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William Faulkner towers above American literature, particularly American literature of the South. In this lesson, we’ll explore his life and review his major works and style.

Faulkner on Film

I love the Coen brothers’ movies, especially the weirdest ones, like ‘Barton Fink.’ In that movie, John Turturro plays a ‘serious’ writer who goes to Hollywood, and his first assignment is to write a wrestling picture, which seems like such an insult to a dignified author.That’s actually a reference to William Faulkner, who suffered the exact same indignity. In fact, John Mahoney plays a character in ‘Barton Fink’ that’s even more directly a caricature of an older Faulkner – drunk, sleeping with a secretary, a great author slumming in Hollywood. The Coen brothers worked Faulkner references into everything from ‘Raising Arizona’ to ‘The Big Lebowski,’ though many are so subtle you’d never notice.

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So who is this guy worthy of such treatment? Let’s start at the beginning.


William Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi. When he was five, his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he’d live for the majority of his life.Faulkner loved to read as a child, but he somehow failed to graduate from high school.

While in his teens, he dated Estelle Oldham. Then some other guy went and proposed to her. Since this guy came from a more desirable family than Faulkner’s, Estelle’s parents insisted she marry him.It was 1918 and war was raging, so Faulkner decided to join the army. But at 5’5′, he was too short.

So he joined the Canadian Royal Air Force. World War I ended before he finished training, so he never actually saw combat, and he headed back to Mississippi.He enrolled at Ole Miss, gaining entrance due to his father’s employment there, but didn’t last more than a few semesters. Faulkner then bounced around various day jobs. All the while, he was writing poetry and fiction.

In April of 1929, Estelle’s marriage ended. Faulkner waited barely more than a month, marrying her in June of that same year. They bought and restored a dilapidated Oxford mansion, known as Rowan Oak. He vowed to support her and the two kids she brought with her on his writing. Unfortunately, the reading public wasn’t keen on that.

But he got a gig as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. As I noted earlier, this wasn’t always great work. Plus, he didn’t really like the movies, but it was paying work. He had a long friendship with director Howard Hawks, and a long affair with Hawks’ secretary, Meta Carpenter. Perhaps his best screenwriting credit is Hawks’ 1946 masterpiece The Big Sleep, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel and stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.Faulkner was a peculiar kind of alcoholic.

While he was writing, he rarely drank. But when he finished a project, he’d binge drink. Those binges might last for days or weeks. He’d drink until he passed out, often causing harm to himself or those around him.Faulkner’s novels went more or less unnoticed until the late 1940s. In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and in 1951, his Collected Stories won the National Book Award. For the next dozen or so years, he finally enjoyed the fruits of his labors.

In 1962, Faulkner died of a heart attack at age 64.

Major Works and Style

So that’s his life, but what about those books – the ones no one noticed at first?Faulkner’s first novel is 1926’s Soldier’s Pay. This one is about a severely wounded World War I aviator who returns home. There’s sort of a love triangle as the aviator was helped home by a war widow who wants to marry him. He’s already engaged to another woman, but his fianc;e wasn’t faithful in his absence.In 1929, Faulkner published Sartoris, which centers on the decline of a wealthy southern family in the aftermath of World War I.

This is the first of many works to be set in ‘Yoknapatawpha County’. This fictional Mississippi locale, with a name derived from Chicasaw, is based on Lafayette County, which includes Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford. Later novels further develop characters introduced in Sartoris as residents of Yoknapatawpha County. In many ways, this setting is a defining element of Faulkner’s work. It allows Faulkner to explore Southern history and the lives of his characters on a rich palette of his own design.Later in 1929, Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury.

Considered one of the best novels of the century, this is the tragic story of the Compson family. They’re more Southern aristocrats, and the novel tells of their financial, religious and personal failures.The novel is notable for employing a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, as found in the works of other major Modernist writers, like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The Sound and the Fury also jumps around in time and is told from different points of view, which makes it challenging to follow.The next year, As I Lay Dying came out. This one has more stream of consciousness writing and again uses multiple narrators. Plus, there’s an entire lesson on it, so check that out.

Up until this point, the public really wasn’t paying much attention to Faulkner. That changed some with 1931’s Sanctuary. It’s the story of Temple Drake, young debutante who gets kidnapped and raped during the Prohibition era. It’s a dark, troubling story that shocked many readers.Faulkner published a sequel, Requiem For a Nun, that is part novel and part play. Temple Drake is married and a mother in this novel, but she’s still struggling with what happened to her in Sanctuary. The novel contains one of Faulkner’s great lines: ‘The past is never dead.

It’s not even past.‘1936 brought Absalom, Absalom!. This one is centered around the Civil War. Quentin Compson, from The Sound and the Fury, is a key character.

However, the main character is Thomas Sutpen, a white man who rises from poverty to own a plantation. It deals with race and the burden of slavery’s legacy in the South.This novel also features a sentence with 1,288 words, which is one of the longest in literature.

A key element of Faulkner’s style is intricately woven, fascinatingly-structured sentences. Absalom, Absalom! just happens to have the one that takes the cake.1942’s Go Down, Moses is really a collection of related short stories. The McCaslin family is prominent throughout the stories. It’s another work that tackles race, slavery and the fate of the South.

1954’s A Fable won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. It’s notable for not being set in Yoknapatawpha County, while every other novel we’ve looked at since Sartoris is.Then there is the Snopes trilogy, which includes The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion. As you might expect, these novels focus on the Snopes family. In stories grappling with good and evil, the Snopes are definitely evil. But they use their evil ways to rise to power, as so many villains do.

Faulkner’s final novel is 1962’s The Reivers. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this one isn’t as complicated in style as other Faulkner books. It’s also funnier and lighter in mood. It’s about Lucas Priest, Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin, and their adventures in stealing, horseracing and cars.

Lesson Summary

In summary, William Faulkner is perhaps the most celebrated Southern novelist. His novels, which are typical of the Modernist style, feature varying, complex writing techniques, including stream of consciousness, time shifts and multiple narrators. His most notable works include The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom!

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson has been watched in its entirety, you might be able to:

  • Understand Faulkner’s importance to American literature
  • Identify Faulkner’s Modernist style
  • Point out the southern themes in his work
  • List some of his most important and popular pieces

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