Sunday, December 12, 2010

William Faulkner : A Biographical Sketch

William Faulkner was born in New Albany, in the State of’ Mississippi, on the 25th, September, 1897. His father, Murry C. Falkner (the “u” was added to the family name afterwards), ran a livery stable and a hardware store, and later worked as the business manager of. the University of Mississippi, the seat of the University being in the’ town of Oxford whither the family moved in 1902.
William Faulkner’s father had, in 1896, eloped with a girl called Maud Butler, because Maud’s mother had opposed the idea of Murry’s marrying her daughter. Maud’s mother, Lelia, a woman known for her stern piety and her capacity for being difficult, bad been deserted by her husband when Maud was only seventeen. Lelia was very unhappy when she discovered that Maud had run away with Murry and married him, because Lelia knew that Murry was a heavy drinker, like his father before him. For five years after Murry’s marriage to Maud, Lelia refused to acknowledge the marriage, addressing her letters to “Miss Maud Butler care of Mr. Murry Falkner”. (Lelia afterwards came to be known to her grandchildren as “Damuddy”, and Damuddy is the name by which the Compson children refer to their grandmother in The Sound and the Fury). Maud’s marriage to Murry did not prove to be a happy one. This is clear from a bit of conversation which once occurred between her and William. She and William were talking about heaven and she asked : “Will I have to see your father there ?” He answered “no”, and, she said’: “That’s good. I never d d like him.” (In other words, although Maud had married Murry for love, her love afterwards changed into dislike).
William was the eldest of the four children of Murry and Maud, the other three being also boys called Murry, John, and Dean. William did not get on very well with his brothers, and these early disparities between him and his brothers caused him some anxieties which were aggravated by his father’s strange hostility to him. In the meantime, William’s father started drinking more heavily than, before, with the result that William’s mother felt miserable though she did try to adjust herself to her husband’s drunkenness. However, there were some positive elements in William’s environment favouring the growth of his innate artistic tastes. There were his mother’s books by Conrad, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Mark Twain, and his father’s western romances to read. William had also the opportunity to take part in sports like base-ball and football. He could hike or hunt in the woods near the town of Oxford, and there was a family cabin on a nearby lake as a place for fishing. William pursued these activities with periodic enthusiasm.
Playmates : Estelle and Sallie
William occasionally turned to playmates outside his immediate family. Among the most important of these were a girl called Estelle Oldham, and a cousin by the name of Sallie whom William regarded as a sister, because William had no sister of his own. Estelle was afterwards to become William’s wife.
A Sense of Alienation From His Parents
In 1907 both William’s grandmothers (his father’s mother and his mother’s mother) died. The illness of his maternal grandmother, Damuddy, was a long and grim affair, and she suffered terribly before dying of cancer. William memorialized her funeral and its impact on a group of children in The Sound and the Fury, and the event itself must have caused emotional upheaval in William and his brothers. When William’s third brother was born in the same year, William experienced a sense of alienation from both his parents. William’s father had already been long hostile to William, and he greeted the new baby with great joy, saying that the new baby (who was born two days before his own birthday) was the best birthday present he ever had. By the time William was sixteen, he had left school entirely and was spending much of his time writing. Writing, indeed, became an obsession with him, but he still needed some sort of satisfying relationship with an older male who could serve as a kind of model. This he found in a man called Phil Stone.
Friendship With Phil Stone
William Faulkner’s meeting with Phil Stone in 1914 at once filled an emotional void in Faulkner’s life, and provided him with a mentor. Stone was four years older than Faulkner and had just received his B.A. degree from Yale University: Stone was worldly-minded, and be was enthusiastic, talkative and interested in literature. He offered a striking contrast to Faulkner’s father and fitting complement to Faulkner himself. Faulkner was fascinated by his new acquaintance and showed him some of the poems which he had been writing.
