William Faulkner: Biography, Books, and Style

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  • 0:05 Faulkner on Film
  • 0:52 Biography
  • 3:09 Major Works and Style
  • 7:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

William Faulkner towers above American literature, particularly American literature of the South. In this lesson, we'll explore his life and review his major works and style.

Faulkner on Film

I love the Coen brothers' movies, especially the weirdest ones, like 'Barton Fink.' In that movie, John Turturro plays a 'serious' writer who goes to Hollywood, and his first assignment is to write a wrestling picture, which seems like such an insult to a dignified author.

That's actually a reference to William Faulkner, who suffered the exact same indignity. In fact, John Mahoney plays a character in 'Barton Fink' that's even more directly a caricature of an older Faulkner - drunk, sleeping with a secretary, a great author slumming in Hollywood. The Coen brothers worked Faulkner references into everything from 'Raising Arizona' to 'The Big Lebowski,' though many are so subtle you'd never notice. So who is this guy worthy of such treatment? Let's start at the beginning.


William Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi. When he was five, his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he'd live for the majority of his life.

Faulkner loved to read as a child, but he somehow failed to graduate from high school. While in his teens, he dated Estelle Oldham. Then some other guy went and proposed to her. Since this guy came from a more desirable family than Faulkner's, Estelle's parents insisted she marry him.

It was 1918 and war was raging, so Faulkner decided to join the army. But at 5'5', he was too short. So he joined the Canadian Royal Air Force. World War I ended before he finished training, so he never actually saw combat, and he headed back to Mississippi.

He enrolled at Ole Miss, gaining entrance due to his father's employment there, but didn't last more than a few semesters. Faulkner then bounced around various day jobs. All the while, he was writing poetry and fiction.

In April of 1929, Estelle's marriage ended. Faulkner waited barely more than a month, marrying her in June of that same year. They bought and restored a dilapidated Oxford mansion, known as Rowan Oak. He vowed to support her and the two kids she brought with her on his writing. Unfortunately, the reading public wasn't keen on that.

But he got a gig as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. As I noted earlier, this wasn't always great work. Plus, he didn't really like the movies, but it was paying work. He had a long friendship with director Howard Hawks, and a long affair with Hawks' secretary, Meta Carpenter. Perhaps his best screenwriting credit is Hawks' 1946 masterpiece The Big Sleep, which is based on Raymond Chandler's novel and stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Faulkner was a peculiar kind of alcoholic. While he was writing, he rarely drank. But when he finished a project, he'd binge drink. Those binges might last for days or weeks. He'd drink until he passed out, often causing harm to himself or those around him.

Faulkner's novels went more or less unnoticed until the late 1940s. In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and in 1951, his Collected Stories won the National Book Award. For the next dozen or so years, he finally enjoyed the fruits of his labors. In 1962, Faulkner died of a heart attack at age 64.

Major Works and Style

So that's his life, but what about those books - the ones no one noticed at first?

Faulkner's first novel is 1926's Soldier's Pay. This one is about a severely wounded World War I aviator who returns home. There's sort of a love triangle as the aviator was helped home by a war widow who wants to marry him. He's already engaged to another woman, but his fiancée wasn't faithful in his absence.

In 1929, Faulkner published Sartoris, which centers on the decline of a wealthy southern family in the aftermath of World War I. This is the first of many works to be set in 'Yoknapatawpha County'. This fictional Mississippi locale, with a name derived from Chicasaw, is based on Lafayette County, which includes Faulkner's hometown, Oxford. Later novels further develop characters introduced in Sartoris as residents of Yoknapatawpha County. In many ways, this setting is a defining element of Faulkner's work. It allows Faulkner to explore Southern history and the lives of his characters on a rich palette of his own design.

Later in 1929, Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury. Considered one of the best novels of the century, this is the tragic story of the Compson family. They're more Southern aristocrats, and the novel tells of their financial, religious and personal failures.

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