When Allen Tate described the generation of writers that produced the Southern Renaissance as having a “double focus, a looking two ways,” he doubtless was including William Faulkner. That dual perspective—backward to the antebellum South and the Civil War, forward to the modernist revolution in Western thought and the arts—invested Faulkner’s fiction with a perpetual tension, the depth of which was great enough to convert an oeuvre largely confined to a tiny portion of the US South into an expression of national, hemispheric, and world relevance. Born in 1897 in New Albany and moving to Oxford in 1902, Faulkner was the eldest child in a family that had been prominent in the area for three generations, highlighted by his paternal great-grandfather, William C. Falkner, whose extravagant life and career—lawyer, planter, decorated Civil War officer, politician, railroad builder, and novelist—seemed to impose on all his descendants, even the most successful, a sense of inevitable decline.
This family history, combined with a Lost Cause mentality prevalent among southern white males born at the turn of the century, gave Faulkner what Nietzsche called the inclination to “monumentalism.” Fortunately for Faulkner’s writing, he also acquired the capacity to distance himself from or at least radically complicate his inheritance, largely through his growing familiarity with modernist thought. One source of that familiarity was an Oxford townsman, Phil Stone, who took Faulkner under his superbly educated wing in 1914. For more than a decade Stone conducted a literary tutorial with the young high school dropout, exposing him to everything from the classics to the contemporary, with particular emphasis on nineteenth-century British poetry, the French Symbolists, and the recent poetry and fiction of Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Pound, and Eliot. Another source was Faulkner’s 1925 sojourn in New Orleans’s Vieux Carré while waiting to arrange passage to Europe: during those six months, he associated with a number of writers, artists, and journalists, including Sherwood Anderson, William Spratling, Lyle Saxon, Roark Bradford, and Hamilton Basso. Faulkner was an avid listener in a group of notable raconteurs, becoming privy to discussions of current art and literature as well as to the thought and writings of Marx, Nietzsche, Frazer, Bergson, and Freud. He would never again experience an extended participation in a community of intellectual peers.
Following his 1926 return to the United States after a six-month stay in Europe, much of it in Paris, Faulkner spent a good deal of time shuttling among Oxford, New Orleans, and New York. After his 1929 marriage to his former high school sweetheart (the recently divorced Estelle Oldham Franklin), Faulkner settled permanently in Oxford, ready to combine a profound historical sense rooted in the South with the modernist tendency to hold in suspicion virtually all that had been thought and said: the urge, in Pound’s terms, to “make it new.” Except for several trips to Hollywood as a screenwriter to improve his often precarious financial situation, Faulkner lived and wrote in Oxford. It became part of the model for his fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, which apparently required and justified his decision to remain—in contrast to most modernist American writers—within the narrow arena of his beginnings.
Faulkner’s fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), was his great breakthrough, as he brought his double focus to major fictional expression. On the one hand, the novel portrays a 1920s southern family whose central voices are obsessed with a past—located in the diverse images of an absent sister—they can neither restore nor convincingly clarify. On the other hand, the novel represents this imprisonment in an irrecoverable past as a narrative revolution: a combination of abrupt scene shifts, looping chronology, and the perversely allusive prose of interior monologue. The backward look may paralyze the Compsons and by extension the impotent upper-class South they represent, but Faulkner asserted his creative vitality with stunning self-assurance.
For his works through Go Down, Moses (1942), Faulkner expanded what might seem a narrow and insufficiently representative southern drama into an examination of broader social and cultural conditions. From the sexual rebellion of Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury, which both dismays and fascinates her brother, Quentin, emerged a series of hetero- and homosexual encounters that constitute a kind of initiatory challenge that stimulates in women a passion for experience and in men a fear of contamination. It is as if the double focus of inherited codes and the quest for autonomy assumed a sexual correspondence. Characters such as Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying (1930), Temple Drake in Sanctuary (1931), Lena Grove in Light in August (1932), and Charlotte Rittenmeyer in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939) boldly pursue sexual intimacy, while Quentin Compson, in The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), the “tall convict” of “Old Man” (1939), and Ike McCaslin of Go Down, Moses withdraw from heterosexual engagement, finding comfort in latent homoerotic relations and a protective celibacy restricting any fulfilled sexual intimacy. Complicating this withdrawal is the fact that the power of original imaginative insight, especially in Quentin and Ike, seems to require that restriction.
With As I Lay Dying and The Hamlet (1940), Faulkner turned to the country people (never “poor whites”) of Frenchman’s Bend, discovering a community capable of realizing its own version of Jefferson’s tensions of past and present, memory and desire, as a productive dynamic. Frenchman’s Bend is “hill-cradled and remote, definite yet without boundaries, straddling into two counties and owning allegiance to neither.” The dilemma of Frenchman’s Bend is that it gives rise to Flem Snopes, who aggrandizes a laissez-faire trading ethic inseparable from the community’s own individualistic value system. The result is Faulkner’s representation in a small rural town of the power of the twentieth-century US market system and its sometimes crushing effects on people who can no longer reconcile their demands for autonomy and a cohesive and humane social fabric.
Race, however, remained the great social and moral issue of Faulkner’s time and place and the driving force of his greatest fiction. In Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses the clash of tradition and originality is embodied in Faulkner’s effort to deny the validity of racism by empowering the human imagination as the vehicle of truth, the only means of grasping the inhumanity, the destructiveness—for all involved—and the criminal illogic of racist thinking. Both Light in August and Absalom! make central the “invention” and murder of a black man—Joe Christmas and Charles Bon, respectively—as the key to understanding the history of southern violence and decline. In Light in August Faulkner identifies the cultural rather than biological origins of racial difference, portraying Christmas’s ultimate autonomy as his refusal to live according to that culture’s binary basis. As one unnamed character puts it, “He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad.”
In Absalom and Go Down, Moses it is not so much the social creation of race as the violation of kinship that constitutes the primal sin of southern history. Henry Sutpen’s murder of his “black brother,” Charles Bon, Carothers McCaslin’s incestuous intimacy with his own slave daughter—these unforgivable transgressions are revealed only through the unique imaginative breakthroughs of Quentin Compson, his narrative partner Shreve McCannon, and Ike McCaslin.
With Go Down, Moses Faulkner concluded his treatment of southern history and the need to reinterpret it. His later post–World War II fiction focused primarily on contemporary southern life, somewhat diminished in narrative intensity but nevertheless proposing an inhabitable, possible South, with its Snopes energy of acquisition reduced to a need for “respectability” in The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1957) and its racism reconceived as the possibility of justice for a black man accused of murdering a white man in Intruder in the Dust (1948). The greatest exception to a fiction more accommodating to existing conditions is A Fable (1954), a World War I novel that is largely remote from Mississippi, in which humanity is destined to perpetual warfare and perpetual hierarchical control, with its only glory lying in the fact that “man and his folly” will endure and prevail. If the imagination retains its power, it does so only in its desperate claim, “I’m not going to die. Never.”
Respected yet popularly unacknowledged during the years of his greatest output, Faulkner became widely recognized as the most important twentieth-century American novelist near the end of his career. in 1950 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for two novels, A Fable (1954) and The Reivers (1962). William Faulkner died in Byhalia, Mississippi, 1962.
- André Bleikasten, The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from “The Sound and the Fury” to “Light in August” (1990)
- Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (1984); Joseph Blotner, ed., Selected Letters of William Faulkner (1977)
- Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963)
- Malcolm Cowley, ed., Faulkner-Cowley File (1961)
- Thadious Davis, Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (2003)
- Richard Godden, Fictions of Labor (1997)
- Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, eds., Faulkner in the University (1959)
- Robert W. Hamblin and Charles A. Peek, eds., A William Faulkner Encyclopedia (1999)
- John T. Irwin, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (1975)
- Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie, eds., Faulkner at 100: Retrospect and Prospect (2000)
- John T. Matthews, The Sound and the Fury: Faulkner and the Lost Cause (1991)
- James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, eds., Lion in the Garden (1968)
- David Minter, William Faulkner, His Life and Work (1980)
- Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (1966)
- Richard C. Moreland, ed., A Companion to William Faulkner (2007)
- Noel Polk, Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner (1996)
- Eric Sundquist, Faulkner: The House Divided (1983)
- Linda Wagner, ed., William Faulkner: Six Decades of Criticism (2002)
- Philip Weinstein, Faulkner’s Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns (1992)
- Dean Faulkner Wells, Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi (2012)