Frustration and Estrangement From His Environment
After leaving school, Faulkner worked for a time at his grandfather’s bank as a book-keeper. At the same time he got into the habit of drinking, a habit which was to last all his life. All through his teens and into his early twenties, Faulkner felt frustrated and estranged from his environment. These feelings were aggravated by his experiences of 1918. This was another difficult year for him, just as 1907 had been. He was thwarted in his attempts to become a fighter-pilot, being turned down by the recruitment authorities for being underweight and not having the minimum height. Probably a bigger blow was that Estelle Oldham, the one woman in whom he had shown a romantic interest, married someone else. Perhaps it was due to a sense of frustration that he began to visit prostitutes in Memphis.
A Book of Poems
Many of the poems that he wrote during the next few years were collected in The Marble Faun, his first book which was, however, not published until 1924. Desperate to become a pilot, Faulkner finally managed to join the R.A.F. in Canada as an officer cadet and was sent to Toronto for his training. His dreams of winning military glory, however, came to nothing. The war ended before he had finished his training, and it is doubtful whether he even had a brief ride in an aeroplane. For nearly seven years after returning from Canada, Faulkner stayed around Oxford. He lived with his parents and for the first two years went occasionally to attend some classes at the University of Mississippi. He also worked at odd jobs and wrote quite regularly, mostly poems and essays, a number of which were published in student periodicals. His life was, for the most part, completely aimless. He was also drinking rather heavily at this time.
As a Postmaster
In the autumn of 1921, Faulkner went to New York City. There he found a job in a book-store managed by a woman who later became the wife of the celebrated author, Sherwood Anderson. His book-store job, however, did not last long, and Faulkner returned to Oxford in December. There he got employed as the postmaster of the University post-office. He was probably one of the least efficient government employees because he had only contempt for this job and revolted against its obligations in his usual passive-aggressive manner. He was forced to resign the job in late 1924, and he felt greatly relieved.
Friendship With Sherwood Anderson
In the following year, 1925, Faulkner went, at the suggestion of a friend, to New Orleans and got acquainted with Sherwood Anderson who was a central figure in the city’s artistic and literary resurgence. The two men had many moments of satisfying companionship, drinking, wandering through the French Quarter together, and telling each other fine stories. But Faulkner proved a difficult companion, and soon the friendship came to an end after a quarrel under the effect of liquor.
A Series of Novels
In February 1926, Faulkner’s first novel called Soldiers’ Pay was published and received generally favourable reviews but, between his completing the manuscript of this novel and its publication, Faulkner got an opportunity to do a bit of travelling. He visited several European countries, returning home at the end of 1925 After the publication of Soldiers’ Pay, he started working on Mosquitoes which was published in 1927. Sartoris appeared in 1929. Then followed The Sound and the Fury which was also published in 1929. Sanctuary saw the light of the day in 1931. In 1932 came Light in August. Absalom, Absalom appeared in 1936, and so on.
Marriage to Estelle
By the year 1929, Estelle’s marriage had broken down. She had two children by her marriage, and she now waited for her divorce decree to become final in April that year after which she could consider marrying the man who had been her first lover. However, it was not quite clear even to Faulkner himself whether he really wanted to marry Estelle. He had surely waited patiently for her over a period of many years, and his early books are full of troubled and disappointed suitors. Estelle was divorced on April 29, but Faulkner did not marry her for nearly two months. Perhaps some of his hesitation was due to family objections. Faulkner’s mother was opposed to the marriage because Estelle was already an alcoholic, while Estelle’s father (Judge Oldham) was worried about Faulkner’s financial position. However, on June 20, 1929. Faulkner and Estelle got married and went to the resort town of Pascagoula (in Mississippi) for their honeymoon. The honeymoon was not a happy one. It is believed that Estelle one night tried to commit suicide. Whether Estelle’s suicide attempt was related to Faulkner’s inadequacy as a sexual partner is not known (because Faulkner did have some doubts about his sexual adequacy). Some of the characters and incidents in the novel Sanctuary have a correspondence with the circumstances of Faulkner’s life at this time.
