William Faulkner was born in the north Mississippi town of New Albany on September 25, 1897. Fifteen months later, his parents moved to nearby Ripley, where his great-grandfather had settled about 1840. A lawyer and a planter, William Clark Falkner had led a regiment north in 1861 to fight at First Manassas, and later he had served near home as colonel of his regiment of partisan cavalry. A successful novelist and railroad builder in the postwar years, he was fatally shot by a onetime business rival the day he was elected to the legislature.
Precocious as Billy Falkner was, he may well have absorbed some of his family lore before his parents moved southwest to Oxford just before his fifth birthday. There, with his three younger brothers, he enjoyed a comfortable small-town boyhood. He was a bright student, but eventually lost interest and dropped out during high school. He quit a job in his grandfather’s bank to pursue his real interest: writing verse. Encouraged by Phil Stone, an older and better educated friend, he remained in Oxford until the spring of 1918, when he traveled north to share Stone’s student lodgings at Yale. That July, spelling his name Faulkner, he began pilot training in Toronto with the RAF-Canada. Although this experience ended with war, it profoundly affected his imagination and supplied material for future writing.
At home again, he led an existence deceptive in appearance. Roaming the countryside, taking odd jobs when he chose, he was still reading widely and experimenting in verse and prose. A brief taste of New York in 1921 and nearly three onerous years as post-master at the University of Mississippi whetted his appetite for Europe. He planned to travel there via New Orleans, where he visited late in 1924 just before the appearance of The Marble Faun, a sequence of pastoral verses financed by himself and Stone.
He had met the writer Sherwood Anderson in New Orleans, and in the general company of the older writer and his circle, he settled for half a year, writing prose and verse, much of it published in the Times-Picayune. After sending a novel manuscript to Anderson’s publisher, Faulkner sailed for Europe in July with his friend, architect William Spratling. From Genoa, they journeyed through Switzerland to Paris, where Faulkner spent the rest of the year, but for brief trips into the French Countryside and to England. He worked on stories and novels, elements of which he would salvage later.
On February 25, 1925, Boni & Liveright published Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner’s Lost Generation novel of Postwar disillusionment. Returning to New Orleans, he worked on a novel set there called Mosquitoes. Faulkner found his voice in Flags in the Dust, a novel of the North Mississippi Sartoris clan (based on the Falkners). Several times rejected, it was published in 1929, when Faulkner was completing a highly experimental book called The Sound and the Fury, which came out that October. The novel was a masterpiece.
These two works of 1929 signaled the beginning of more than a decade of productivity and brilliance unmatched by any other American novelist. Pushing into other regions of his mythic Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner extended his use of the stream-of-consciousness technique in a story of country people called As I Lay Dying (1930). Sanctuary (1931) was a shocking novel of violence which brought Faulkner notoriety, sales, and a Hollywood offer. Now married to his divorced childhood sweetheart, and owner of a big antebellum house much in need of repair, he went to Hollywood as a screenwriter the next spring, beginning a remunerative but costly second career that would continue intermittently for more than two decades.
He was at the height of his powers, as he showed in Light in August (1932). But he was far from financially secure, and he now spent much energy on short stories in the hope of quick returns from major magazines. He was publishing a book a year now, culminating in 1936 in Absalom, Absolom! issued by Random House. He fashioned short stories into novels with The Unvanquished (1938) and Go Down, Moses (1942), exploring the Southern matters of civil war and race relations. The Hamlet (1940) had employed similar reworkings to begin in novel from the Snopes saga, which would engage Faulkner during two decades in a fictional view of sweeping historical and socioeconomic change.
Gaining increasing recognition, but modest sales, Faulkner had worked for three other studios before going to Warner Brothers in 1942. Much of the next three years was spent there on ephemeral scenarios, but Intruder in the Dust, a popular novel of detection and race relations, brought him financial security and renewed popularity in 1948.
Faulkner’s international stature was confirmed by the Nobel Prize in 1950. During this decade, he traveled extensively on State Department cultural missions, but he worked intensively to complete the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Fable (1954), his recasting of the Christ story set in 1918, and his Snopes trilogy. In The Town (1957), he followed an incursion of the Snopeses into Jefferson, the seat of Yoknapatawpha County, and in The Mansion (1959) he brought the triumph and fall of Flem Snopes into the contemporary period.
Residing in Charlottesville half the year, where he was associated with the University of Virginia, he lived the life of a venerated artist and fox-hunting country gentleman. The Reivers (1961) was a grandfather’s mellow reminiscence of a boy’s coming-of-age in the early years of the century, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The most honored of living writers, secured as one of America’s greatest artists, he died in Mississippi on July 6, 1962, just short of his 65th birthday.
– Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography