This Day In Writing History
On September 25th, 1897, the legendary American novelist William Faulkner was born. He was born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi. He was named after his great-grandfather, who had been a colonel in the Confederate Army and an important figure in Northern Mississippi. A town in nearby Tippah County had also been named after him. When Faulkner was four years old, the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he would live on and off for the rest of his life. Oxford became the model for the town of Jefferson in Faulkner's writings. It was located in Lafayette County, which served as the model for Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County.
As a teenager, Faulkner dated Estelle Oldham and planned to marry her, but another suitor, Cornell Franklin, proposed first, and Estelle's parents demanded that she marry him because he came from a respectable family and his parents were old friends of theirs. Ten years later, Estelle's marriage fell apart and she was divorced in April of 1929. Two months after her divorce was finalized, William Faulkner married Estelle.
During the last year of World War 1, Faulkner tried to enlist in the Army but was deemed unfit for service due to his height, or rather, his lack of it: he only stood about 5'5" tall. Undaunted, Faulkner joined first the Canadian then the British Royal Air Force, but saw no action. When he joined the Royal Air Force, he changed the spelling of his last name from Falkner to Faulkner, but legend has it that the change had been made by a careless typesetter during the printing of his first novel. When asked about the misspelling of his name, Faulkner allegedly replied, "Either way suits me."
Although he would always be associated with Mississippi, Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay (1925) while living in New Orleans. He had been encouraged to write by his friend, writer Sherwood Anderson. The small house in New Orleans where Faulkner lived and wrote, located at 645 Pirate's Alley, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral, now serves as the premises of Faulkner House Books and the headquarters of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society. Soldiers' Pay told the story of a World War 1 pilot who returns to his home town in Georgia after suffering a severe head injury in combat, from which he is dying.
Throughout the late 1920s, Faulkner honed his craft and published more novels. His fourth novel, The Sound And The Fury, (1929) while not a commercial success at the time of its publication, (though it would become a bestseller after Faulkner's shocking sixth novel was published in 1931) has since been regarded as his first masterpiece. Making bold and brilliant use of experimental techniques in narration and non-linear plotting, the novel told the story of the once great Compson family, formerly respected Old Southern aristocrats. Now the family teeters on dissolution and its reputation is tarnished.
The novel is divided into four sections. The first three sections feature first person narration, each section narrated by one of the grown Compson sons. The fourth section is told in third-person narration and follows Dilsey Gibson, the matriarch of the servant family that works for the Compsons, as she observes the slow destruction of the Compson family. All four sections are not in chronological order. The first section is narrated by 33-year-old Benjy Compson, the youngest son, who is an embarrassment to the family because he is retarded. The only ones who care for him are his beloved older sister, Candace "Caddy" Compson and the matriarchal servant woman, Dilsey Gibson. In Benjy's narration, Faulkner makes dazzling use of impressionistic language to convey his retardation.
As the novel progresses, the reader is drawn into the self-destructive web that has ensnared the Compsons, which includes nihilism, racism, sexual frustration, sexual promiscuity, suicide, mental illness, and financial crisis. The Sound And The Fury is rightfully considered one of the greatest American novels ever written. Today, it still appears frequently on required reading lists for high school and college English classes.
Faulkner's next novel, As I Lay Dying, (1930) is also considered a classic and expands on the techniques Faulkner used in The Sound And The Fury. The narration is still in the stream-of-consciouness style, but this time, the story is narrated by 15 different people - including the late family matriarch who provides narration while she lies dead in her coffin. Her name is Addie Bundren, and the novel deals with her family's quest to honor her last wish, which is to be buried in Jefferson Mississippi. As the story unfolds, we learn all about the Bundren family, including how one of Addie's children is illegitimate, conceived as the result of her affair with a preacher.