Father’s Death and Family Responsibilities
In August, 1932, Faulkner’s father died. Although his father’s life had been more peaceful in his late years, after he had got a good job demanding no work and had also given up drinking, he was probably always haunted by his lost hopes, because he never showed any signs of contentment. As Faulkner said, his father had perhaps got tired of living. Nor did his father ever show any more affection for Faulkner than in the beginning when he had almost been hostile towards him. His father’s death offered Faulkner a sense of liberation, because the constant contact with a man who neither accepted nor understood him had been oppressive and frustrating, Faulkner now acquired the status of the head of the family because he was the eldest son. Along with the leadership of the Faulkner clan came financial responsibility and a series of family demands that increased as the years passed. The first of these was the pressure to support his mother.
The Birth of a Daughter
In June, 1932 a daughter was born to Faulkner, and this was probably the most joyous event of his adult life. The girl, who was given the name of Jill, was afterwards to manifest a temperamental reticence that strongly identified her with her father. Faulkner adored this child, and lavished upon her the affection which he had never received from his own father, though his affection was somewhat erratic. In this connection it may be noted that Faulkner’s marriage to Estelle had rarely been blissful. On the contrary, the marriage had always been turbulent since 1929 when it had taken place. Nevertheless, the couple produced two children, only one of whom, the girl Jill already mentioned, survived.
Heavy Drinking and Unhappy Domestic Life
From his position as the owner of a home and as the head of a family, and as the employer of a number of servants, Faulkner certainly derived plenty of satisfaction. But at the same time he complained a good deal about his economic responsibilities and expressed a longing for the days when he used to be a “barefoot tramp”. And yet he experienced a sense of luxury in the purchase of items ranging from aeroplanes and horses to hand-made shoes. He also bought up all the property adjoining his own in order to enlarge his small estate. But his married life had its drawbacks. His periodical heavy drinking was hardly compatible with his wife’s steadier but equally destructive drinking and their relationship on occasions was marred by physical violence. Faulkner was very secretive about his private life, but a few times during the mid-1930’s he was seen with painful scratches or bruises which had been caused by Estelle, and at least once she also appeared with bruises on her arms. Faulkner also told someone that his sexual relationship with Estelle had ended entirely in 1933, after their daughter was born. The things that kept the couple together were their child, years of habit, and Faulkner’s idea of marriage as a solemn commitment.
A Love-Affair and its End
From 1932 onwards Faulkner had been receiving offers of work from Hollywood. These offers, though distasteful to him as an artist, provided a solution to some of his economic problems. They also promised some badly needed respite from his domestic conflict. So he accepted these offers, generally going to California alone and remaining away from Mississippi for almost six months at a stretch. These visits provided him the solitude necessary for him to do his own work also, and an opportunity to think things out. Hollywood also brought him into contact with a large number of attractive young women one of whom impressed him considerably. This woman was a lovely divorcee named Meta Carpenter who, as Faulkner soon discovered, was a fellow-Southerner. His association with her soon developed into a regular love-affair. However, in the course of three or four years she gave up her hope that Faulkner would divorce Estelle and get married to her. In 937 Meta Carpenter married a young pianist, while Faulkner tried to drown his feeling of grief in a prolonged and destructive drinking spree. His self-destructive behaviour continued and some months later, when Meta Carpenter saw him in New York for the first time after her marriage, he had incurred a terrible burn from falling, when dead drunk, against a steam-pipe.
His publications during these years included Light in August (1932), Pylon (1935), Absalom, Absalom (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939), The Hamlet (1940).
