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William Faulkner | Biography


William Cuthbert Falkner, born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, was one of four children in a middle-class family. Falkner grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, a place that remained central to his life and work. Falkner's great-grandfather had been a Confederate colonel in the American Civil War, who later became a best-selling novelist. Falkner's grandfather had founded a bank in Oxford. His father worked various jobs and eventually became the local university's business manager.

It's not clear when Falkner changed the spelling of his last name to Faulkner. The change appears to have originally been a clerical error by an employer in 1918. After being rejected by the U.S. Air Force for being too short, Falkner adopted the name Faulkner when he tried to join the British Royal Air Force, thinking the new spelling made the name look more British. He was accepted, although he never saw active duty.

Faulkner wasn't a particularly accomplished student. He never graduated from high school, but his status as a war veteran gained him entrance into the University of Mississippi in 1919. He didn't graduate from college, either, lasting only three semesters before dropping out in 1920; but it was during his time there that he began to find his voice as a writer.

Through the 1920s, Faulkner worked odd jobs and pursued writing, moving in literary circles in the United States, and even living in Paris, France, for a brief time. Faulkner already had a book of poems and two novels published and was shopping around a third by the time he became obsessed with the writing of what would become The Sound and the Fury. As he told an interviewer in early 1956, the book caused him "the most grief and anguish" of anything he ever wrote. He went on to explain: "I wrote it five separate times, trying to tell the story, to rid myself of the dream which would continue to anguish me until I did."

The Sound and the Fury was not well received by critics or readers on its first appearance in 1929, possibly due to the level of difficulty of its stream-of-consciousness technique. But as Faulkner's reputation grew, so did the reputation of The Sound and the Fury, which many now consider his most important masterpiece. In 1998, the Modern Library named The Sound and the Fury the sixth greatest novel of all time written in English.

Once The Sound and the Fury was completed and published in 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham and purchased a house built in 1844 near Oxford, Mississippi. It remained his primary residence for the next three decades. Faulkner claimed to turn his attention to writing at this point solely for financial gain. The popularity of his novels came and went throughout his lifetime, but he regularly sold short stories and experienced success as a Hollywood screenwriter on famous films such as The Big Sleep and Mildred Pierce. Perhaps the biggest sign of his lasting literary importance came in 1950 when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As Faulkner garnered international fame, he also gained a new level of respect at home. He made several trips abroad to Latin America, Asia, and Europe between 1954 and 1961 as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for A Fable and became writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia in 1956. He continued writing until his death on July 6, 1962. He was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize posthumously for The Reivers in 1963.

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