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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
One of Light in August's central characters, the Reverend Gail Hightower, is haunted by memories of his grandfather, who died fighting in the Confederate cavalry. William Faulkner's great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, was a Civil War veteran, too. Known as the "old colonel," he later wrote several books, including a popular romance, The White Rose of Memphis (1882). When still a boy, William Faulkner heard many inspiring tales about this family patriarch. One day he told his teacher, "I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy."
In 1841, at the age of 16, W. C. Falkner left home. For reasons that are still the subject of historians' speculations, he walked from his native Tennessee to Ripley, Mississippi. (It is a similar trip, in the opposite direction, that 20-year-old Lena Grove takes in Light in August.) Falkner served in the Mexican War as well as in the Civil War. After the Confederacy's defeat, Colonel Falkner returned to Ripley for successful careers as a railroad magnate and a lawyer. In 1889 he was elected to the state legislature, but an opponent shot him dead on the town's main street. In previous brushes with violence, Falkner had stabbed one man to death and shot another, and his eldest son had been shot to death in a love triangle. This volatile great-grandfather became the model for Colonel John Sartoris, a major character in one of Faulkner's first novels. Colonel Sartoris also appears in Light in August as the man who shoots Joanna Burden's grandfather and brother.
After the "old colonel's" death, his son, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, known as the "young colonel," took over the family railroad and became a political power in northern Mississippi. But his son-William Faulkner's father, Murry-led a less colorful life. He too worked on the railroad, but only as a fireman, engineer, and conductor. Murry married Maud Butler, of Oxford, Mississippi, the Lafayette County seat. And on September 25, 1897, their first son, William Cuthbert, was born in New Albany, where Murry was working as passenger agent. Just before William's fifth birthday, the family moved back to Oxford, where Murry eventually became secretary and business manager of the nearby University of Mississippi.
Oxford (and perhaps Ripley as well) are the models for the fictional city of Jefferson, while Lafayette County became Yoknapatawpha County. When Faulkner was growing up, many Civil War veterans were still alive. Several sections of Light in August are written as stories told by one character to another in much the same way that those veterans told grand tales about the more exciting times of their youth. And from these old veterans Faulkner absorbed what has been called "the Southern myth."
According to this set of beliefs, the South was a homeland that had heroically fought the Civil War for self-determination. The odds had been impossible, the storytellers said, but in fighting so valiantly the South had won a moral victory. Nonetheless, in this white Southern interpretation of history, the result of defeat had been destruction at the hands of the conquerors and demoralization among the descendants of the defeated. So in Light in August, the city of Jefferson shuns Joanna Burden because, almost seven decades after the end of the Civil War, the town sees her as one of the hated invaders.
Though the Southern myth influenced Faulkner, his awareness of the position of blacks in the South helped make him critical of the legend too. When Faulkner wrote Light in August, Southern laws and Southern custom still prevented blacks from voting, kept them separate from whites in public facilities, and set rules for their behavior in the presence of whites. The United States Supreme Court had declared racial segregation constitutional in 1896, and the court also sanctioned the practice of defining anyone with any black ancestry as black. In the years between that decision and the writing of Light in August, Southern states continued to enact new racial restrictions. Blacks who seemed defiant were subject to lynchings-vigilante murders often accompanied by mutilations, like the one that befalls Joe Christmas at the end of Light in August.
But his Southern environment wasn't the only influence on the young Faulkner. He started writing in eighth grade. When he was at Oxford High School, an older friend named Phil Stone introduced him to French literature and encouraged his budding talent. Phil Stone became a model for Gavin Stephens, the lawyer who appears briefly near the end of Light in August. Though he was reading widely, Faulkner disliked school. He dropped out permanently in 1915 and went to work at his grandfather's bank early the next year. Then for a short time in 1918 he roomed with Stone in New Haven and worked as a clerk at a small-arms company.
The United States had entered World War I the year before, and Faulkner tried to enlist for flight training but was rejected as too short. He then applied to the Canadian Royal Air Force. To help him get accepted, he invented a British background and added the letter "u" to his last name to make it sound more British. The Canadians took him, but the war ended before Faulkner got to fly a single mission. Perhaps this experience helped Faulkner create the frustrated, would-be soldier Percy Grimm, who kills Joe Christmas in Light in August.
