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Overview for William Faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner



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Also Known As: William Cuthbert Faulkner Died: July 6, 1962
Born: September 9, 1897 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: New Albany, Mississippi, USA Profession: Writer ... novelist screenwriter postmaster bookstore salesman night watchman in power plant


A celebrated and prolific novelist and short story writer, William Faulkner was considered one of the preeminent writers to emerge from the American South in the years between the two world wars. The term Southern Gothic was coined to characterize his dark, brooding vision of the South's decaying way of life, as evidenced in powerful works like The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Strong themes in Faulkner's work included the South's legacy of race relations, violence and abject poverty in the post-Civil War era. Of course, a number of his works were adapted for the screen by others, while Faulkner collaborated on several original screenplays and adaptation, most notably "Gunga Din" (1939), "To Have and Have Not" (1944) and "The Big Sleep" (1946). But it was his contributions to American literature - which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1949 and two subsequent Pulitzers - that made him a 20th century giant. Faulkner, whose troubled career was plagued with bouts of alcoholism, money troubles and a failed marriage, was remembered as an authentic American voice who gave life and breath to a region rich in vivid characters and dark history.

Born on Sept. 9, 1897 in New Albany, MS, Faulkner was raised by his father, Murry, and his mother, Maud. Faulkner's Mississippi upbringing greatly influenced his artistic thinking, as did his mother and maternal grandmother, Lelia, both of whom were avid readers and exceptional painters. By the time he was an adolescent, Faulker was writing a great deal of poetry and had no ambitions to write a novel just yet. He attended the University of Mississippi and later tried to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War I, but was rejected due to his height. Instead he joined the British Royal Air Force and trained at a base in British Columbia, only to be demobilized before seeing any action. His literary ambitions began to take shape when he published his first short story, "Landing in Luck" (1919), in an issue of The Mississippian. He went on to publish a number of short stories before turning out his first novel, Soldier's Pay (1926), which followed the plight of a wounded aviator returned to his small hometown in Georgia following the First World War.

After his second novel, Mosquitoes ( 1927), Faulkner released his first work of significant fiction, Sartoris (1929), which introduced the literary world to his imaginary Yoknapatawpha County - a fictional stand-in for real-life Lafayette County that served as the setting for all but three of his novels. He next wrote his most impenetrable novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), which incorporated a nonlinear structure to depict the decline of the aristocratic Compson family as seen through four very different points of view - the autistic Benjy, the highly intelligent and tortured Quentin, the single-minded Jason, and a third-person accounting of the family's black servant, Daisy. Highly literate and arguably his best work, The Sound and the Fury was widely regarded as one of the greatest works of fiction in the 20th century and attributed to Faulker's Nobel Prize for Literature. He followed that by publishing his most famous short story, "A Rose for Emily" (1930), which later became required reading for most high school English literature courses. Faulkner incorporated his multi-character stream-of-consciousness style with As I Lay Dying (1930), another tour-de-force that began cementing his status as one of the country's most important writers.

In a constant struggle to stay afloat financially, Faulkner spent two periods of his life toiling in Hollywood, each experience marking inconclusive times in his career. Originally brought out by MGM in 1932 on a limited contract, his first screen work was providing the dialogue for "Today We Live" (1933), based on his own short story "Turn About" (1932). This World War I melodrama of romance and heroism was the first of six collaborations between Faulkner and director Howard Hawks that occurred over the next two decades. Despite a stellar cast that included Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Robert Young and Franchot Tone, the execution was stilted and uninspired. He next saw his notorious and highly successful potboiler about rape and murder, Sanctuary (1931), turned into the well-done crime drama, "The Story of Temple Drake" (1933), which toned down the seedier elements of the novel and starred Miriam Hopkins in the lead role. In the mid-1930s, Faulkner frequently worked uncredited with such studios as Universal, Fox, and RKO on productions directed by John Ford, George Stevens and Raoul Walsh, among others. Faulkner's fine screenplay for the Hawks-directed "The Road to Glory" (1936) was one of Hollywood's best anti-war films. This solidly directed and movingly written production concerned a hard-bitten officer (Warner Baxter) who discovers his father (Lionel Barrymore) serving in his unit in World War I France.

During his time working in Hollywood, Faulkner produced some of his greatest works of fiction, including the stream of consciousness exploration of racial conflict in the South, Light in August (1932), which introduced readers to one of his most famous characters, Joe Christmas, who was often seen as an allegory for Jesus Christ. He next published Pylon (1935), the rare novel set outside of Yoknapatawpha County that depicted a group of unconventional barnstormers living hand-to-mouth. The novel later served as the basis for the Douglas Sirk drama, "The Tarnished Angels" (1958), starring Rock Hudson and Robert Stack. Faulkner went on to write his most significant work of his career, Absalom, Absalom! (1936), an allegorical tale of Southern history that depicts the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, who was born into a poor white family, grows up to forge his own path as a plantation owner and eventually falls into disgrace when the sins of his past come back to destroy him. Of course he continued working for Hollywood, churning out the script for the rather forgettable adventure "Slave Ship" (1937), and writing drafts for George Stevens' sweeping adventure, "Gunga Din" (1939), starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

After publishing The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939) and The Hamlet (1940), the first in his Snopes trilogy, Faulkner was brought back to Hollywood by Warners Bros. in 1942 on an eight-year contract; four years later he managed to secure a release. Regardless, while at Warners, he again collaborated successfully with Howard Hawks on the archetypal World War II movie about a bombing crew, "Air Force" (1943), starring John Garfield. Faulkner and Hawks also teamed for two Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall classics, the moody adventure-romance, "To Have and Have Not" (1944), and the sterling film noir, "The Big Sleep" (1946), adapted from Raymond Chandler's classic novel. The adaptation of his novel, "Intruder in the Dust" (1949), beautifully directed by Clarence Brown, brought Faulkner back to themes very close to his heart and art. This story, set in the South of racial injustice and lynchings, was structured as a murder mystery and shot in Faulkner's native Mississippi. One of the best of all Faulkner's adaptations, the film was generally well-received and lauded for the authenticity of its atmosphere and standout performances.

In 1949, Faulkner received the first of three major awards, the Nobel Prize for Literature, which recognized his contributions to the American novel; both The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! contributed to his win. He went to publish Requiem for a Nun (1951), which was a sequel to Sanctuary, and his minor work, A Fable, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1955. That same year, Faulkner made his final collaboration with Hawks on "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), a lavish epic starring Jack Hawkins and a 22-year-old Joan Collins. Meanwhile, director Martin Ritt adapted The Hamlet into "The Long, Hot Summer" (1958), starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and "The Sound and the Fury" (1959), with Yul Brynner. Tony Richardson helmed a new and more explicit adaptation of "Sanctuary" (1961), while Mark Rydell successfully tackled "The Reivers" (1969), starring Steve McQueen. That film was made from his 1962 novel that earned him his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1963. But Faulkner was not on hand to receive it, having died the previous year on July 6, 1962 at age 64 of a coronary occlusion.

By Shawn Dwyer

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