WILLIAM FAULKNER - BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
"Youre a country boy," Sherwood Anderson told William Faulkner one day in 1925, "all you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from. But thats all right too. Its America too..." The implication seemed to be that if Faulkner would just write about the place where he lived and its people, he might do as well as Anderson himself had done in Winesburg, Ohio, (1919) a book about small town life in the Midwest.
But Anderson was far more prophetic that he could possibly have realized, for "that little patch up there in Mississippi," Lafayette County, where Faulkner lived, became the germ out of which was to grow in the next four decades the saga of Yoknapatawpha County, one of the great literary creations of our times.
In contrast to Ernest Hemingway, who (as you recall from your earlier study in this course) had to live experience before he could render it in fiction, who traveled widely, and who involved himself personally in the actuality of events, William Faulkners life, for the most part, was that of a very private individual. If Hemingways aim in his fiction was, at least to some extent, his personal effort to find out how to live, how to come to some kind of terms with life, Faulkners life and work provide an insight into a very different king of man and literary art.
Born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, William Faulkner and his family shortly moved to Oxford, where he was to make his home for almost all of the rest of his life. He dropped out of the local high school before his senior year. Then, when the United States entered World War I in 1917, he tried to enlist for flight training but was turned down. The next year he enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force for training as a cadet and was sent to a flight school at Toronto. But when the war ended a few months later, Faulkner was discharged without ever actually having left Canada for the battle fronts in Europe.
Returning to Oxford, he enrolled as a post-War special student at the University of Mississippi, but his studies were desultory and he dropped out after a year. Stimulated by an Oxford friend, Phil Stone, who gave him books to read and encouragement to write, he tried his hand at composing poetry and began to think about the possibility of literary career. In part, also, he was inspired by the example of his grandfather, William Clark Falkner, [the family name was then spelled without the "u"] who, along with service as a Colonel in the Civil War and the occupation of business man and attorney, was also an author. One of the grandfathers more popular books was The White Rose of Memphis, a conventional Romantic novel. Ultimately, the grandfather was to die in a duel with a former business partner, but his legendary life, as well as the library he left behind, would in later years be a fruitful source for Faulkners stories.
Early in 1921 Faulkner went to New York, where he lived briefly, working in a bookstore and absorbing some of the atmosphere of Greenwich Village, then as now a center of creative activity. Returning shortly to Oxford, he obtained a job as postmaster at the University of Mississippi post office, a position he held on to for two years without taking his duties very seriously, until he was fired for incompetence. Meantime, he had written some more poems which his friend Stone thought highly of, and, with the costs of printing partly subsidized by Stone, the collection was published as The Marble Faun (1924).
During a brief period in New Orleans, where Faulkner met Sherwood Anderson, he wrote some prose pieces published in the Times Picayune newspaper and some stories and a number of poems published in a new little magazine, The Double Dealer. Finally, he tried his hand at a novel dealing with a wounded soldier returned from World War I. The book published as Soldiers Pay (1926), although workmanlike, was no great artistic success nor was Faulkners next book, Mosquitoes (1927), a novel in which he writes satirically of a character based on Anderson and other artistic bohemians who frequented the French Quarter.
Much of the literary ferment for certain American writers in the 1920s was centered in Europe, particularly in Paris (as you will recall from the biographical sketch of Hemingway). Although Faulkner then decided to go to Europe for a few months, unlike Hemingway, he had no close contact with Gertrude Stein or her circle and was pretty much on his own, traveling and writing.
Returning to Oxford, Faulkner settled down at last, trying to place the short stories he was then writing in various magazines and to develop ideas for other novels. A burst of creative activity, beginning with Sartoris (1929), resulted at last in Faulkners finding both the subject matter and the voice which were to mark his major work. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying followed in rapid succession.
The subject matter in all three books (and for much of the later work) is derived from the actual background of his region, Oxford itself and the surrounding countryside of Lafayette Country. From his knowledge of family backgrounds, from personal observation, from his imagination, Faulkner began to transform reality into the mythical domain of his fiction, an imaginary Yoknapatawpha County with Jefferson as its county seat. (Years later, for the Viking Portable edition of some of his work, edited by Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner provided a hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha and carefully indicated the locale for many of his books, signing himself "sole owner and proprietor." You will find this map reproduced at the end of the edition of Absalom, Absalom! assigned for this course.)
