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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance William Faulkner (1897-1962)

[6948] Jack E. Boucher, South front and west side, Rowan Oak, Old Taylor Rd., Oxford, Lafayette County, MS [William Faulkner’s old house] (1975), courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, MISS, 36-OXFO, 9-4].

The man who would become one of twentieth-century American literature’s best-known figures, William Cuthbert Falkner (he added the “u” to his last name later in life) was born in Albany, Mississippi. Four years later, the Falkners moved to nearby Oxford, which William would call home for the rest of his life. Faulkner’s childhood was fairly average for a young middle-class white boy of the period: he grew up surrounded by romantic and glorious tales of the Old South, many of them handed down from his grandfather, William Clark Falkner, a somewhat legendary figure who managed to become a colonel in the Civil War and went on to become a planter, lawyer, novelist, and builder of railroads before being shot dead by a former business partner in 1889. However, by the time Faulkner reached his late teens he began showing signs that his was not to be an average life. After dropping out of high school, he tried working in his grandfather’s bank, but quickly gave that up and, in the face of his father’s and the rest of his community’s disapproval, decided to pursue a career as a poet. During this time, Faulkner was courting a local belle, Estelle Oldham, but when her family refused to approve of his unconventional behavior, Estelle married someone else, and Faulkner promptly left for Canada to join the RAF (Royal Air Force). (She later divorced her husband and married Faulkner in 1929.) Faulkner saw no action in World War I, and once it was over he returned to Oxford, where he briefly attended classes at the University of Mississippi. He continued to write poetry, publishing his first collection of poems, The Marble Faun, near the end of 1924 (the title consciously echoed that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romantic novel about the conflict between American and Old World values). Despite this small success, Faulkner’s writing life did not truly begin until he met another writer, Sherwood Anderson, who advised him to develop his prose and to concentrate on what he knew best–the Mississippi of his youth. It took three novels–Soldier’s Pay (1926), Mosquitos (1927), and Sartoris (1929)–for Faulkner to develop his prose skills into their early greatness, but with the October 1929 publication of The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s writing life had truly begun.

Like Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s next novel, As I Lay Dying (1930), was set in Yoknapatawpha County, the fictional representation of the Oxford area that Faulkner would continue to develop in subsequent novels. Also like its predecessor, As I Lay Dying was written in a stream of consciousness style, using fifteen different narrators who deliver fifty-nine interior monologues from which readers must assemble the story, as if putting together a puzzle. The fragmented nature of Faulkner’s narratives marks them as examples of literary modernism, a movement which sought to challenge artistic conventions and provide its audience with new ways of seeing the world. More recently, critics have explored the ways in which Faulkner’s use of pastiche and multiple, often contradictory voices within a single work may have been a forerunner of what later came to be called postmodern fiction.

Although he continued to write throughout his life, critics generally agree that Faulkner produced his best work in the 1930s and early 1940s, including Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936)–which many believe to be his masterpiece. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in 1950.

Teaching Tips

  • Students will likely find As I Lay Dying confusing, difficult to relate to, and depressing. They are more likely to appreciate the novel if you preface their reading with a short introduction to Faulkner and to the modernist techniques he uses to tell his story. After students have read a few of the monologues, spend some class time letting them discuss the fragmentation and dislocation they feel; then use their comments to explore the epistemological and ontological questions the novel raises. How do Faulkner’s characters know what they know? How do we know what we know? How do the Bundrens come to be who they are? How do we become who we are? Can we consider any of the novel’s fifteen different narrators “reliable”? Working in groups, ask your students to write a character sketch of each of the novel’s fifteen narrators. The sketch should describe the character and his or her context. After students have completed their sketches, ask each group to share their description and to tell the class whether their narrator is reliable and why.
  • Because Faulkner looms as such an imposing figure over the American literary canon, you may need to push your students to be critical of his authority. One way to do this is to ask your students to think about Faulkner’s social position and compare it to that of the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying. To help your students understand the Bundrens a bit better, ask them to create a family/relationship tree that indicates with arrows how the characters are connected to one another and which gives the page number and chapter title in which we learn of the characters’ personalities. Using their relationship trees as points of reference, ask your students to consider some of the following questions: What would someone of Faulkner’s social standing typically think of people like the Bundrens? Is Faulkner making fun of the Bundrens, and if so, why? At what points do we want to laugh at the Bundrens? Why? At what points do we want to weep? Does the novel suggest any reasons for the Bundren’s poverty? Why, for example, is Anse Bundren depicted as someone who never breaks a sweat?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Who are the Bundrens? What is their position in their community? What do their neighbors seem to think of them? How does their community’s impression of the Bundrens affect our impression of them?
  2. Comprehension: What drives Anse Bundren and his children to put themselves through all the trials required to bury Addie in Jefferson? Why don’t the Bundrens just bury Addie at home? Do Anse and his children seem motivated by love and respect for their dead wife and mother, or are they driven by other forces?
  3. Comprehension: In the opening scene of “Barn Burning,” in which Mr. Harris has accused Abner Snopes of burning his barn, Harris suggests the judge question Sarty about the incident, but the judge hesitates and Harris eventually changes his mind. Why don’t these men want to ask Sarty to testify against his father? What does their reluctance to do so tell us about how they view the Snopes family?
  4. Context: Compare Faulkner’s depiction of a poor white southern family in “Barn Burning” to the Southern Agrarians’ praise of the rural, soil-centered life. How does the Snopes family match up with the Agrarians’ ideals?
  5. Exploration: Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County can sometimes seem like the land that time forgot. This is especially true in As I Lay Dying, in which much of the plot unfolds in rural areas which, while geographically not far from the somewhat modern community of Jefferson, seem separated from the modern world by a much wider gulf. While historians of the 1920s and 1930s emphasize the increasing pace of industrialization and technological change that was reshaping the world between the wars, the citizens of Yoknapatawpha County seem oblivious. Yet, in a more indirect sense, the effects of these global changes are inescapably woven into Faulkner’s texts. Discuss the ways in which the larger changes in the “outside world” contribute to Faulkner’s imaginary world.
  6. Exploration: Because of the dark settings and disturbing themes of much of his writing, Faulkner is often regarded as a master of the southern gothic. How does Faulkner compare to other “gothic” writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne? (See Unit 6.) In what ways are Hawthorne and Faulkner concerned with “the sins of the fathers”? How similar or different are their views of these “sins”?

Selected Archive Items

[3309] Letter, Philip Avery Stone to John Sharp Williams requesting support for William Faulkner’s appointment as postmaster at the University of Mississippi (1922), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [A86].
This position of postmaster was a way for Faulkner to earn an income and continue writing, as it paid a full salary, but did not require full-time work.

[5122] Anonymous, Rowan Oak, Old Taylor Rd., Oxford, Lafayette County, MS, 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, Miss, 36-OXFO, 9-].
William Faulkner’s home in Mississippi. Highly formalized in their layout, large plantations usually centered on the “big house,” an imposing, often neoclassical structure designed as an expression of the good taste and prosperity of the owner.

[6948] Jack E. Boucher, South front and west side, Rowan Oak, Old Taylor Rd., Oxford, Lafayette County, MS [William Faulkner’s old house] (1975), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, MISS, 36-OXFO, 9-4].
The myth of the “Old South” generally referred to the “plantation legend” of antebellum (and much postbellum) popular fiction that portrayed white southerners as genteel aristocrats and slavery as a benevolent, paternal institution from which blacks and whites benefited equally. Although Faulkner grew up in a neoclassical “big house,” he challenged this myth in his fiction.

[7488] Anonymous, William Faulkner Handed 1949 Nobel Prize of $30,000 for Literature (1949), 
courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos.
Some audiences eagerly anticipated Faulkner’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize, as he rarely spoke publicly or dressed formally.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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