foremost antebellum planter. Descending as a child with his family from Virginia's mountains to a Tidewater plantation, where he suffers a traumatic insult that teaches him his place as a “brute” laborer, Sutpen determines to rise to a position of domination himself. He launches his “design” in Haiti as overseer of a sugar plantation, sustains a temporary setback when a first marriage produces a child of apparent mixed race, then attains mastership in Mississippi – even turning away the repudiated son who threatens to undo the work of decades by seeking his daughter's (and the suitor's half-sister's) hand in marriage. Faulkner draws on all his experiments with narrative form in this vastly plotted and elaborately structured novel; a handful of narrators take responsibility for relaying the story, each working complex purposes to shape their versions to the needs of both teller and auditor. The principal narrators of Sutpen's story turn out to be Quentin Compson and his father Jason, who struggle to place their cynicism and despair, respectively, in the context of regional flaw rather than simple personal failure. Faulkner's huge sentences arc and revolve around the realities that no participant – actor or teller – wants to confront, the story told and retold without resolution.
Faulkner's plantation project continues into The Unvanquished (1938), a volume of related short stories set around the Civil War in which Faulkner explores the rejection of ideals that once supported the antebellum regime. Notions like the violent defense of honor, or the gentility of gender roles, get exposed as elements of an ideology safeguarding planter interests, and readily swept away when economic and social conditions change after the war. In Go Down, Moses (1942), another cycle of short stories, Faulkner probes even more deeply to imagine the unspeakable sins at the core of the plantation system. Those are figured here as the conjoined crimes of miscegenation and incest, old Carothers McCaslin taking a slave woman as a concubine, then eventually fathering a child by the daughter of that union. That the origin of Southern ideals was pollution of the foulest kind provokes Faulkner's severest condemnation of his region's hubris, self-delusion, and heartless rapacity. Faulkner nowhere renders the violence of slavery as its victims experienced it, as Toni Morrison does, for example, but his imagining of moral turpitude so utter renders a judgment against its perpetrators as unforgivable. Go Down, Moses is remarkable in the Faulkner canon, however, for noticing the variety of ways black people tried to resist their white oppressors. Such habits of non-compliance carried into the post-Emancipation era, as growing self-assertion and acts of courageous defiance. To challenge racial mistreatment, Lucas Beau-champ, a descendant of those slave women and old Carothers McCaslin, ironically claims the authority of his white ancestor. In Go Down, Moses he is one of the few persons, black or white, who gets his way; in Intruder in the Dust (1948), which focuses on Lucas's frame-up for the murder of a white man, he is that rarest of Negroes in the modern South, one who is exonerated and released after a false arrest. Faulkner struggles in this novel to engage the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South; here he sympathizes with victims of racial injustice, sees the bankruptcy of gradualist rhetoric about desegregation, yet cannot imagine what social equality would look like. A film version of Intruder, shot in Oxford with Faulkner as advisor, appeared a year later, and was taken to represent growing support for desegregation among educated white Southerners.
A town middle class that begins to separate from those stuck in tenancy and menial wage labor interests Faulkner in another major work: the trilogy devoted to the rise and abrupt end of Flem Snopes, The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959). The Snopes saga was key to Faulkner's conception of Yoknapatawpha from the outset; there's a first try at telling the clan's story dating from the mid-1920s, in which the Snopeses’ preoccupation with making money as merchants epitomizes the force revolutionizing the plantation-centric South. Over the course of the three novels, Flem follows an arc of inexorable success: he first apprentices himself to Will Varner, a farm credit and supply merchant who takes to speculating in land. Beating his competitors routinely, often underhandedly, Flem goes on to amass interests that eventually deliver him the presidency of a bank in Jefferson. His chief antagonist, V. K. Ratliff, an itinerant sewing-machine salesman who represents a strain of ethical capitalism, discovers that resistance is futile. In the 1950s, the two later novels of the trilogy put Snopes-style materialism in the context of the postwar American Way, contextualizing the brutal free marketry on display among numerous Snopeses as a sobering qualification of the defense of American “freedom” and democracy.
Displaced poor whites had appeared in other novels by Faulkner during the 1930s. Pylon (1935) portrays the exotic lives of barnstorming aviators. Narrated by a repressed newspaperman, who grows fascinated by a ménage of participants in a New Orleans air show, Pylon entertains modes of modern living unimaginable on the ground. The pilot, his stuntman, a mechanic, their more-or-less shared wife, and the child they've borne would outrage the decent folks of the towns where they alight and make a buck – if they stayed long enough. Like the reporter, Faulkner is entranced by individuals who seem to do what they want to, but, unlike the narrator, Faulkner doesn't romanticize their condition. Beneath the barnstormers’ nomadic thrill-seeking remains the grind of poverty and constant insecurity. Faulkner measures similar gaps between proletarian nomadism and bourgeois restlessness in The Wild Palms (1939). After a decade of working on and off for Hollywood studios, Faulkner conceived a novel that would put the kind of cultural fantasy confected by the movies into conflict with the harsh realities of Depression-era America. The Wild Palms is a double narrative, one strand set in 1927 during the Great Flood of the Mississippi River, the other set 10 years later. The novel's narrative oscillates between a plot in which a young couple runs off together in defiance of middle-class conventions (the woman abandons her husband and children), and a counterplot in which a furloughed convict works to rescue flood victims. Faulkner probes the recesses of self-deception and selfishness structuring modern consumer America, while he also touches on the pitiful condition of workers during the 1930s.