Described succinctly in terms something like the following, Yoknapatawpha County:
....provides the geographical and social frame of reference for the greater part of his later writing. The small town of Jefferson, haunted by traditions, is situated on the edge of the red-hill country, where tradition has no meaning, and within driving distance of the lowlands, where remnants of the Chickasaw Indian hunting culture still survive. The aristocrats of Jefferson, the Sartorises and the Compsons, are never quite free from the past, in which they live or against which they react in accord with standards of behavior set on the plantations before the Civil War, by the lost cause of the war itself, and during the speculative period which followed the Reconstruction era. The poor whites, represented by the Snopes family, are free from all inhibitions and are subject to the driving forces of greed and perverse meanness. Between the two classes, culturally, are the Negroes, free also from greed and meanness - and a few white men who trade and hunt with no feeling of class responsibility. Out of these people Faulkner created his literary world.
But Faulkner also developed a unique voice, a highly individualized manner of telling his stories, which reflected both his awareness of 20th century experimentation in literature and his intuitions about the operations of human psychology. (He once said he had never read Freud, yet Freudian insights are frequently reflected in many of his character portrayals, as they are in so many other writers of the era.) Although the novel Sartoris is, for the most part, conventional in structure, its language is sometimes tinged with the rhetoric of incantation so that a simple event is elevated in tonal qualities akin to poetry. The Sound and the Fury, however, and subsequent stories and novels, reveal a mastery of new techniques: manipulations of point of view, virtuoso representations of "stream of consciousness" or interior monologue, disjointed chronology, and above all, a cultivation of the effects of partial concealment, retardation, and ambiguity in the progress of the narrative together with a heightened, sometimes feverish, flow of language and images.
As a consequence, Faulkner was viewed initially (and still is by readers unaccustomed to his manner) as a difficult, deliberately obscure writer. The difficulties were (and are) there, to be sure. The obscurity is not so much intended to present the reader with almost insoluble puzzle as rather, to simulate the way in which in real life knowledge about human beings, their mainsprings, their motives, and their actions are only gradually revealed to us - if at all. What are the truths about human behavior? Henry James and Joseph Conrad, before Faulkner, had exploited the artistic effects that flow from this question in their elaborately wrought fiction, both using the device of what James called "a fine central intelligence" through whose perceptions the action is both viewed and pondered over so that a reader sees both the event, as well as its significance. And James Joyce had elaborated in his Ulysses the drama of the consciousness and its free association of ideas and impressions to provide a fluid, ever-shifting sense of the raw stuff of existence, moment by moment.
One of the results for Faulkner, as for any gifted, convention-challenging "new" artist was misunderstanding, indifference, or complete rejection by his audience. Great though these novels were, their initial sales were small, and even literary critics, with a few exceptions, were slow to grasp the significance of his achievement. Determined then to write a "popular" and sure-fire commercially successful book, Faulkner produced the sensational novel, Sanctuary (1931), a work of violence, sadism, shock, and sexual abnormalities, the last of these especially seen in the character Popeye, a gangster who is sexually impotent. Although the book has an underlying serious motif - the symbolic rape of the Old South by the rapacious New Men of the industrial era - it was thought by some to be disgusting and by others to be a pot-boiler. For a time, then, Faulkner was viewed as only another naturalistic writer, a writer of "Gothic" tales of terror and violence, an exploiter of immorality and depravity.
During the decade of the 1930s Faulkner worked simultaneously at additions to the Yoknapatawpha saga and at writing more popular, readily salable short stories. He spent some time, too, then and in the next decade in Hollywood writing screen adaptations of other peoples work, chiefly because the pay for his contract periods of five hundred dollars per week was of tremendous help in underwriting the costs of the old house named Rowan Oak he had bought in Oxford, which he and his wife were restoring and in which they were to live for most of his life.
