William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897 in the town of New Albany, Mississippi. His family had been influential Mississippians for almost seventy-five years: a great-grandfather, William Falkner (his great-grandson added a "u" to the family surname) was a slave-owning planter and a colonel in the Confederate army, much like Colonel Sartoris; one of Faulkner's grandfathers controlled the Gulf & Chicago Railroad. But his father, Murry, lost his job when William was five, and the family moved forty miles away to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, the town where Faulkner would spend most of his adult life and the model for the fictional Jefferson. Indeed, much of the fictional universe of Yoknapatawpha County—the recurring setting for most of Faulkner's novels, including The Unvanquished—seems to have been drawn in part from real people and places in Faulkner's hometown.
Faulkner was an intellectual young man, widely-read but aloof from his classmates at the University of Mississippi. He began writing stories in college, and published his first novel at the age of 28. His first genuine literary success, however, was The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929. That remarkably innovative novel was unlike any ever written in America. Told in succession from the vantage points of four narrators, the first of whom is a mentally disabled boy whose thoughts are barely comprehensible to the reader, The Sound and the Fury displayed the shifting viewpoints, the leaps back and forth in time, the elaborate, overwrought prose style—paragraph-long sentences mixed with fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness thoughts—and the themes of obsession, loss and tragedy that are the hallmarks of Faulkner's brilliant style. Unsurprisingly, the novel was not a popular success, and it was many years before Faulkner was recognized as one of the greatest twentieth- century American writers. His 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature was a vindication of and testament to his enormous talents.
In the early 1930s Faulkner published his greatest works after The Sound and the Fury—As I Lay Dying,Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!The Unvanquished, by contrast, is not his best writing. Published in 1938, the novel exhibits little of the sophisticated, innovative, difficult prose on which his reputation is based. The characters are less nuanced and finely shaded—Colonel Sartoris's bravery, Drusilla's fierceness, and Bayard's nobility are not as tormented or complicated as his more famous characters. Moreover, the episodes in the book often feel unevenly matched, no doubt because they were composed at different times. The lighter pieces—"Ambuscade," "Retreat," "Raid," and "Skirmish at Sartoris"—were written as short stories in 1934 and 1935 for The Saturday Evening Post and other middle-class magazines. By contrast, "An Odor of Verbena" was not written until 1937, as the final episode in a proposed novel. Its intense drama and formal symbolism seems at odds with the comedy of Bayard's rascally adventures earlier in the book. But while The Unvanquished is not Faulkner's best fiction, it nonetheless is a marvelously entertaining and beautifully written novel, whose flights of comic fancy belie the seriousness of its deeper message.
Faulkner's novel also raises critical questions about the American memory of the Civil War. The Unvanquished is unique among his works for its setting during the war; while many of the other novels grapple with themes of Southern identity, they are usually set in the twentieth century. But in The Unvanquished we see Confederates and Yankees, raids and skirmishes and armies—if not all-out battles—firsthand. Faulkner unambiguously celebrates the gallantry and heroism of the Sartorises, and readers find themselves identifying with them also. But the ugly racism underlying the Confederate cause is only glancingly addressed—indeed, it seems most of the slaves in this novel do not want to be free, and those who do, like the Sartoris slave Loosh, are painted in decidedly negative tones. Even Colonel Sartoris's murder of two Northern abolitionists in defense of racial purity is supposed to be commendable. At points, Faulkner's novel bears an uncomfortable resemblance to other 1930s celebrations of the South, notably Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, which lionized Klansmen and the purity of white womanhood. Yet the picture is not so one-sided: characters like Ringo are genuinely positive, heroic and multi-faceted, and resist such easy pigeonholing.
Faulkner continued writing until his death, by a heart attack, on July 6, 1962. His later years were painful and difficult: his marriage to Estelle Franklin was stormy by turns, his finances were frequently strained, and he suffered from periodic depression and drank heavily. Yet upon his death he was universally recognized as a leading light of American literature, and one of the most creative authors ever to work in or write about this country.