Light in August | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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William Faulkner | Biography


Early Life

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.) When Faulkner was 5 years old, his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he would spend most of his life. The oldest of 4 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 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 3 semesters.

Growth as a Writer

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 6th 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 severe economic downturn known as the Great Depression (1929–39)—Faulkner reunited with Estelle Oldham, who was now divorced with 2 children. Faulkner and Estelle quickly married, and Faulkner took a job at the University of Mississippi power plant 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 both Sanctuary (1931) and As I Lay Dying (1930) during the early days of his marriage. Sanctuary was written before As I Lay Dying, but it was published after it. A sensational novel about the brutal rape of a young woman, Sanctuary was Faulkner's first commercial success.

Faulkner claimed he wrote As I Lay Dying in 6 weeks, between midnight and 4 a.m., without revising a word. Although 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, Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) are set in Yoknapatawpha County.

As I Lay Dying (1930) tells the story of the poor Bundren family who is traveling to bury the matriarch of the family, Addie Bundren, in Jefferson, Mississippi, where she was born. It does so in 15 voices, including that of the deceased woman. Light in August (1932) is also set in the fictional Jefferson, in Yoknapatawpha County. That novel recounts the story of Lena Grove—a poor, pregnant, unmarried woman who is seeking the father of her child—and Joe Christmas, a young angry man who is passing for white. Race and gender issues figure heavily in the novel. The Compson family from The Sound and the Fury reappears in Absalom, Absalom! This novel focuses on Thomas Sutpen and his family and explores the effects of racism and miscegenation on Sutpen's ambition to create a great Southern plantation dynasty carrying his name.

Later Career and Recognition

Beginning in 1932, Faulkner worked intermittently as a screenwriter for a number of different film houses over the next 2 decades; his work included screen adaptations of novels by Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. At the same time, he continued publishing novels and short stories, including his trilogy about the Snopes family—The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959)—and the collection Go Down, Moses (1942). Eventually, critics caught up to Faulkner's prodigious talent, and he began to amass literary prizes. He was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, and he 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 weak. A final fall resulted in a heart attack, from which he died on July 6, 1962 in Byhalia, Mississippi.

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