Among other important Yoknapatawpha works that appeared in the 1930s were Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and The Unvanquished (1938), as well as some memorable short stories, which were collected in later books. Having conceived of the Snopes characters in some of the short stories, Faulkner devoted a rich comic novel, The Hamlet (1940) to the cunning, unscrupulous Flem Snopes and other members of his clan who swarmed over the countryside surrounding Jefferson; later, he was to continue the story of the Snopeses in what ultimately became a comic trilogy, completed in The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959).
With the hindsight of what now seems to be incredible blindness in the literary world, we find it difficult to grasp the fact that by the early 1940s most of Faulkners earlier books were out print, and his literary reputation was, as the saying goes, "in decline." In 1946, however, with the appearance of the Viking Portable Faulkner, arranged and edited by the distinguished literary critic, Malcolm Cowley, there emerged for the larger reading public a clearer picture of Faulkners literary methods, purposes, and importance. In demonstrating that the Yoknapatawpha saga, as Cowley named it, provides at once a legendary portrayal of a single, isolated community in Mississippi and at the same time a parable of the whole history of the Deep South, past and present, Cowley illuminated once and for all the hitherto unrevealed coherence that informs Faulkners achievement. Moreover, as Cowley also pointed out, the parable has meaning for more than the South alone and extends, from its particulars, to reverberations of universal significance.
With the appearance of the popular and more readily accessible short novel Intruder in the Dust (1948), Faulkner had begun to attract a broader audience. His Collected Stories (1950) gathered together all of the serious pieces that had appeared earlier in magazines, as did Knights Gambit (1949) for the more popular crime-detection stories featuring Gavin Stevens (a Jefferson attorney), most of which had been running in The Saturday Evening Post. When, at long last, in 1950 Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, his enduring significance as a master in the art of fiction was "officially" recorded.
With the coming of fame, Faulkner suddenly became a more public figure than he wished to be. (He once wrote a magazine essay insisting on the artists right to privacy in his personal life and expressing his resentment of the intrusions by the media reporters, who clamored for interviews, pictorial essays, and biographical details.) In a trip arranged by the cultural affairs office of the U.S. Department of the State, he went on a world tour, including a stay in Japan, where he participated in the Nagano seminars for students, responding in detail to questions about his work, his methods, his literary "intentions". (One must be careful, however about accepting as fact everything he stated there since he sometimes provided quite different responses on other occasions.) He took a public stand on the race question in the South during the stirrings of the early Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, calling for the end of segregation and for the opening up of opportunities to black people. In 1956 he became a writer in residence at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and also thereafter frequently lectured to students at other campuses. He participated, too, in the adaptation of a number of his stories for TV presentation.
Faulkners last decade was also a time of continuing literary activity. A sequel to Sanctuary appeared in 1951 with the title Requiem for a Nun. Then in 1954 came A Fable, an ambitious work (outside of the Yoknapatawpha saga) set against the background of World War I, a long and involved retelling of the passion week of Christ translated to the battle fields of the War. Faulkner lavished great effort on the writing of this book since he tried to convey through it his conviction of what he perceived as the spiritual truths, if not the received doctrine, of Christianity. As previously noted, he also completed the Snopes trilogy with The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959). His final book, The Reivers (1962), revives the character Boon Hogganbeck from "The Bear" in a series of comic adventures and misadventures.
Faulkners fictional treatment of black people in the South calls for special mention. Blacks in his fiction (like whites) represented a wide spectrum of motives, behaviors, beliefs. One of his most memorable figures, Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, is the sole totally moral and invincible character in the book. Lucas in Intruder in the Dust is similarly portrayed as a man of deep integrity and total dignity. Faulkner tried to portray the South he knew truthfully and to report with fidelity the mores and manners of given times and places.
