William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, the oldest of four brothers in a southern family of aristocratic origin. A number of his ancestors were involved in the Mexican American War, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Several played a role in the local railroad industry and political scene. Faulkner showed signs of artistic talent from a young age, but he became bored with his studies and never finished high school.

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. He eventually returned there in his later years and purchased his famous estate, Rowan Oak. Oxford and the surrounding area were Faulkner’s inspiration for the fictional Yoknapatawpha County and its town of Jefferson. These locales became the setting for several his best-known works, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942).

Stints in New York and Paris introduced Faulkner to the culture and major figures of the Modernist literary movement, an early 20th-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.

Faulkner was particularly interested in the decline of the Deep South after the Civil War. Many of his novels explore the deterioration of the Southern aristocracy after the destruction of its wealth and way of life during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Faulkner populates Yoknapatawpha County with the skeletons of old mansions and the ghosts of great men—patriarchs and generals whose aristocratic families fail to live up to their historical greatness. Beneath the shadow of past grandeur, these families attempt to cling to old Southern values, codes, and myths that are corrupted and out of place in the reality of the modern world. The families in Faulkner’s novels are rife with failed sons, disgraced daughters, and smoldering resentments in the aftermath of African American slavery.

Faulkner’s reputation as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century is largely due to his highly experimental style. Faulkner was a pioneer in literary modernism, dramatically diverging from the forms and structures traditionally used in novels before his time. Faulkner often employs stream of consciousness narrative, discards any notion of chronological order, uses multiple narrators, shifts between the present and past tense, and tends toward impossibly long and complex sentences. Not surprisingly, these stylistic innovations make some of Faulkner’s novels incredibly challenging to the reader. However, these bold innovations paved the way for countless future writers to continue to experiment with the possibilities of the English language.

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 died in Byhalia, Mississippi, on July 6, 1962, at the age of sixty-four.

Background on As I Lay Dying

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.