William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, the oldest of four brothers in a southern family of aristocratic origin. Faulkner spent much of his life in and around his beloved hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, where he worked various odd jobs and wrote in his spare time in the years leading up to his literary fame. Stints in New York and Paris introduced Faulkner to the culture and major figures of the Modernist literary movement, an early twentieth-century response to a world marked by rapid and often bewildering technological development. Modernism in literature was characterized by experimentation with language and literary conventions, and Faulkner became one of the movement’s major figures. In 1924, Faulkner published his first book, a collection of poetry titled The Marble Faun. Faulkner published his fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, in 1929, and though The Sound and the Fury is often considered his masterpiece, it was his sixth novel, Sanctuary, in 1929, that finally won him an audience and a literary career. The Sound and the Fury, however, marked the beginning of Faulkner’s use of experimental narrative techniques to explore the psychological complexity of his characters and their interactions more thoroughly than a traditional style would have allowed.
As I Lay Dying, originally published in 1930, is one of the most vivid testaments to the power of this new style, with Faulkner’s usually complex and lengthy paragraphs trimmed down with a conscientious economy to form a clear, unified plot. Much of this clarity can be attributed to the intensity of Faulkner’s vision for the work and the careful planning and outlining he did before sitting down to write. Whereas Faulkner conceived many of his other works in a scattered fashion, he fully imagined the innovative concepts of As I Lay Dying ahead of time, furiously scribbling down his revelations on the back of an upturned wheelbarrow. This organization reflects the great hopes that Faulkner pinned on the novel—he had recently married his high school sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, and hoped his saga of the Bundren family would finally ensure a steady income for his family and a greater literary reputation for himself. The result is a novel of some daring, one that forgoes the unified perspective of a single narrator and fragments its text into fifty-nine segments voiced from fifteen different perspectives. In writing As I Lay Dying in this way, Faulkner requires his readers to take an active part in constructing the story, allows for multiple and sometimes conflicting interpretations, and achieves remarkable levels of psychological insight.
In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner first introduces Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional rendition of his native Lafayette County, Mississippi, which became the setting for most of his best-known works. The novels set in Yoknapatawpha County can even be read as one intricate story, in which the same places, events, families, and people turn up over and over again. For example, Vernon and Cora Tull, who appear in As I Lay Dying, also appear in The Hamlet, a later novel. Before Faulkner, the American South was widely portrayed in American literature as a backward, impossibly foreign land. The complexity and sophistication of the Yoknapatawpha novels changed many of these perceptions, and it is largely due to Faulkner’s influence that the South is now recognized as one of the country’s most fertile literary regions. Faulkner himself, however, did not fare well financially, and he was eventually forced to take work as a screenwriter in Hollywood to supplement his dwindling income. His fortunes were revived, however, with the 1946 publication of The Portable Faulkner, which featured a large and varied selection of his writings. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, and a pair of Pulitzer Prizes followed in 1955 and 1962. Faulkner continued to write about Yoknapatawpha until his death in Byhalia, Mississippi, on July 6, 1962, at the age of sixty-four.