When on July 6, 1962, William Faulkner died in Oxford of a heart attack, his enduring reputation as one of the great masters of fiction had already been assured. The continued popular and critical interest in his work both in this country and (through translations) around the world testifies to the heights he had finally attained.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY
The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929 when Faulkner was thirty-two, is his second novel in the Yoknapatawpha saga, the first having been Sartoris. That book had a fairly straightforward story to tell and the style and methods are generally conventional. With The Sound and the Fury, however, Faulkner bursts fully into new methods of narration which will include some of the chief experimental techniques of 20th Century fiction and will add some of his own shaping. Among these techniques are (1) stream of consciousness (or interior monologue) in which the free flow of thoughts and impressions in a characters mind is rendered as faithfully as possible, frequently with disruption of the normal conventions of sentence structure, and ordinarily in highly fragmented fashion; (2) disjointed chronology which wrenches the narrative from an orderly or "logical" flow in time into some other order related to memory or to desired contrapuntal effects; (3) careful manipulation of point of view or combinations of varying points of view so that either the revelation of information is retarded because the character whose perceptions we are given doesnt have it or is blind to the truth, or so that the same events can be viewed from different perspectives. Like other writers of the 1920s Faulkner had picked up some of these techniques from his reading of Henry James, Conrad, Joyce, and the other creators of modern fiction, but he himself was to push experimentation even farther.
One result of Faulkners methods is to require of the reader an active, lively collaboration with the writer - almost line by line - as the narrative unfolds. For part of what Faulkner (like his contemporaries) is intent upon is not merely the telling of a story but the telling of it in such a fashion that one of our major dividends, as readers, comes from our grasp of and response to these aesthetic affects as much as from our response to what is being conveyed through the events of the narrative. Far from playing games or deliberately confusing and bewildering readers, Faulkner is trying to convey some of the sense that all of us experience as the impressions of life, external and internal, pour in upon us.
Many years later, when he talked about his work to a group of students in Japan, he explained his methods in The Sound and the Fury in this way:
That began as a short story, it was a story without plot, of some children being sent away from the house during the grandmothers funeral. They were too young to be told what was going on and they saw things only incidentally to the childish games they were playing, which was the lugubrious matter of removing the corpse from the house, etc., and then the idea struck me to see how much more I could have got out of the idea of the blind, self-centeredness of innocence, typified by children, if one of those children had been truly innocent, that is, an idiot. So the idiot was born and then I became interested in the relationship of the idiot to the world that he was in but would never be able to cope with and just where could he get the tenderness, the help, to shield him in his innocence. I mean innocence in the sense that God had stricken him blind at birth, that is, mindless at birth, there was nothing he could ever do about it. And so the character of his sister began to emerge, then the brother, who, that Jason (who to me represented complete evil. Hes the most vicious character in my opinion I ever thought of), then he appeared. Then it needs the protagonist, someone to tell the story, so Quentin appeared. By that time I found out I couldnt possibly tell that in a short story. And so I told the idiots experience of that day, and that was incomprehensible, even I could not have told what was going on; then, so I had to write another chapter. Then I decided to let Quentin tell his version of that same day, or that same occasion, so he told it. Then there had to be the counterpoint, which was the other brother, Jason. By that time it was completely confusing. I knew that it was not anywhere near finished and then I had to write another section from the outside with an outsider, which was the writer, to tell what happened on that particular day. And thats how that book grew. That is, I wrote that same story four times. None of them were right, but I had anguished so much that I could not throw any of it away and start over, so I printed it in the four sections. That was not a deliberate tour de force at all, the book just grew that way. That I was still trying to tell one story which moved me very much and each time I failed, but I had put so much anguish into it that I couldnt throw it away, like the mother that had four bad children, that she would have been better off if they all had been eliminated, but she couldnt relinquish any of them. And thats the reason I have the most tenderness for that book, because it failed four times.
One final point: among other things, Faulkner in this volume and in those he was later to write in the Yoknapatawpha saga, is also recording a kind of social history of the South: its traditions, its social classes, and from Reconstruction times onward, the gradual decay of the old South and its transformation. The Compson family in The Sound and the Fury had its origins with a square mile of land (which later became the central part of the town of Jefferson), and the decline of that family symbolizes, in part, the decay of the old order.
But memories persist, both family memories and memories of the old social order, and hence the past is never completely forgotten. The "presentness of the past" is therefore one of the pervasive themes that function both historically and psychologically in this book and in later ones.
The title, by the way, echoes the familiar line in Shakespeares Macbeth, that life "is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing." However, dont apply this too literally to the novel itself.
GUIDE TO READING: Commentary and Suggested Study Questions
Questions are intended to help you in your reading. Dont send in your answers.
