William Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, to a prominent Southern family. A number of his ancestors were involved in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction, and were part of the local railroad industry and political scene. Faulkner showed signs of artistic talent from a young age, but became bored with his classes and never finished high school.
Faulkner grew up in the town of Oxford, Mississippi, and 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, Mississippi, and its town of Jefferson. These locales became the setting for a number of his works. Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha novels” include 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), and they feature some of the same characters and locations.
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 from the past 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 between whites and blacks in the aftermath of African-American slavery.
Faulkner’s reputation as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth 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. For his efforts, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. He died in Mississippi in 1962.
First published in 1929, The Sound and the Fury is recognized as one of the most successfully innovative and experimental American novels of its time, not to mention one of the most challenging to interpret. The novel concerns the downfall of the Compsons, who have been a prominent family in Jefferson, Mississippi, since before the Civil War. Faulkner represents the human experience by portraying events and images subjectively, through several different characters’ respective memories of childhood. The novel’s stream of consciousness style is frequently very opaque, as events are often deliberately obscured and narrated out of order. Despite its formidable complexity, The Sound and the Fury is an overpowering and deeply moving novel. It is generally regarded as Faulkner’s most important and remarkable literary work.