Outrage at modern materialism fuels Faulkner's unusual Requiem for a Nun (1950), a play hybridized by long prose histories fronting each of the three acts. Here, on the threshold of the Cold War, Faulkner resituates the story of the South within the larger story of nation and continent. Horrified at the possibility that the superpowers might trigger mutual nuclear destruction, Faulkner yields to jeremiad. Like the Mississippi frontier that was once its advance edge, the nation has been conceived in greed, established through colonial conquest, and perfected in a union devoted to acquisition. The dramatic sections counterpoint the resumed story of Temple Drake, joined here by a black servant woman who has murdered Temple and her husband's infant child in a misguided attempt to keep the couple from separating. Neither the historical panorama of national injustice nor the staging of individual remorse leads to any catharsis; bereavement remains unappeased, guilt unredeemed.
Faulkner's concentration on his own region – however much he was depicting universal truths about human nature by writing about a particular place – continues to produce powerful effects in two late works: a massive meditation on global empire called A Fable (1954), and a minor last novel about the persistence of American innocence, The Reivers, published in 1962, the year of his death. That book has struck many readers as a congenial valedictory – with a Huck Finn-like protagonist embroiled in a plot to steal a race horse. The story is a bit more complicated, though, because the child-narrator ends up seeing beneath the high jinx to a stratum of human suffering, much of it the surprising survival of traditional Southern abuses of the weak. Still, the novel does feel like a quiet afterthought given the magnitude of A Fable. Faulkner considered A Fable one of his greatest achievements, a verdict few readers have endorsed. Battling poor health, desperate finances, a ruined marriage, and artistic doubts, Faulkner took 10 years to write the book. Its kernel is a fictionalized version of a famous Christmas truce observed on both sides of the trenches on the European front during World War I. The prose style and narrative structure are hugely ambitious. Sentences come dense in the usual Faulknerian manner, though less with the onrush of psychological association found in earlier works than with the patient description of vast interconnectivity: between industrial, financial, and military elites fashioning a new transnational power structure; between the US South and other postcolonial places; and between groups of resisters mobilizing to prevent the installation of modern empire as an outgrowth of earlier European American colonialisms. Faulkner organized the book around an act of such resistance: the messianic mission of a young soldier who brings the war to a halt momentarily. The sections of the novel hang on the scaffolding of the Holy Week calendar leading up to Easter: hence the fable. The novel Faulkner considered his magnum opus won the National Book Award and Pulitzer, recognitions accorded by the US cultural establishment once Faulkner had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.
Faulkner's reputation enjoyed a global dimension nearly from the beginning, with enthusiastic reception by French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1930s. His writing has been widely influential all over the world, distinctively on Latin American novelists of the “Boom” generation like Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, but also on writers of the Caribbean, Africa, China, and the Middle East. Faulkner was an accomplished writer of short stories, too, many of which have become global landmarks of the genre: “A Rose for Emily,” “That Evening Sun,” “The Bear,” “Dry September,” “Barn Burning,” and numerous others. Faulkner's achievement, however, rests on the bedrock of major novels like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! which should remain permanently among the nation's most significant fiction.
SEE ALSO: Anderson, Sherwood (AF); Hemingway, Ernest (AF); Historiographic Metafiction (AF); Modernist Fiction (AF); Morrison, Toni (AF); The Southern Novel (AF)
- Other South: Globalization, Faulkner, and the Mariátegui Tradition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. (2007).
- The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner's Novels from “The Sound and the Fury” to “Light in August.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (1990).
- Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House. (1984).
- Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House. (1950).
- Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner (ed. Blotner, J. ). New York: Random House. (1979).
- Novels 1930–1935. New York: Library of America. (1985).
- Novels 1936–1940. New York: Library of America. (1990).
- Novels 1942–1954. New York: Library of America. (1994).
- Novels 1957–1962. New York: Library of America. (1999).
- Novels 1926–1929. New York: Library of America. (2006).
- Faulkner, Mississippi (trans. Lewis, B. ; Spear, T. C. ). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (1999).
- Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press. (1997).
- The Life of William Faulkner: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell. (1994).
- Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (1975).
- Nationalism and the Color Line in George W. Cable, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (1996).
- William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South. Oxford: Blackwell. (2009).
- The Achievement of William Faulkner. New York: Random House. (1968).
- William Faulkner: His Life and Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (1980).
- Creating Faulkner's Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. (1988).
- Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (1983).
- Faulkner's Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns. New York: CambridgeUniversity Press. (1992).
- William Faulkner and Southern History. New York: Oxford University Press. (1993).
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