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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,169

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This is the grave of William Faulkner.

Born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, Falkner grew up in Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi and the center of whatever passed for learning in this time and state. His father was the university’s business manager. And yes, this was his given name. He added the “u” when he was about 20 years old. Faulkner grew up in the peak era of Civil War nostalgia and he ate it up., This was the time of the Lost Cause, of stories about the bravery of the soldiers in a war that evidently had nothing to do with slavery, the evils of Reconstruction and Black rule, the heroic Ku Klux Klan that saved the white race, etc. Faulkner could have taken this and become a Civil War nostalgia hack. There were no shortage of those among his time and place. But he did not. He had a bigger and more critical mind than that. We’d be going too far to say that Faulkner rejected the ideas of his youth and became some great ally of Black rights. But he wasn’t a hack either. He actually was a terrible student and never graduated high school. He loved reading and showed significant writing talent from a young age. He just didn’t care about school, which he found boring.

Like a lot of young men, Faulkner was very excited for the outbreak of World War I. He volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force long before the U.S. entered the war. His World War I service isn’t nearly as well known as his contemporary writer Ernest Hemingway. That’s because Hemingway wrote about it and also because Faulkner never actually saw action. In fact, this really bugged him. In the tradition of his ancestors making up stories about their Civil War bravery, he lied about all the action he saw and he claimed he was wounded.

After the war, Faulkner came back to Oxford and briefly enrolled in the University of Mississippi. He lasted three semesters, dropped out, and moved to New Orleans. He started serious writing there and began to explore modernism. Sherwood Anderson became an early mentor and helped him get his first works published. Faulkner’s first novel was 1925’s Soldiers’ Pay. Generally, it is considered OK, but kind of derivative of his contemporaries.

It would be when Faulkner began writing about Mississippi that his art took off. His created Yoknapatawpha County became the home for many of his works, but really it could have been just about anywhere in the rural part of the state. With Flags in the Dust, he first used this idea and he also moved away from writing about World War I to the Civil War. Then came The Sound and the Fury and the history of American writing transformed. It’s not an easy read. Faulkner was fully in experimental mode at this point in his career. Some of these modernist conceits didn’t age well, whether Joyce or Dos Passos or Faulkner. So it’s not my favorite Faulkner but it might remain his greatest novel. It did not immediately lead to financial success–that would take a few more years for him–but it did lead to critical success. That he followed this immediately with As I Lay Dying only reinforced his genius.

Because Faulkner didn’t have the money he wanted, he engaged in his mediocre efforts in Hollywood. Talk about a man out of place. His books were critically successful but still not commercially. He had trouble even selling Light in August, despite its brilliance. So he hired himself out as a studio hack, just to support his family. He worked in Hollywood periodically between 1932 and 1954, laboring on around 50 films. Most of them are forgettable. The exception was Have and Have Not with Bogart and Bacall. He became close friends with Howard Hawks–the both liked drinking after all–but otherwise, he hated his time out there and was openly contemptuous of the place.

Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Artists’ reputations change over time. Sometimes people are lauded within their lifetimes and then their reputations decline after the death. I mean, Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature and no one reads her today. You see this with many of the mid-twentieth century writers that seemed so great at the time–Norman Mailer, John Updike, Hemingway too–who today are increasingly seen with jaded eyes. But then other mid-century writers that perhaps seemed somewhat more marginal–John O’Hara, Peter Taylor–are having a revival. And then of course there’s Herman Melville, ignored until long after his death. But there’s not much question that Faulkner deserved the Nobel. No one so summed up a huge part of the American experience than he did and he combined that with both experimentation in the fiction and a universality of stories that have amazed readers worldwide ever since.

Interestingly, the only Faulkner books that won the Pulitzer are the relatively minor A Fable, from 1954, and The Reviers, from 1962, which was also his last book. By the time he was older, he was finally rich. He bought a big estate outside of Oxford and lived the luxurious life of the southern gentleman he always wanted.

I could go into all the detail about Faulkner’s writing, explore the criticism, etc. In fact, this has been a pretty rote discussion of him. But I don’t see much reason. If you’ve read Faulkner, you can discuss him in comments. If you haven’t read Faulkner……….what are you doing on LGM? I will say that the The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August run he had between 1929 and 1932 is probably the greatest three years of publications in American literary history. Not to mention Absalom! Absalom! And then there’s all the other works that may not be the greatest pieces in American history but are still great works.

In 1962, Faulkner was riding his horse. He fell. He did not recover. He was trying to recover but then he had a heart attack a month later and died. He was 64 years old. Too bad, I wonder what he would have produced with another fifteen years. I also wonder how he would have responded to the changes that would soon transform American society. Alas.

William Faulkner is buried in Oxford Memorial Cemetery, Oxford, Mississippi.

If you would like this series to visit other great American authors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Norris is in Oakland, California and Willa Cather is in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire. Previous posts are archived here.

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