In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Faulkner

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Interviews
  • Journals
  • Correspondence
  • Reception
  • Faulkner and Film
  • Faulkner and Other Writers
  • Faulkner and Psychology
  • Global Faulkner
  • Women
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • The Craft of Writing
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Ecology
  • Humor

American Literature William Faulkner
John Lowe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0084


William Cuthbert Faulkner (b. 1897–d. 1962) grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, where his great-grandfather William Clark Falkner (sic), a writer, Confederate colonel, and railroad founder, was a local legend. Although he was a high-school dropout, Faulkner, emulating his ancestor, voraciously read the classics and began to write poetry. When his childhood sweetheart Estelle Oldham rejected him to marry another man, Faulkner briefly relocated to the Northeast, enlisted in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps, and traveled for several months in Europe. Settling in New Orleans, he moved in Sherwood Anderson’s literary circle and published in local journals and papers. He began his career as a novelist with Soldier’s Pay (1926), which Anderson helped him publish. Faulkner subsequently married the now-divorced Estelle and took on the responsibility of raising her two children at Rowan Oak, an antebellum mansion he restored in Oxford, his home for the rest of his life. Estelle presented Faulkner with a daughter Jill, their only child. Faulkner struggled to make ends meet by cranking out short stories, since his novels usually had scant sales. He supplemented his income by writing screenplays in Hollywood, where he had a love affair with the script-supervisor Meta Carpenter, the first of several mistresses. Over the years 1929–1942 Faulkner produced many short stories and seven masterworks: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Go Down, Moses (1942), and The Hamlet (1940). Most are set in and around Jefferson, the seat of Yoknapatawpha County, sites modeled on Oxford and Lafayette County. The extravagant praise Faulkner garnered from French critics such as Sartre and Malraux, coupled with the publication of Irving Howe’s Portable Faulkner (1946), caused a revival in both his reputation and his sales. It also led to an apparent decision to write more morally directed books, such as his World War I novel A Fable (1954), and two Snopes novels; many critics see a decline in the master’s powers in the later works. Employing experimental, modernist prose, Faulkner revolutionized Southern letters, exploring family dynamics, sexuality, alienation, and most profoundly, racial relations. Several novels involve slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, but others concentrate on the turbulent events of his own time, including two world wars, Prohibition, the Depression, and the growing effects of modern industrial culture on an agrarian region. In the latter part of his life, Faulkner traveled extensively for the US State Department, and continued to intermittently write for Hollywood. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for lesser works, A Fable and The Reivers (1962), and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

General Overviews

Faulkner’s vast oeuvre has generated more scholarly commentary than that on any other American writer. This virtual industry began when Malcolm Cowley, with Faulkner’s cooperation, published The Portable Faulkner in 1946 (Faulkner 2003, cited under Primary Texts: Collections). The award of the Nobel Prize in 1950 quickened interest, and led to three notable early studies—Brooks 1963, Millgate 1966, and Vickery 1964, which offer solid and often complementary views of the major fiction. Subsequently, some of the most influential studies are Fowler 1997, Irwin 1975, Kartiganer 1979, Matthews 1982, Mortimer 1983, Weinstein 1992 (cited under Faulkner and Psychology), and Weinstein 2010; all of these take theoretical approaches not found in the earlier books. Of special note here is Doyle 2001. Other leading critics’ works appear in sections dealing with discrete novels and special topics.

  • Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963.

    Foundational reading, now considered somewhat conservative, but still a superb example of close reading of the major novels. Essential for understanding Faulkner’s focus on a mythical county.

  • Doyle, Don. Faulkner’s County: The Historical Roots of Yoknapatawpha. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

    Invaluable history of Lafayette County, the actual political and geographical unit Faulkner transformed into a mythical realm. Interbraids actual events with their fictional counterparts.

  • Fowler, Doreen. Faulkner: The Return of the Repressed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

    Most detailed and Lacanian psychological approach to the major novels. Argues the construction of culture in Faulkner comes through language.

  • Irwin, John. Doubling and Incest, Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

    Seminal text in Faulkner studies, which demonstrates the effectiveness of structuralist and psychoanalytic approaches to his oeuvre, concentrating on an intertextual reading of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! Also profitably employs Kierkegaard’s theory of repetition.

  • Kartiganer, Donald M. The Fragile Thread: The Meaning of Form in Faulkner’s Novels. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

    Valuable study of Faulkner’s modernist attempt to avoid definitive patterns or false unity. Establishes how competing structures and loose overlays contribute to the power of the great novels, which is missing in the final works.

  • Matthews, John T. The Play of Faulkner’s Language. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.

    Most impressive deconstructionist reading of the major novels; especially effective use of Derridean theory to clearly analyze conundrums of gender and race. Also addresses the thematic of absence and loss in Faulkner’s major fiction.

  • Millgate, Michael. The Achievement of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1966.

    Along with Brooks and Vickery, one of the three best early studies of the fiction. Particularly good on modes of narration and the import of Faulkner’s thematics.

  • Mortimer, Gail L. Faulkner’s Rhetoric of Loss: A Study in Perception and Meaning. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

    First major treatment of absence, loss, grief, psychological trauma, and mourning, which laid the foundation for many postmodern studies that follow Freudian and Lacanian lines of approach to these issues.

  • Vickery, Olga. The Novels of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

    Penetrating and influential analysis of the major novels; the first to employ psychological criticism. Especially effective readings of As I Lay Dying and Light in August.

  • Weinstein, Philip. Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Not really a biography, award-winning and highly praised volume uses the writer’s life to read his works, in tandem with a complex array of theoretical tools, building on the foundation Weinstein erected in his earlier text, Weinstein 1992 (see Faulkner and Psychology).

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