I. (Benjys Section) APRIL SEVENTH, 1928
Its unlikely that anyone reading this novel (or Faulkner) for the first time can read the opening section of ninety-two pages and grasp with any precision what is going on. Some few things, some bits of dialogue, are lucid but most of the time one is likely to be puzzled or irritated by the obscurity. Only in the light of the later sections of the novel does the first section become illuminated. In order to guide you through the first section, I will give you, in the following paragraphs, a very brief elucidation, clarifying some of the highlights in the section. CAUTION: If you want to try the Benjy section on your own, read no further at this time.
The narrator, Benjy Compson is a thirty-three year old idiot. He is being attended by Luster, a fourteen-year-old Negro, grandson of Dilsey (cook and servant in the Compson household). All scenes in which Luster appears are in the present. Benjy does not know in the opening paragraphs that the people beyond the fence are playing golf, for he cannot absorb such an idea. Hence neither the flag marking the hole nor the golf-balls have any meaning for him. When one of the players calls the caddie, Benjy responds to the sound because Caddy is the name of his sister. Benjy has no sense of time - time present and time past are all one to him - so that his associations with sounds or smells or other sensations will frequently blend past and present experience for him as though they were one. Although the events described in his section range forward and back between present time (April 7, 1928) and the past at least as far back as 1900, he cannot differentiate. Benjy cannot speak; he expresses himself, if at all, through bellowing with rage, through crying, or through the physical act of touching. What we are given of Benjys "thoughts" is a simulation of what might be going on in his thought processes if he could think. The dialogue spoken by others is what Benjy hears although we never know what he comprehends.
We learn (p. 2) that this is Benjys birthday, Luster having bought the cake with the money supplied by Dilsey. Luster is searching for a quarter he has lost, money he needs to attend a carnival that night. The experience of snagging his clothes while crawling through the broken fence is associated in Benjys mind with a similar incident in past time. The italicized passage (p. 3) marks the shift to the past, when Caddy years ago had taken Benjy out of doors on a Christmas day. In this past time we understand that Benjys mother considers the idiot boy a judgment on her (p. 4), that her brother Maury drinks (p. 6), that Benjy associates Caddy with the smell of leaves.
The italicized passages (pp. 5, 8, 13, etc.) return to present time - that is, April 7, 1928 - in between the recollections that are going on in Benjys limited consciousness. We learn that in those days, the Negroes who cared for Benjy (predecessors of Lusters) were named Versh and T.P.
Mrs. Compson, Benjys mother, (beginning on p. 11) takes Benjy with her in a carriage driven by T.P., on a visit to the cemetery where her husband and her son Quentin are buried. As the carriage goes through the town of Jefferson, near the courthouse square, they stop so that Mrs. Compson can converse with Jason, her oldest son, who works in a store there. (p. 12). The dual use of two given names in the family is also a source of confusion in the Benjy section: Jason and Quentin. Jason is the name both of Mr. Compson (father of the children) - Jason III - and of the eldest son - Jason IV. Quentin is the name both of one of the brothers to Jason, Caddy, and Benjy and also the name given later by Caddy to her daughter, who is being reared at the Compson home.
In the time shift back to the present (p. 14) Luster continues to look for his quarter and talks to other young boys who are hopeful of retrieving golf-balls and earning tips. In the time shift on p. 19 Caddy, seven years old, squats in the water and gets her bottom wet and muddy.
In a subsequent passage, the same day in time, we discover that there is a funeral in the Compson household: Damuddy (Grandmother) has died but Mr. Compson wants to spare the children this ordeal (pp. 28 and following).
Roskus, Dilseys husband, tells her "Taint no luck on this place" (i.e., the Compson place) and points to the evidence, past and present (p. 34).
At another point in time we learn there is a second Quentin in the household, this one a young girl who doesnt know her mothers name (p. 37). (Later we will discover that she is the daughter of Caddy, who had named the child Quentin after Caddys brother.)
On the night of Damuddys funeral, Caddy climbs a tree to look into the window, the other children watching the muddy bottom of her drawers" (p. 47) - an image that is to become a major symbol in the book.
In another shift back to time present (1928), the young girl Quentin has grown up and has a beau (p. 56). Quentin climbs out of her window at night to meet him, without her uncle Jasons knowledge.
On one occasion Benjy watches the girls passing the Compson place on the way to school. He wants to talk to them ("I tried to say", p. 63) and runs after them. Much later it develops that the accusations of the girls fathers that Benjy was attempting rape leads to his brother Jasons decision to have Benjy castrated.
In the passage beginning on p. 68, in present time, Luster brings Benjy home and Dilsey gives him some birthday cake.
Mrs. Compson is upset by Benjys moaning and crying. We learn in passing (p. 73) that the Compson estate has dwindled in size from what it used to be.
Luster puts Benjy to bed (italicized passage, p. 90). When undressed and looking at himself, Benjy begins to cry. Lusters reference to what is gone from Benjy has to do with the castration.
As the section ends (p. 92) we are in past time again, all the children, including Benjy are going to sleep. The father stands in the doorway, sharply etched against the door, and the lights go out.
II. (Quentins Section) JUNE SECOND, 1910
...Got to marry somebody
Have there been very many Caddy
I dont know too many will you look after Benjy and Father
You dont know whose it is then does he know
Dont touch me will you look after Benjy and Father
From passages like this and others that precede and follow it, is it clear that Quentin knows Caddy has become pregnant (by which man she isnt sure) and must marry someone, even if its Herbert?
III. (Jasons section) APRIL SIXTH 1928
And there I was....looking like I was crazy too. Like a man would naturally think, one of them is crazy and another one drowned himself and the other one was turned out into the street by her husband, whats the reason the rest of them are not crazy too....This is quickly followed by a glimpse of his father, who had taken to drink. What sort of history of the Compson family is Jason presenting here?
IV. (Section 4) APRIL EIGHTH 1928
On the wall above a cupboard, invisible save at night, by lamp light and even then evincing an enigmatic profundity because it had but one hand, a cabinet clock ticked, then with a preliminary sound as if it had cleared its throat, struck five times. (p. 341)
Immediately Dilsey says, "Eight oclock." Brief though the symbol is, but considering the emphasis on time in the previous sections of the book, is it not suggesting: (1) the defective clock is in miniature an emblem of the Compson family and household; but (2) Dilsey knows precisely what the actual time is and hence is the only person with a clear view of the realities? the clock will strike again in subsequent pages, each time Dilsey recognizing and stating the true time.
APPENDIX - COMPSON: 1699-1945
Faulkner composed this appendix for a later edition of the book, trying once more to illuminate a story he had told four times (i.e., in the four sections of the novel proper). You will find it extremely helpful, of course, in clarifying background which his elliptical methods in the novel proper did not furnish. And it will also satisfy the natural human curiosity of everyone who reads a story - what will be the future lives of the fictional characters one has been living with in imagination for so many hours? Note, by the way, that Faulkner intensifies the reasons for Jasons furious outrage by telling us in the Quentin entry (p. 424) that it was not three thousand dollars that was stolen from Jason but seven thousand - not only the money he had cheated his mother and Quentin out of but three thousand dollars of his own.
Enough has already been said (in the introduction and in the running commentary) about Faulkners techniques in this novel. And if you have now concluded your reading of it, you can see for yourself how it is simultaneously a fictional history of one family - the Compsons - and an extended metaphor for the social history of the South in its change from an agrarian past to the New South of the 20th Century. As a study of family decay, it is also, by extension, symbolic of any society whose old traditions have eroded and whose people cannot adjust to change - or, which is worse, adjust as Jason does by the pursuit of money through whatever means, no matter how corrupt; as Benjy does, by being out of the world; as Quentin does, by suicide; as Jason III (the father) does by taking to drink; as Mrs. Compson does by hypochondria; as Caddy and her daughter Quentin do by sexual promiscuity. Only Dilsey is consistently herself, a realist, a humble but magnificent woman of deep human sympathy and love. Only Dilsey endures - endures both in the sense of accepting reality, bitter though at times it may be, and endures in the sense of survives.
In the almost half-century since The Sound and the Fury was first published, it has been the subject of countless interpretation and critiques by literary scholars, and if you are curious about some of them (and have the time), you might want to consult some of the references given in the Faulkner bibliography. But, Id like to suggest, only after you have yourself read and pondered the book.