William Faulkner was a prolific writer who became very famous during his lifetime, but who shied away from the spotlight as much as possible. He is remembered as both a gentlemanly Southern eccentric and an arrogant, snobbish alcoholic. But perhaps the best way to describe Faulkner is to describe his heritage, for, like so many of his literary characters, Faulkner was profoundly affected by his family.
Faulkner's great grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (Faulkner added the "u" to his name), was born in 1825, and moved to Mississippi at the age of fourteen. He was a lawyer, writer, politician, soldier, and pioneer who was involved in several murder trials - including two in which he was accused - and was a best-selling novelist. During the Civil War he recruited a Confederate regiment and was elected its colonel, but his arrogance caused his troops to demote him, so he left to recruit another regiment. After the war he became involved in the railroad business and made a great deal of money. He bought a plantation and began to write books, one of which became a bestseller. He ran for Mississippi state legislature in 1889, but his opponent shot and killed him before the election.
Faulkner's grandfather was the colonel's oldest son, John Wesley Thompson Falkner. He inherited his father's railroad fortune and became first an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and then later the president of the First National Bank of Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner's father was Murray Falkner, who moved from job to job before becoming the business manager of the University of Mississippi, where he and his family lived for the rest of his life.
William Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897, and began to write poetry as a teenager. He was an indifferent student, and dropped out of high school when he was fifteen. During World War I, he joined the Canadian Royal Flying Corps - he was too short to join the U.S. Air Force - but never fought; the day he graduated from the Flying Corps, the Armistice was signed. The only "war injury" he received was the result of getting drunk and partying too hard on Armistice Day.
After the war, Faulkner came back to Oxford, enrolled as a special student at the University of Mississippi, and began to write for the school papers and magazines, quickly earning a reputation as an eccentric. His strange routines, swanky dressing habits, and inability to hold down a job earned him the nickname "Count Nocount." He became postmaster of the University in 1921, but resigned three years later, after the postal inspector finally noticed how much time Faulkner spent writing (and ignoring customers). In 1924 his first book of poetry, The Marble Faun, was published, but it was critically panned and had few buyers.
In early 1925, Faulkner and a friend traveled to New Orleans with the intention of getting Faulkner a berth on a ship to Europe, where he planned to refine his writing skills. Instead, Faulkner ended up staying in New Orleans for a few months and writing. There, he met the novelist Sherwood Anderson, whose book Winesburg, Ohio was a pillar of American Modernism. His friendship with Anderson inspired him to start writing novels, and in a short time he finished his first novel, Soldier's Pay, which was published in 1926 and was critically accepted - although it, too, sold few copies. Faulkner eventually did travel to Europe, but he quickly returned to Oxford to write.
Faulkner wrote four more novels between 1926 and 1931: Mosquitoes (1927), Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), and As I Lay Dying (1930), but none of them sold well, and he earned little money during this period. Sartoris, also known as Flags in the Dust, was Faulkner's first book set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The difficulty Faulkner faced getting Flags in the Dust published led him to give up on the publishing process in general, and he decided to write only for himself. The result of this was The Sound and the Fury, the first of Faulkner's truly classic novels. The Sound and the Fury was published to good critical reception, although it still sold very few copies.
In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham. He lived with her and her two children from a previous marriage, Malcolm and Victoria, in Oxford, Mississippi. In 1931, Estelle gave birth to a daughter, Alabama, who died after just a few days. His only surviving biological daughter, Jill, was born in 1933. He is known to have had a romantic affair with Meta Carpenter, secretary of Howard Hawks, the screenwriter for whom Faulkner worked in Hollywood. From 1949-1953, he had an affair with Joan Williams, who wrote about the relationship in her 1971 novel The Wintering.
Faulkner wrote his next novel, As I Lay Dying, while working the night shift at a powerhouse. With this novel's publication, Faulkner was finally, if still falteringly, a writer on the literary scene. However, Faulkner still did not have any financial success until he published Sanctuary in 1931. He wrote Sanctuary to sell well, which it did, but it also tarnished his reputation in the eyes of some critics, and that affected his success for the rest of the decade. From then through the 1940s, Faulkner wrote several of his masterpieces, including Light In August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Wild Palms, The Hamlet, and Go Down, Moses. At the time these books made Faulkner very little money, so he was forced to work in Hollywood as a screenwriter.
In 1950, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and, in typical Faulkner fashion, he sent his friends into a frenzy by stating that he would not attend the ceremony (although he eventually did go). This award effectively turned his career around, bringing him the economic success that had so long eluded him. However, most critics find the works he wrote after winning the prize largely disappointing, especially compared to his earlier, mythical works.
In the latter part of the 1950s, Faulkner spent some time away from Oxford, including spending a year as a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. He returned to Oxford in June of 1962 and died of a heart attack on the morning of July 6 of that year.