William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi, to Murry Cuthbert Falkner (August 17, 1870-August 7, 1932) and Maud Butler (November 27, 1871-October 19, 1960). The family later included three younger brothers: Murry Charles “Jack” Falkner (June 26, 1899-December 24, 1975), author John Falkner (September 24, 1901-March 28, 1963), and Dean Swift Falkner (August 15, 1907-November 10, 1935).
Soon after William turned one year old, Murry Cuthbert Falkner moved his family to Ripley, Mississippi, in order to work as the treasurer in the family-owned Gulf & Chicago Railroad Company. Murry hoped to inherit the railroad from his father, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, but his father sold the railroad for $75,000. Murry was disappointed with his father’s lack of faith in his ability and planned to moved his family to Texas and become a rancher. Maud did not agree with her husband’s decision, and the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where Murry could work in one of his father’s businesses there. William was barely five years old when the Falkner family moved to Oxford, a place he would call home for the rest of his life.
William Faulkner was greatly influenced by “his mother Maud, his maternal grandmother Lelia Butler, and Caroline Barr (the black woman who raised him from infancy)” in developing his artistic imagination. “Both his mother and grandmother were great readers and also painters and photographers, educating him in visual language. While Murry enjoyed the outdoors and taught his sons to hunt, track, and fish. Maud valued education and took pleasure in reading and going to church. She taught her sons to read before sending them to public school and exposed them to classics such as Charles Dickens and Grimm’s’ Fairy Tales. Faulkner’s lifelong education by Callie Barr is central to his novels’ preoccupations with the politics of sexuality and race.”
Faulkner had early success in school, “excelled in the first grade, skipped the second, and continued doing well through the third and fourth grades. However, beginning somewhere in the fourth and fifth grades of his schooling, Faulkner became a much more quiet and withdrawn child. He began to play hooky occasionally and became somewhat indifferent to his schoolwork, even though he began to study the history of Mississippi on his own time in the seventh grade. The decline of his performance in school continued and Faulkner wound up repeating the eleventh, and then final grade, and never graduating from high school.”
Faulkner listened to the stories told by the old men of Oxford as well as stories from Mammy Callie. The stories were of the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan as well as family stories; they included the exploits of William’s great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner (after whom he was named). Great-grandfather Falkner had been a successful businessman, writer, and a hero of the Civil War; he was called “Old Colonel” and had “been enshrined long since as a household deity” by the time William was born.
Faulkner began writing poetry in his teenage years but did not write his first novel until his late twenties. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford in 1919 and “attended three semesters before dropping out in November 1920.” His father worked at the university as a business manager, which allowed William to attend classes. Even though he often skipped classes and got a “D” in English, “some of his poems were published in campus journals.”
Seventeen-year-old Faulkner met Philip Stone, who “came from one of Oxford’s older families” and had “already earned bachelor’s degrees from Yale and the University of Mississippi.” Even though only four years older than Faulkner, Stone was “an important early influence on Faulkner’s writing” and introduced him to writers such as James Joyce who also influenced Faulkner. Faulkner was “greatly influenced by the history of his family and the region in which he lived … his sense of humor, his sense of the tragic position of Black and White Americans, his characterization of Southern characters, and his timeless themes…”
Faulkner changed his surname from “Falkner” to “Faulkner” in 1918, probably because of a “careless typesetter.” In 1929 Faulkner married Estelle Oldham (1897-1972), who brought two children from a previous marriage. He worked night shifts in the University of Mississippi’s boiler room in 1929, sold a novel entitled As I Lay Dying in 1930 and began to send out short stories to national magazines the same year. He used the income to purchase an antebellum home in Oxford and renamed it “Rowan Oak.” Estelle lived there with their daughter, Jill, until her death in 1972. “The house and furnishings are maintained much as they were in Faulkner’s day. Faulkner’s scribblings are still preserved on the wall there, including the day-by-day outline covering an entire week that he wrote out on the walls of his small study to help him keep track of the plot twists in the novel A Fable.”
In 1932 Faulkner accepted an offer from MGM Studios to be a screenwriter in Hollywood and continued to find work there in the 1930s and 1940s. “Faulkner is one of the most celebrated writers in American literature generally and Southern literature specifically. Though his work was published as early as 1919, and largely during the 1920s and 1930s, Faulkner was relatively unknown until receiving the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, for which he became the only Mississippi-born Nobel laureate. Two of his works, A Fable (1954) and his last novel The Reivers (1962), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; also on the list were As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932). Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is often included on similar lists.”
In 1959 William Faulkner was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident; he died of myocardial infarction at age 64 on July 6, 1962, at Wright’s Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi. He is buried in a family plot in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford.