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As I Lay Dying | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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William Faulkner | Biography


Nobel Prize–winning author William Faulkner was born William Cuthbert Falkner on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. (He later changed the spelling of his last name to Faulkner.) When Faulkner was five years old, his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he would spend most of his life. The oldest of four boys, Faulkner read widely, wrote poetry, and loved to draw, but as he grew older, school began to bore him, and he dropped out in 11th grade. During his teens, Faulkner fell in love with a vivacious and charming girl named Estelle Oldham. When Estelle agreed to marry another man, Faulkner was heartbroken. He decided to move to New Haven, Connecticut, to live with Phil Stone, a poet and literary mentor who had recognized Faulkner's tremendous talent and helped him hone his writing skills. To continue his literary studies, Faulkner then enrolled at the University of Mississippi; he published his first poems and short works in the student newspaper, but he soon lost interest in coursework and dropped out after three semesters.

In 1924 Phil Stone helped Faulkner publish a book of poetry, The Marble Faun. Two years later, another literary mentor, writer Sherwood Anderson, helped Faulkner publish his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, about a wounded aviator returning home after World War I. Anderson then encouraged Faulkner to start writing about his native Mississippi—a suggestion that inspired Faulkner's greatest literary successes. His first well-known novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), was set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional place very similar to Lafayette County, Mississippi, where Faulkner grew up. The Sound and the Fury centers on the Compson family, a once-wealthy Southern family in decline. Written in an experimental, often stream-of-consciousness style, with a fine ear for Southern speech, the novel wasn't immediately successful, but over time it brought Faulkner great critical praise; in 1998 the Modern Library ranked the novel sixth on its list of 100 best novels of the 20th century.

In 1929—the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression—Faulkner reunited with Estelle, who was now divorced with two children. Faulkner and Estelle quickly married, and Faulkner took a job at the Oxford power company to support his new family. The couple would go on to have a daughter, Alabama, who died only a few days after she was born.

Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying during the early days of his marriage. He claimed he wrote it in six weeks, between midnight and 4 a.m., without revising a word; though he may have been exaggerating a bit, the resulting novel eventually was recognized as every bit the "tour de force" he proclaimed it. Like The Sound and the Fury before it, As I Lay Dying is set in Yoknapatawpha County. It focuses on the Bundrens, a poor rural family grieving the loss of their matriarch, Addie, and journeying to bury her in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi.

Between 1932 and 1935, Faulkner was a screenwriter for a number of different film houses; his work included screen adaptations of novels by Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. At the same time, he published several more novels, including Absalom! Absalom! (1936), a family saga set before, during, and after the Civil War. Eventually, critics caught up to Faulkner's prodigious talent, and he began to amass literary prizes. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice: in 1955 for his World War II novel A Fable (1954) and (posthumously) in 1963 for his last novel, The Reivers (1962), a coming-of-age novel about a boy from Yoknapatawpha County.

Faulkner was an alcoholic for much of his life and was hospitalized periodically for the disease. An avid horseback rider, he fell several times while riding in his later years, sustaining injuries that left him physically weaker. A final fall resulted in a heart attack, from which he died on July 6, 1962.

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