William Faulkner (1897—1962) grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, and lived there for the rest of his life – with only brief intermissions for travel and working in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He was one of the major American writers of the early twentieth century. He established the white protestant version of the American south, reflecting its values of that period – the collapse of the white land owning aristocracy and the inability (at that time) of the blacks to shake off the legacy of slavery. Faulkner was a literary experimentalist, influenced by the modernist period, and he sometimes makes extreme demands on his readers. He uses stream of consciousness, fragmented chronology, shifting point of view, and multiple narrative voices. Even in some of his plain narratives, the story is expressed in sentences which sometimes go on for two or three pages at a time.
Much of his fictional output centres on an imaginary part of the south which he called Yoknapatwapha County. He was also partly responsible for generating the modern version of the literary genre called ‘Southern Gothic’ – stories which often feature grotesque scenes, violence and horror, distorted characters, melodrama, and sensationalism. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, but rather like his famous contemporary Ernest Hemingway, his reputation seems not to be wearing too well with time.
As I Lay Dying (1930) is a good point to start. It charts the journey of a poor family to bury their mother Addie Bundren in Jefferson. They make the coffin themselves and survive crossing the flooded Yoknapatwapha river, a fire, and other largely self-inflicted problems, to finally reach their goal. The novel is told in the rapidly intercut voices of the family members – including the dead mother. It is simultaneously funny, and tragic – a small scale epic which Faulkner wrote in the space of six weeks.
The Sound and The Fury is generally regarded as his greatest work. It is a narrative tour de force in which Faulkner views the decline of the south through the point of view of four characters. The novel centres on the once-aristocratic Compson family, who appear in his other novels. The siblings Quentin and Caddy fall from a state of innocence and succumb to the family pattern of incest, erotomania, and suicide. One of their brothers is severely mentally handicapped. The first part of the novel is told entirely from his point of view – and of course he ‘sees’ the truth of much that is going on. The other narrator is the black servant who is powerless but ‘endures’. It is a work of astonishing brilliance, written in a sombre and lyrical mood.
Sanctuary (1931) is an example of Faulkner writing simultaneously at his best and worst. The novel was produced to make money, and is a sort of rural South whodunit which centres on a particularly grizzly crime. All the southern Gothic elements are here. The main plot revolves around Temple Drake, a coquettish college girl who likes to secretly sneak out of her college dorm to attend dances. She takes one step too far onto the wild side, and the result is a helter-skelter ride down into the moral abyss. The novel also includes a psychopathic bootlegger, corrupt local officials, the trial of an innocent man, and a public lynching. It was Faulkner’s only best-seller.
© Roy Johnson 2009