In 1931, William Faulkner would publish the novel that first made him famous - or some would say, infamous. Sanctuary not only proved to be a shocker for 1930s readers, it also made Faulkner's name as a writer and awakened interest in his brilliant earlier works. Ironically, Sanctuary, a Southern Gothic potboiler, was deliberately written to be shocking; Faulkner was in serious financial straits and needed to write something that would make him some fast money. There were no artistic intentions behind it.
Set in 1929 Mississippi, Sanctuary told the story of Temple Drake, an attractive young woman from a wealthy, respected Southern family - her father is a well-known and powerful judge. Although a college student at the University of Mississippi, Temple Drake is shallow and vapid. A wild, promiscuous party girl, Temple loves to go drinking and carousing with boys, and they love to drink and carouse with her.
During one night of partying, Temple becomes involved in a drunk driving accident. She and her bootlegger boyfriend Gowan Stevens are hidden from the police by his bootlegging crew members, Tommy and Popeye. Tommy is good-natured, but Popeye is an impotent, degenerate psychopathic criminal. After Popeye catches Temple and Tommy making love, he kills Tommy and rapes Temple with a corncob. He eventually kidnaps her and forces her to live and work at a brothel he owns. The story climaxes with a sensational murder trial where Temple, who enjoyed her degradation at Popeye's hands, falsely accuses Lee Godwin, another bootlegger, of raping her and killing Tommy - crimes for which Godwin is wrongly convicted and lynched.
Believe it or not, Sanctuary was adapted as a feature film in 1933. Although the novel was heavily sanitized for the screen (with no references to corncobs and the character of Popeye renamed Trigger to avoid confusion with the popular comic strip character) and retitled The Story Of Temple Drake, the resulting film still caused a furor and helped bring about the Production Code crackdown the following year. Twenty years after the publication of Sanctuary, Faulkner would publish a sequel called Requiem For A Nun, which follows Temple Drake, now a wife and mother, as she struggles to deal with her violent, turbulent past. The sequel is no simple potboiler - it's written in Faulkner's experimental literary style. In fact, the book is part novel and part play. The entire book would be adapted as a stage play by French novelist and playwright Albert Camus in 1956.
William Faulkner would continue to write more great novels, including Light In August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Hamlet (1940), and Intruder In The Dust (1948). He was also a prolific short story writer; A Rose For Emily, Red Leaves, That Evening Sun, and Dry September were among his most acclaimed and popular stories, and often published in anthologies. In 1949, Faulkner received a Nobel Prize for Literature. He donated a portion of his prize money "to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers," which would eventually result in the establishment of the PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction. Faulkner donated another portion of his prize money to set up a scholarship fund for black students at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
In the early 1940s, legendary film director Howard Hawks invited Faulkner to come to Hollywood to become a screenwriter for his movies. Faulkner gladly accepted the offer, as he needed the money and the pay was good. He would contribute to the scripts of Hawks' film classics such as his adaptations of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Ernest Hemingway's To Have And Have Not. Faulkner's work as a screenwriter led him to become friends with Hawks, actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and other Hollywood illuminati.
Faulkner suffered from a lifelong drinking problem. Though he would often tell friends, family, and the press that he drank while he wrote because he believed that alcohol helped fuel the creative process, many believe that he drank to escape the pressures of his life, including his frequent financial difficulties. In 1959, Faulkner was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident. His injuries and the ravages of alcoholism led to the deterioration of his health. He died of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 64.
Before he died, Faulkner completed his last novel, The Reivers, which was supposedly the book he intended to end his writing career with. The brilliant coming-of-age story, set in early 20th century Memphis, won Faulkner the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was awarded to him posthumously in 1963. The novel would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1969 directed by Mark Rydell and starring Steve McQueen, Mitch Vogel, and Burgess Meredith.
Quote Of The Day
"Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him." - William Faulkner
Today's video features a rare recording of William Faulkner giving his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Faulkner claimed that he was so drunk, he didn't remember giving the speech. Is that a humorous exaggeration or the truth? Listen and decide for yourself! Enjoy!