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Barn Burning | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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William Faulkner | Biography


William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. As a child, he learned about art, particularly painting and photography, from the women in his family who also encouraged his early love of reading and poetry. Faulkner, whose surname was originally Falkner, was named after his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, or the "Old Colonel" as his family called him. At times a soldier, a farmer, a lawyer, and an author, he was a larger-than-life figure who served as the inspiration for impressive characters such as Colonel John Sartoris in his great-grandson's works. Like the real-life "Old Colonel," Faulkner's Colonel Sartoris, for whom the young protagonist of "Barn Burning" is named, was a Confederate officer. He is now a local legend and folk hero, who represents a rapidly disappearing way of life.

Despite his ability, Faulkner did not like being in school and dropped out before graduating from high school. He worked at various jobs—carpentry, banking, and rifle manufacturing—and spent time in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Writing, however, was his real interest and talent, and in 1919 he began writing for the student newspaper at the University of Mississippi, where he was taking classes. Faulkner dropped out after three semesters, moving on to employment as a bookseller and postmaster. He continued to write poetry and essays and in 1926 published his first novel, Soldiers' Pay. Faulkner's first critical success came three years later with The Sound and the Fury. In this novel and subsequent works, Faulkner turned to life in Mississippi for his subject matter and tackled sensitive issues, including race, violent crime, and ingrained classism in the American South.

In 1930 Faulkner married his childhood love, Estelle Oldham. The couple had two daughters: Alabama, who died several days after her birth in 1931 and Jill, born in 1933. From 1932 to 1945 Faulkner wrote screenplays for Hollywood films to earn a living and continued to publish his own work. Faulkner earned prestigious awards for his writing, including two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949.

Faulkner's writing is known for its experimental style, including stream-of-consciousness narration that reveals characters directly through their own thoughts and memories. Faulkner created characters he developed over time, including the Snopes family of "Barn Burning." The Snopes family plays a starring role in a trilogy of novels: The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion and appears in other works as well. As lower-class laborers, the Snopes family stands in harsh contrast to the aristocratic landowners and "Southern nobility" that populate much of Faulkner's work.

Beginning in 1954 Faulkner became a literary statesman. Through the auspices of the US Department of State, he traveled around the world as a goodwill ambassador, speaking in countries such as Japan, where he addressed similarities between the South and Japan, for example. Faulkner died on July 6, 1962.

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