Joseph C. Murphy

I. Life and Works
II. Fictional Method and Style
III. Modernism
IV. Faulkner and History
V. William Faulkner's South

Life and Works

The following biographical materials are available online:

A chronology of Faulkner's life and work:

Frequently Asked Questions:

A biographical sketch ( Mississippi Writers Page ):

A biographical sketch and critical assessment ( Encyclopedia Brittanica ):

Fictional Method and Style

Few writers, even among modernists, experimented with such a range of methods and styles as William Faulkner. He continually tested new novelistic forms. The Sound and the Fury (1929) has four sequential narrators. As I Lay Dying (1930) raises the number to 15, presented not in sequence but as a series of 59 alternating fragments. The Wild Palms (1939) follows two distinct narratives alternating chapter by chapter. In terms of genre, too, Faulkner was eclectic: As I Lay Dying is a short aesthetic tour-de-force; Sanctuary (1931), a hardboiled thriller, pitched to the marketplace. Go Down, Moses (1942), something between a short story collection and a novel; Mosquitoes (1927) and Pylon (1935), satiric portrayals of New Orleans subcultures (literati and show aviators, respectively), The Reivers (1962), a light comic novel.

Edmond L. Volpe ( A Reader's Guide to William Faulkner. New York : Noonday, 1964) has argued that Faulkner, as a novelist, was essentially a short story writer: his novels assemble, by various methods, shorter narratives into novelistic structures. (This is Faulkner's strongest formal affinity with Willa Cather.) The Sound and the Fury began as a short story, but evolved into a novel as Faulkner viewed the same material from different perspectives. Light in August (1932) interweaves three main narratives of modest scope: Lena Grove's search for the father of her child; Joe Christmas's search for his racial identity; and Gail Hightower's search for reprieve from the ghosts of his personal and family history. The power of Light in August derives from the narrative and thematic intersections of these central characters' lives.

As a stylist, Faulkner's name is associated with exceedingly long, unwieldy sentences. In an interview, Faulkner said he wrote long sentences for two reasons. First, he was writing with ¡§a foreknowledge of death,¡¨ and thus a pressure ¡§to put the whole history of the human heart on the head of a pin.¡¨ Second, he explained, ¡§a character in a story at any moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him, and the long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something.¡¨ Faulkner's did not use long sentences to catalogue objects or sensations, but to capture something similar to what Cather called ¡§the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed¡¨¡Xwhich for Faulkner included ¡§the whole history of the human heart.¡¨ Thus, at the same time that Cather and Hemingway stripped down or ¡§unfurnished¡¨ their writing styles to intimate what could not be precisely named, Faulkner used the opposite tactic¡Xa superabundance of words¡Xto dramatize that his language is, like theirs, evocative but imprecise. It has also been noted that Faulkner's overwrought sentences are oratorical¡Xsuggesting a narrator who is speaking freely and grandiloquently. Faulkner said of Southerners: ¡§We need to talk, to tell, since oratory is our heritage.¡¨

Faulkner's prolixity is so showy and demanding that readers tend to forget the other passages, just as numerous, where he keeps within a conventional or even simple sentence length. His writing styles are actually as various as his novelistic structures. For example, in Light in August, sentences like ¡§The dogs would arrive on the early morning train,¡¨ and ¡§It was a fast train and it did not always stop at Jefferson,¡¨ build to a more recognizable Faulknerian showpiece:
    It halted only long enough to disgorge the two dogs: a thousand costly tons of intricate and curious metal glaring and crashing up and into an almost shocking silence filled with the puny sounds of men, to vomit two gaunt and cringing phantoms whose droopeared and mild faces gazed with sad abjectness about the weary, pale faces of men who had not slept very much since night before last, ringing them about with something terrible and eager and impotent.

Another feature of Faulkner's style is his invention of portmanteau words (words formed by merging two existing words), for example, ¡§fecundmellow,¡¨ ¡§Allknowledgeable.¡¨ ¡§droopeared.¡¨


On one level, Faulkner was a self-conscious modernist who took to heart the modernist credo ¡§make it new.¡¨ An unrelenting experimenter, he sought, successively book by book, to expand on the innovative accomplishments of Conrad, Joyce, and Proust in the representation of time, space, and consciousness. Nowhere is this self-conscious artistry more apparent than in his statement that in As I Lay Dying he ¡§set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force.... Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again.¡¨ His dismissal of his bestseller Sanctuary as a bad book written to make money bolsters the image of Faulkner as a calculating writing who drew a clear line between high art and pulp fiction.

On another level, Faulkner seems less sophisticated. His favorite novel, he repeatedly said, was The Sound and the Fury, because it emerged intuitively rather than according to any plan. He liked to say he wasn't a literary man; in fact, he was largely self-educated (he never finished high school) and did not frequent literary centers. In interviews he often claimed to be innocent of the complex symbols and patterns that critics found in his work¡Xthough he allowed that those meanings might be there. He preferred to present himself not as an intentional symbolist but as ¡§the carpenter trying to find the hammer or the axe that he thinks will do the best job.¡¨ One senses from his comments that Faulkner certainly understood the drift, but not necessarily every turn, of his most unwieldy sentences.

Was Faulkner a sophisticated modernist or a naive genius? The truth lies somewhere in between. Indeed, his primitive stance as a ¡§carpenter¡¨ satisfied a certain modernist nostalgia¡Xlending his work an authentic, handmade quality¡Xjust as his hunting and equestrianism and antebellum mansion kept him in touch with elemental forces and historical traditions also essential to his modernism. Faulkner's life and work might best be seen as a balancing act between tradition and modernity: moving between Mississippi and Hollywood, horseback and airplane.