Some More Frustrations
After the publication of Go Down, Moses in 1942, Faulkner entered a long period during which he wrote little and published nothing. World War II had broken out in 1939, and Faulkner had been feeling depressed by his inability once again to join the army. Many of his comments at this time revealed how much he regarded participation in war as an affirmation of manhood. Near the end of the war, Faulkner was finally offered a chance to write a book on air force operations overseas. But he lost this chance because at a meeting with the military officials he was found in a state of drunkenness. This time Faulkner was the victim, not of the strict army rules about height and weight, but of his own self-destructive weakness for alcohol. In the meantime, during the war years, his experiences in Hollywood also proved frustrating. He became involved with an unscrupulous Hollywood agent who bound him to a disastrous contract requiring him to work for seven years at a lower salary than he had earned on his very first Hollywood job-a, decade before. However, he did some interesting work for the films. In 1944 he began work on a new novel but, after having worked on it for about three years, he felt discouraged and put it aside for a time to try something else. In 1947 he began work on, Intruder in the Dust which appeared in 1948.
Awards and Distinctions
Faulkner now received a number of awards and distinctions which established him in the public mind as a literary giant. In 1950 he received the National Book Award, but his highest distinction came when in November of the same year he was named as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was only the third American writer to become a Nobel laureate in the several decades since the prize had been established. Journalists began visiting him in large numbers to know how he reacted to the honour. Faulkner’s immediate response to them was to get heavily drunk and announce that he had no intention of going to Stockholm to receive the award. His family, friends, and publisher all began to put pressure on him, but Faulkner would not agree to go until his daughter Jill said that she longed for a trip to Europe. He finally yielded, but remained in a drunken condition while others rushed to make arrangements for his plane journey. In his semi-drunken condition, he somehow managed during the trip to write the speech which he was to deliver at the ceremony.
His Nobel Prize Speech
This Nobel Prize speech became almost at once one of Faulkner’s best-known works. Here are a few lines from that speech. “I believe that man will not merely endure ; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The writer’s privilege is to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honour and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” In this way Faulkner affirmed both man’s splendour and the great role of the artist.
Last Years
Faulkner continued much of his uproarious behaviour up to the very end of his life. He kept riding and fox-hunting, occasionally falling down from his horse and receiving injuries. His bouts of drinking also continued with almost the same frequency: ‘Yet there were certain cheering aspects of his life during these last years. He joined the University of Virginia in 1957, first as a writer-in-residence, then as a lecturer and he apparently enjoyed his new professorial role. His interior life also underwent certain important, changes. Estelle, who had always felt distressed by her drinking problems, joined Alcoholics Anonymous about the same time that Faulkner terminated his last major extra-marital love-affair. In other words, Estelle became sober and Faulkner gave up his interest in other women. In the eyes of one of their relations, the two fell in love all over again. At the very least, they managed to live their last years together with general harmony. During this period, Faulkner also grew much closer to his daughter Jill. Jill had married a West Point graduate who went or to a law school and settled in the same region where Faulkner now lived, in central Virginia. Jill and her husband had by now produced three children, and Faulkner would spend a good deal of his time playing with his grand-children on his visits to his daughter’s house.
Awareness of Approaching Death
Despite his apparent feeling of peace and talk of living to be a hundred, Faulkner was acutely aware of the approach of death. People who had been crucial figures in his life were dying, and his own health was declining. His literary agent, who had been an unfailing source of advice, money, and dependable professional help, died in 1959. The following year came the death of Faulkner’s mother with whom he had always kept in close contact in spite of the underlying tensions. The following year, Ernest Hemingway, who bad been Faulkner’s chief rival, killed himself. As if driven by an urgency created by these deaths, Faulkner turned to his unfinished business which was a novel he had started writing years before.
This novel was The Reivers which he had begun in 1940 and which saw the light of the day in June, 1962.
Death (Six July, 1962)
Despite his new mellowness, traces of the old irritability in Faulkner remained. This chronic irritability appeared when he was invited by President Kennedy to a dinner at the White House and he declined the invitation saying : “I’m too old to go that far to eat with strangers.” He continued to ride vigorously and to jump. In January, 1962 he suffered a painful injury in a terrible fall from a horse. He began treating this injury by taking the usual large doses of whisky which in turn necessitated another sort of treatment. He was compelled to go to a sanatorium where, on July sixth, 1962 he died, of a massive heart attack.

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