In 1924, with the financial help of Phil Stone, Faulkner published a book of poems, The Marble Faun. Both the critics and the public ignored it. But on an extended visit to New Orleans, Faulkner became friends with the writer Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged him to concentrate on fiction. From New Orleans, Faulkner went to Paris, where he spent the last few months of 1925. In 1926 his first novel was published. It was Soldiers' Pay, a story about postwar disillusionment. Returning to Oxford, Faulkner finished his second novel, Mosquitoes (1927), a satire on New Orleans literary life.
Faulkner then turned to his native Mississippi for the subject that was to preoccupy him henceforth. In January 1929, Sartoris, Faulkner's first Yoknapatawpha novel, was published. In June of that same year Faulkner married his high school sweetheart, Estelle Oldham Franklin, after her divorce. And 1929 was a turning point in yet a third respect. It marked the publication of The Sound and the Fury. Told from four different points of view, this story of a doomed family was the first novel in which Faulkner combined his Mississippi subject matter with experimental literary techniques that had been influenced by modern authors such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.
Despite that achievement, Faulkner still could not earn enough to support his family. While working at manual labor, he wrote As I Lay Dying (1930), the tale of a burial journey from a rural farm to a Jefferson cemetery. Told by fifteen different narrators, it is now regarded as a masterpiece, but it was no more commercially successful than Faulkner's previous novels.
Faulkner then began work on a story designed to be so gruesome that its shock value would make it popular. Published in February 1931, Sanctuary was indeed Faulkner's first financial success. It tells of the horrifying fate of a young Mississippi college student, Temple Drake. Sanctuary caught the attention of Hollywood producers, who made it into a movie, The Story of Temple Drake (1933).
Light in August, published in 1932, integrates Faulkner's technical innovations into a more conventional and more objective narrative than that of The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. All its major characters are comparative outsiders in Jefferson, and for the first time, one of Faulkner's central interests is his characters' relationship to the community at large.
Meanwhile Faulkner had experienced the first of several personal tragedies when his infant daughter Alabama died in 1931. In 1932 he made his initial journey to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter. Screenwriting became an important source of income for Faulkner; he proved himself an expert at revising other people's screenplays and was soon a favorite writer for the famous director Howard Hawks. But Faulkner disliked these trips to California, and the separations from his family strained his marriage. Both Faulkner and his wife developed heavy drinking problems, and, in Hollywood, Faulkner had several long-term love affairs. Faulkner's personal and financial problems both became worse when, in 1935, his youngest brother, Dean, was killed flying a plane Faulkner had given him. Faulkner blamed himself for his brother's death and took financial responsibility for Dean's family.
Despite his problems, Faulkner continued to write, publishing some important books in the years immediately after Light in August. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is the story of a man who destroys himself and his family by refusing to recognize a part-black son. The Hamlet (1940) and Go Down, Moses (1942) are both collections of related short stories. The former tells about the triumph of avarice, the latter about changing relations between blacks and whites.
Faulkner bought a farm in 1938, and sometimes liked to call himself "just a farmer." And in 1948 that "farmer" finally achieved broader popular renown and financial security when he published Intruder in the Dust and sold the screen rights to MGM.
Though most readers agree that Faulkner wrote his best work before 1945, his greatest fame came in the last years of his life. He received the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, and his optimistic acceptance speech surprised those who had wrongly thought his outlook to be one of despair and hopelessness. In 1951 he won a prestigious National Book Award for his Collected Stories, and in 1955 he won a second National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for A Fable (1954), a modern version of the life of Christ.
In the 1950s Faulkner also became more of a public figure. Speaking out on political issues, he tried to define himself as a Southern moderate who supported racial equality but wanted the South to achieve this goal at its own pace. His remarks often aroused hostility both from Northern progressives and from Southern conservatives.
Faulkner's last novel, a semiautobiographical reminiscence of youth called The Reivers, was published in June 1962. That same month, Faulkner was thrown by a horse and the fall aggravated an old back injury. The prescribed medication debilitated him and Faulkner was taken to a small Mississippi hospital, where, on July 6, he died of a heart attack. By the time of his passing, he was renowned around the world for his ability to evoke both the raucous comedy and the profound tragedy of the human condition, for his creation of a wide variety of vivid characters, for his complex literary structures and stylistic innovation, and for his success in making what he called his "own little postage stamp of native soil" universally relevant