Like Willa Cather, Faulkner demonstrates in his fiction many of the qualities typically attributed to literary modernism:

experimenting with narrative structures, temporal frameworks, narrative voices, and symbols;

exploring inner consciousness as a major theme;

adapting the abstract methods of modern painting to literature;

embracing communities steeped in tradition and history (both Western and ¡§primitive¡¨ traditions) as a relief from the upheavals and alienation of modernity.

As noted above, Faulkner developed a dense modernist style alternative to the simplifying style of Cather and Hemingway: while they cut back on language, Faulkner worked it up. Paradoxically, however, Faulkner and Cather shared a fundamental principle of language: that it evokes the truth but, no matter how many or how few words you use, cannot tell it directly.

Faulkner and History

History was Faulkner's great theme, the central obsession around which his technical innovations¡Xstream of consciousness, temporal shifts, and multiple voices¡Xtake shape. In the famous words of his character Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun (1951), ¡§The past is never dead. It's not even past.¡¨ ¡§[T]o me,¡¨ Faulkner remarked, ¡§no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such thing really as was because the past is. It is a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment.¡¨ As a Southerner, Faulkner had a strong sense of belonging to a tradition that was separate from the Northern mainstream. The traditions of aristocratic families, of great plantations and slave labor, were part of the South's cultural memory, as was the stamping out of these traditions after the South's humiliating defeat in the Civil War. This history was also, particularly, part of Faulkner's family memory, blending with his earliest personal recollections of childhood. Faulkner was brought up on stories of his great-grandfather Colonel William Clark Falkner, a Civil War veteran, politician, and popular romantic novelist, author of The White Rose of Memphis. As an adult, Faulkner settled into and refurbished a pre-Civil War mansion in Oxford, Mississippi.

Most of Faulkner's fiction is concerned with history¡Xwith representing how time passes, blends, and recurs. Even in a short story like ¡§A Rose for Emily,¡¨ with its shocking revelation that old Emily kept a corpse as her bedfellow, Faulkner seems more interested in arranging layers of history than in telling a sensational tale. Even narratives principally concerned with the present, or with the relatively recent past of a single lifetime, can supply complex ancestries for characters: consider Joanna Burden's and Gale Hightower's family backgrounds in Light and August ; and the historical appendix ¡§Compson, 1699-1945,¡¨ that Faulkner supplied for The Sound and the Fury 15 years after its original publication. The Compson chronology suggests an important point about Faulkner's novelistic and historical consciousness: the novel is a formal pattern that materializes within a much broader stream of history¡Xa history implied by the novel's action and shape but always open to further articulation. Faulkner's most elaborate historical accomplishment is Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which explores the consequences of Thomas Sutpen's brutal pursuit of a family dynasty before and after the Civil War, as reconstructed by four narrators seeking the meaning of the story. This novel not only delves most deeply into Southern history, but it is the most emphatic in dramatizing how modern people construct and interpret history to suit their present interests. In contrast to Cather's migrant characters, who struggle to keep hold of a fleeting past, Faulkner's characters are typically overwhelmed by the accretion of history over generations lived in the same place.

William Faulkner's South
  Most of Faulkner's novels are set in northern Mississippi, in a county he invented and called Yoknapatawpha, after the river that forms its southern boundary. (The name apparently comes from two Chickasaw Indian words that mean ¡§split land¡¨: Yocana and petopha. Faulkner, though, said Yoknapatawpha means ¡§Water flows slow through the flatland.¡¨ The Yoknapatawpha River is the river that floods in As I Lay Dying.) A hand-drawn map printed in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) (later updated for The Portable Faulkner in 1946) depicts the county and provides some facts in a key: the area is 2,400 square miles; the population, 6,298 whites and 9,313 Negroes, for a total of 15,611. (Faulkner identifies about 600 of these people by name in his fiction.)

Faulkner's Map of Yoknapatawpha
County, 1936. He signed the map
¡§William Faulkner, Sole Owner & Proprietor.¡¨

  Faulkner's apocryphal county is patterned on his native Lafayette County. The county seat, Jefferson, resembles Faulkner's hometown of Oxford in many particulars¡Xbut without Oxford 's University of Mississippi campus. The most iconic of these particulars, appearing repeatedly in Faulkner's fiction (most memorably in The Sound and the Fury ) is Oxford 's courthouse square with the statue of the Confederate soldier.

Courthouse Square, Oxford, Mississippi. Photograph by John B. Padgett


According to Faulkner's accounts, Yoknapatawpha County 's original inhabitants were Chickasaw Indians. White settlers began arriving around 1800. Several families¡Xwith names like Sutpen, McCaslin, Compson, Sartoris¡Xdeveloped large plantations and became the county's elite. These pioneers were typically from second-rank families in Virginia or the Carolinas, the older Southern states on the East Coast; they came West aggressively seeking the aristocratic privileges that had been denied them at birth. Non-affluent rural families also figure prominently in Faulkner's fiction, among them Snopes, Armstid, Bundren, Quick, and Tull.

Faulkner developed Yoknapatawpha as a region that is at once profoundly local, typically American, and universal. The characters and places that recur in his novels give the county a narrow, provincial, even gossipy feel. Yet these characters and places comprise many formative elements of American culture¡Xincluding race relations and frontier settlement¡Xalongside their more provincial Southern manners. (Like Willa Cather's Nebraska, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha is a frontier in his earliest depictions of it; some of his founding families, like Cather's own family, had emigrated from Virginia.) But Yoknapatawpha transcends American culture. By the time he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1950, Faulkner was able to speak as a universal writer and declare:
    I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
  These ¡§old verities and truths of the heart¡¨ Faulkner extracted from his fictional square of Mississippi, where he portrayed them with a complexity and ambivalence befitting a particular, living place.