Novelist William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. He spent much of his youth in Oxford where his father was employed as the secretary and then business manager for the University of Mississippi.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
From Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III, by William Faulkner
Faulkner was the creator of the mythical Yoknapatawpha CountyExternal in Mississippi. He portrayed a landscape of universal themes through decayed Southern white gentry, merchants, farmers, poor whites, and persecuted blacks. In stories notable for their experimental narrative techniques, he wrote about the troubled legacy of race, the conflicts between the values of the agrarian Old South and the industrial New South, and dysfunction both within the family and within the larger community. Faulkner’s characters confront institutionalized racial violence and intimate crime while struggling to live with dignity, meaning, and compassion, often in the face of degradation and humiliation.
William Faulkner left high school before graduating and attended university only briefly, dropping out in the first semester of his sophomore year. Despondent over a love affair and inspired by aspirations for military glory, he joined the Canadian Royal Air Force but never saw active service. Upon returning to Oxford, he was appointed postmaster of the University of Mississippi, a job he was unable to maintain.
Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all…
“Now I want you to tell me just one more thing. Why do you hate the South?”
“I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!
From Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Faulkner lived for a short time in New Orleans, where he received encouragement from writer Sherwood Anderson. He also traveled to France and Italy, though he made no attempt to meet any of the Lost Generation of expatriate American artists who had settled in Europe after World War I. Aside from these ventures and stints as a Hollywood screenwriter, Faulkner spent the remainder of his life in Mississippi and Virginia, writing brilliantly and prolifically in isolation from his peers.
After his third novel was rejected by the publisher Horace Liveright for its “diffuse” plot and characterization, Faulkner assumed that his work would not receive public recognition, but he was determined to continue writing for his own fulfillment. In fact, he achieved notice with his very next novel, The Sound and the Fury, which was praised by most reviewers upon its publication in October 1929. He continued to publish novels and poems for the next three decades. Faulkner was awarded two Pulitzer PrizesExternal, in 1955 for A Fable, and in 1963 for The Reivers. He received the Nobel PrizeExternal for Literature in 1949 “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” During his brief acceptance speech, Faulkner spoke of the human condition and the writer’s duty in the nuclear era:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.
William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance SpeechExternal
- The Library of Congress has a rich collection of photographs of the Mississippi landscape that inspired Faulkner’s fiction. To find similar images from the 1930s and 1940s, search the collection Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives on keywords such as cotton, sharecropper, tenant, or farmer, or browse the items by locations for place names such as Mississippi–Lauderdale County.
- Search on the keywords Oxford, Mississippi, in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey to see examples of Lafayette County, Mississippi architecture, including Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, and buildings such as the Lyceum Building of the University of Mississippi.
- Search Today in History on terms such as writer or poet to read about other American literary lights such as James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Langston Hughes.
- Faulkner’s writing is enriched by the Southern vernacular speech, sometimes melodious, sometimes comic or pathetic. The South’s strong tradition of oral history and storytelling is captured in the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project interviews, found online in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. The Federal Writers’ Project provided jobs for a diverse assortment of unemployed white-collar workers including beginning and experienced writers, those who had always been poor, and the newly down and out. Among the project’s writers who went on to gain national literary reputations were Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, May Swenson, Margaret Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright.