The case can be and has been made that WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897—1962) of Mississippi was the greatest American writer of the 20th century (although the Northerners Hemingway and Fitzgerald have their partisans). Certainly a half dozen or more of Faulkner’s novels are universally recognized as masterpieces and most of the others are generally accorded the highest merit. Faulkner’s achievement, like Poe’s, was recognized earlier and more certainly in Europe (as witness his Nobel Prize) than it was by the predominant New York publishers and critics, with whom Faulkner always had a testy relationship. Largely self-educated, Faulkner struggled for most of his life to make a living with his pen. But he never compromised on the integrity of his vision and his craft, setting himself a new challenge with every work.
William Faulkner was born in northern Mississippi in the region south of Memphis. He lived there most of his life except for periods in Canada, New Orleans, Europe, Charlottesville, and screenwriting stints in Hollywood. Out of this region, his “little postage stamp of land,” he imagined Yoknapatawpha County. He peopled it with generations and told two centuries of its history. In the process he built out of the particular a profound portrayal of universal human experience. Perhaps of no writer can it be more truly said that “the local is the nexus of the universal.”
Faulkner suffers from a veritable international minor industry of academic investigation and commentary, mostly artificial and of little value. For background and interpretation the reader can rely on the studies by Cleanth Brooks, recommended at 11.07.01 and some of the essays of M.E. Bradford. There are a number of biographies, chiefly of interest to those who want to pursue unimportant biographical detail. They are generally pedestrian and sometimes of the tabloid type. Faulkner himself insisted that only a writer’s work was important, not his life.
The books of Faulkner that we have recommended on this site are not those that a literary critic interested in technique would choose as the best. Rather, they are those that are most useful for understanding the South and Southern history. Readers who want to progress beyond the books we have recommended might want to take on the Snopes Trilogy: The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959). Faulkner has richly re-created the experience of life of many characters over several generations as he chronicles the decline of the of the Old South into the greedy materialism of 20th century America.
First-time readers frequently have difficulties with Faulkner’s passages of unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness. It may be helpful to keep in mind which of the characters’ (or the author’s) thinking is being rendered in these passages. . A good place to begin reading Faulkner is his War between the States novel, The Unvanquished. For film versions of Faulkner’s books see 22.04.01, 22.04.02, 22.04.04, 22.04.06, and 22.05.08. Faulkner was also notable as the screenwriter on many highly regarded films such as The Big Sleep, Land of the Pharaohs, The Road to Glory,To Have and to Have Not (a Hemingway novel starring Humphrey Bogat), and Today We Live, based on his own short story “Turnabout.”
A beautiful photographic collection of Faulkner and his home country by Martin J. Dain, Faulkner’s County, was published in 1963.
Faulkner writings recommended here are The Unvanquished at 11.04.03, Go Down, Moses at 11.03.10, Intruder in the Dust and The Reivers at 11.06.03, Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters at 11.07.03.
Clyde N. Wilson