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The Relationship between Language, Thought and Reality
ClassicNote on The Scarlet Letter
Fielding and the Epic Theory of the Novel
DRACULA: between myth and reality
Post-postmodernist American Fiction
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William Faulkner belongs to that group of writers who were least embarrassed by established conventions, he was the writer who made the modern American literature richer by daring to use an excessive refinement of perception, being completely devoted to the Southern social, cultural, ethical and economic tradition. Faulkner was “simultaneously the most original and the most assimilative writer of his day.’’

William Cuthbert Falkner was born on September 25, 1897 in New Albany, a town only thirty five miles far from Oxford where he moved at the age of five. William’s family had certain obvious influence on him; his father, Murray was a reclusive man who enjoyed his hunting, drinking, telling stories with hunting friends; the mother, Maud Butler, was an ambitious woman, sensitive. There are several stories concerning the change of the name into Faulkner, apparently it was a printer’s fault who added an extra u to the name. He is descended from Colonel Falkner, politician, lawyer, soldier, pioneer, railroad builder. The Colonel wrote several books, one of which, The White Rose of Memphis became a national best-seller.

Thus, Faulkner was the descendant of a family of heroes and soldiers who, in their turn had their roots in a group on Scottish immigrants who fled to America due to the British oppression. His family enjoyed a period of well-deserved glory, but also had to face the shame that overwhelmed the history of the South. The Old South had been an illusion in which the tragic effects of slavery and expropriation were somehow reduced by the aura of courteousness and gallantry. The heritage was a bankrupt economy, many racist prejudices, men unable to react properly to the new era because of their incapacity to stop yearning after the lost honor.

There are few details concerning Faulkner’s early years. It is however known that he was not a passionate pupil, never showing much interest in school he never managed to graduate from high school, although, rather strange, in1918 he enrolled at the University of Mississippi where he dedicated most of his time to writing articles for the school paper and magazines. His life as the student was described as quite extravagant in the sense that he soon began to be the main topic of discussion among the townspeople and the student body. This was mostly due to his strange behaviour, wandering aimlessly about the town or wearing rags and even a walking stick at a certain moment, and also the fact that despite his financial situation that was not one of the best he refused to settle down to a steady job, thus earning the title of Count Nocount.

In 1920, Faulkner went to New York probably to take contact with the artistic world, but six months later he returned to Mississippi after receiving a letter from Phil Stone announcing him that the postmastership at the University was available. He indeed became postmaster in 1921 after taking the exam and three years later he resigned.

The Southern writer’s career began in 1924 when his first book was published The Marble Faun, a collection of poems which was unsuccessful being poorly received by the buyers and the literary world who categorized them as amateurish; critics suggesting that his poetry is a mélange of Shakespearean, pastoral, Victorian and Edwardian modes with a large influence of French symbolism.

In 1925, Faulkner moved to New Orleans, a climactic period in his career as here he met Sherwood Anderson who suggested that he should develop his on style and that concentrating on prose it would be better since he could easily use his own region as material, the editors of The Double Dealer who were encouraging young writers. It is here where Faulkner began writing novels, actually dedicating a great part of his time to writing. Consequently, his first novel was ready within weeks, namely Soldiers’ Pay without causing much stir. One year later, in 1927 his second novel was published, Mosquitoes which sold few copies despite the fairly good notices. During the last half of 1925, Faulkner traveled a lot in Europe visiting such cities as Genoa, Paris, and Northern Italy.

The major works of the time of genius began in 1929. The year 1929 was an important year in the writer’s career and life, namely Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury were published and he married Estelle Oldham. These were soon followed by As I Lay Dying in 1930. Despite the fact that he had already had four novels on the market, Faulkner’s financial situation was not good at all, earning little money from the sale of his books, and this crisis lasted several years until 1931 when Sanctuary was published, being sordid enough to attract attention and make some money for him.

The Hollywoodian producers became interested in Faulkner after the publication of Sanctuary and he moved there to earn more money and indeed, money began to flow in. He worked well with the director Howard Hawks and wrote the scripts for two famous movies, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The Hollywoodian atmosphere was not in accordance with his character as he was a shy man. The following thirty years of his life were spent in the small city of Oxford where he had only a few close friends. In the 1930’s he purchased a farm outside the town, where Uncle Ned lived, a Negro who had been with the Faulkner family for many years. The writer and his wife had a baby who did not survive, but fortunately another one came soon, a baby girl named Jill.

William Faulkner continued to produce brilliant and inventive work, in 1932 Salmagundi was published, a collection of poems and essays which evokes the atmosphere of the South and contributes to the development of a human personality willing to find answers to the essential problems of life. Two important novels appeared during this decade, Light in August, a comic pastoral with a double meaning referring to both the magnificent light that covers the South in August, as well as to the word light used as a slang term for pregnancy. In 1936 Absalom, Absalom! appeared, soon being ranked as Faulkner’s masterpiece. Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! were statements against a life lived according to a design. The Southern rage against abstraction was well-established before Faulkner began to write; ante-bellum Southerners had complained of the penchant for abstraction on the part of the New England transcendentalists and various other social reformers and exactly at the beginning of Faulkner’s start of writing the Nashville Fugitive-Agrarians were issuing indictments of abstraction and of those, for example social scientists, whose premises, as they said were based not on observable truth far more important, but on abstraction.

The last six novels represent the core of Faulkner’s major achievement as they introduce the reader to the special world of Yoknapatawpha County; these novels describe practically this land, with its people. The best description is given by Faulkner himself in a highly praised interview given to Jean Stein in 1956: “Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it….It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own. I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time too.”

The history begins in 1800 with the same inhabitants that appear over and over again. It is to be noticed that the readers did not experiment the development of this mythical town and county, on the contrary, they found it fully peopled, with characters that drawn from three social levels: the aristocrats, the country people and the Negroes. There are indeed other categories of social people, but they do not appear face-front in Faulkner’s saga of the South, they are merely background.

The above mentioned six major works are “a brilliant beginning of Faulkner’s profound analyses of the human moral condition, for which he is now justly known and admired. In range of style and structure, in the power of analysis of character, and in the sheer brilliance and versatility of literary accomplishment, they are not equaled anywhere in modern American literature.”

Between 1936 and 1940 there were published relatively minor works such as the novel Pylon in 1935 and The Unvanquished in 1938 which is labeled as an easy reading of Faulkner and it is made up of a series of stories concerning Bayard Sartoris and his growth to maturity.

From the late 1920s to about 1940, Faulkner had produced a body of fiction unparalleled in its richness and variety by that of any either writer. He had achieved for the American South what Nathaniel Hawthorne, nearly a century earlier, had achieved for New England, he had confronted its past, its historical burden, had dealt with the sin and guilt, the pride and shame of men like his own ancestors and out of his own imagination had made Gothic romance, historical chronicle and tragedy.

With the approach and outbreak of the World War II, Faulkner’s style changed writing in a more accessible way and in a traditional manner. Beginning with 1940 a new period was being born, that is of consolidation with the publication of The Hamlet, then much later came The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959) which constitute the Snopes saga; Faulkner also dealt with the Negro as a race and especially a moral problem in Go Down, Moses (1942) and Intruder in Dust (1948).

By 1946, both his national and international reputation had soared. In 1950 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A story concerning this event involves his strange refusal to go to Sweden and be handed the prize, however he changed his mind because he wanted his daughter to visit Paris. Another similar story happened in 1962, the year of his death, when he refused the invitation of President Kennedy to a dinner at the White House for Nobel Prize winners declaring a hundred miles too far to go for a meal. There are many stories about him, partially untrue or better said unable to be ever testified. It is told that he was a reclusive man with a strong drinking problem which was never very clearly identified as a problem since his private life was indeed private. In an interview to a Japanese journalist, when asked if drinking were of his hobbies, he replied that he does not consider it a hobby, but a normal instinct. Throughout the years many erroneous facts regarding his life and career were printed, Faulkner however did not care about them since he did not bother to correct them. He had often been categorized as shy, uncomfortable in the spotlight, or merely arrogant, an individualist who preferred to do only what he wanted. Nevertheless, the legends about him are many, few with liable sources. The puzzle that floats over Faulkner’s fiction is too dense to be solved due to the fact that this implies a more profound knowledge of his personal life on both the spiritual and the psychological level.

In 1948 he printed the antiracist Intruder in the Dust which draws the conclusion that the ethical value is pointed out irrespective of the race and class differences. It mainly attracted attention because of the dissociation from tradition.

After the last honor received, that is the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner shied away from public appearances, and he frequently refused interviews. Consequently, there are few biographical details about the last years of his life. In the 1950’s he spent time away from Oxford. After his daughter’s marriage that caused her departure to Charlottesville, he was invited by the University of Virginia to be writer in residence during the 1957-1958.

During the last months of his life, he spoke in New York before the American Academy of Arts and Letters and visited West Point where re read from his final novel The Reivers which became a national best-seller. In 1962 he returned to Oxford and a month later he died from a heart attack. Not many were invited to attend his funeral services.

Faulkner’s writing was greatly and undoubtedly influenced by the history of his grandfather who represented the South in its deepest traditions and codes. He became aware of the southern potential that was yet to be explored; therefore he put down one of the things he knew best, Southern history, climate, geography, society, traditions, ideologies, speech patterns. Faulkner’s obsession has been “the agony of a culture; but it has been even more the agony of his relation to this culture, the disproportion between his immersion in the south and his tumultuous efforts to project it. It has been the agony inherent in any effort to transcend some basic confusion by force of will alone.”

In his novels, Faulkner was deeply connected to the past; he would always justify his characters’ actions and reactions by making reference to the past of the South and its history. He continued to develop the idea that the South was deprived of freedom since 1863, when the first defeat of the southerners took place.

The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Norton and Company, New York, 1986, p. 2021.

Interview with Jean Stein, published in The Paris Review, 1956.

Hoffman, Frederick, William Faulkner, University of California, Riverside Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1961, p. 19.

Kazin, Alfred, On Native Grounds. An interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Reynal and Hitchcock, New York, 1942, p. 382.

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