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date: 14 June 2024

Faulkner, Williamlocked

Faulkner, Williamlocked

  • Charles HannonCharles HannonWashington and Jefferson College
  •  and Ethan KingEthan KingArts & Sciences Writing Program, Boston University

Summary

William Faulkner (1897–1962) is widely considered the most important and influential writer from the US South. Although his novels often depict a provincial region of the Deep South (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County), Faulkner is much more than just a Southern writer. He is at once an American writer and a global one. In addition to documenting the fraught racial histories and consequences of colonialism and slavery, his novels address the economic, cultural, and technological transformations of modernity, elaborating the effects that the rapidly changing modern world had on identity, region, history, race, sex, gender, politics, and temporality. Yet, his professed goal as a writer was simple: to get at the truth of “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

His unorthodox style and experimental narrative structure, not to mention his deep investment in representing human consciousness, positioned him as a writer of high literary modernism alongside other international writers such as James Joyce. His novels The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930) attempted to represent individual psychology by experimentally collating different narrative sections through different narrators, each providing aspects of and perspectives on the plot. Although these works did not find success initially, Sanctuary (1931), a novel about violence, sex, and crime, attracted considerable attention not only for its sensational plot, but also for its filmic techniques.

After publishing Light in August (1932) and working several stints as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which is thought by many to be his masterpiece. Told and retold from competing perspectives, the story of Thomas Sutpen, the brutal would-be founder of a Southern dynasty, weaves a complex historiographic web, calling into question the ways people create and transmit history and meaning. Absalom retains the artistic and philosophical interests of his earlier novels but shifts from private psychology to the social psychology of the South upon confronting the traumas and racial complexities of its own past and present.

After World War II, Faulkner’s work became slightly less experimental, as he continued to sketch out the people and history of Yoknapatawpha County. During this time, he wrote, among other works, three novels about the social and economic rise of a poor white family named Snopes against the backdrop of the decline of the region’s aristocratic families (The Hamlet [1940], The Town [1957], and The Mansion [1959]); a novelized collection of short stories that offered a composite history of a plantation and its descendants (Go Down, Moses [1942]); and an antiracist novel (Intruder in the Dust [1948]). Although he was well known in international literary spheres, Faulkner’s national reputation only cemented itself upon the publication in 1946 of an anthology of his writings, The Portable Faulkner, put together by Malcolm Cowley. In 1950, Faulkner was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He continued writing until his death in 1962, having published nineteen novels and numerous short stories that are still revered today.

Subjects

  • North American Literatures

Updated in this version

Article written by Hannon and revised by King. Text expanded to reflect recent scholarship.

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