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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMESNo one who knew William Faulkner in high school would have voted him "most likely to succeed." He dropped out in the eleventh grade. "I never did like school," he said, "and I stopped going as soon as I got big enough to play hooky and not be caught at it."
Failure seemed attached to him like a tin can. His girlfriend married a man whose prospects were better than Faulkner's. The U.S. Army Air Corps wouldn't take him during World War I- he was too short.
In his twenties, he seemed incapable of applying himself to anything. He went to the University of Mississippi, did miserably in English, and quit after a year. Though he managed to get a job running the university's post office, he was so incompetent he was forced to resign. He was even removed as the local scoutmaster because he drank too much. The litany of his shortcomings stretches on: his almost paralyzing shyness, his inability to write memorable poetry, his years as a problem drinker.
And yet, this "failure" produced 90 short stories, 19 novels, and a play that was performed on Broadway. In 1950 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest recognition any writer can get. Today, he is considered one of the greatest writers the United States has ever produced.
How did this happen? A complete answer would have to take into account Faulkner's special gifts as a writer, developed over a long period of apprenticeship. As I Lay Dying, his fifth published novel, will give you an excellent chance to appreciate those gifts and his unique view of the world. That view stems, partly, from what critics call the Southern Tradition- the myths about the South as a defeated nation that he shared with other Southerners of his time.
GROWING UPWilliam Cuthbert Falkner (he added the u when he became a published writer) was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. For the first four years of his life, he lived in Ripley, a nearby town whose cemetery is dominated by a statue of Faulkner's great-grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner. Faulkner never knew his great-grandfather- he had died in 1889. But Old Colonel Falkner, as he was called, remained a legendary figure to his descendants.
After the Civil War, Colonel Falkner refused to lick his wounds. He built a railroad, became rich, and wrote several novels, one of them a best-seller. He was shot and killed in Ripley's town square by his former partner in the railroad venture.
The Old Colonel's son, John, was a lawyer and a banker. When John's son Murry and his wife moved to Oxford in northern Mississippi, they already had three sons: William, who was four; Murry, three; and John, just one. A fourth boy, Dean, would be born in 1907. Some readers think that Faulkner's growing up with three brothers may have helped him work out the intricate relationships of the four brothers in As I Lay Dying.
William and John were old enough to be dazzled by Oxford, a county seat of some 1800 people. The electric street lamps- the first they had ever seen- were especially marvelous. Toward the end of As I Lay Dying, the young boy Vardaman visits a town very much like Oxford, giving Faulkner the chance to re-create the sense of wonder the arc lamps gave him in his childhood.
Faulkner's mother, an amateur artist, tried to inspire in her sons a love of learning. There was, of course, no television or radio then, and silent movies became popular late in Faulkner's childhood. So, during the evenings, the family read a lot. Mrs. Falkner introduced her children to some of the great American and European writers.
Mrs. Falkner, a Baptist, took care of their religious education, too. William never had much use for organized religion. But he believed in God and Christian values, and he read the Bible regularly for pleasure. As I Lay Dying contains many references to the Old and New Testaments. Several of the novel's characters reflect Faulkner's understanding of the way Christianity shaped the views of the people he grew up among.
Faulkner seemed to lose all interest in schooling when he got to high school. "He gazed out the windows and answered the simplest question with 'I don't know,'" a classmate remembered. He was an outsider, often lost in daydreams like Darl, the poetic, brooding brother in As I Lay Dying whose neighbors thought him odd.
He quit school in December, 1914, then returned the next fall to the eleventh grade (the last grade his school offered) so that he could play football. When the season ended, he quit school for good and went to work as a clerk in his grandfather's bank.
THE SOUTHERN TRADITIONThe South- as a region and a state of mind- plays a very important part in Faulkner's work. The South was defeated in the Civil War and occupied for twelve years afterward by Federal troops. Many of the white Southerners who had supported the Confederacy were unable to accept the harsh facts of defeat. Their children- and their children's children, people like Faulkner- were steeped in the myths of the Old South. They heard again and again of the chivalry, heroism, and honor of its defenders. Like the regional dialects that Faulkner uses in As I Lay Dying, the subject of a ravaged homeland was a part of the tradition that these writers inherited.
But the South was changing during Faulkner's youth. Its political leaders were changing, too. Descendants of the aristocratic families of the Old South were losing power. They were being replaced by men who drew their strength from the new class of businessmen or from poor white farmers who feared that they were being left behind.
Faulkner wasn't sure what to make of the upheaval going on around him. He tried to come to terms with it. Like Bayard Sartoris, the main character in Faulkner's third novel, Sartoris, he wasn't sure there was a place for him in this New South.
Faulkner would deal directly with these themes in several of his books. In As I Lay Dying, he approaches them indirectly, suggesting conflicts between the hill farmers- the "rednecks"- and the townspeople.
Here and there in As I Lay Dying, you'll see him betray a certain affection for the myths of the Old South. The character who comes closest to being a hero, Jewel, is a man of action, and he's often mounted on a horse like the South's gallant defenders during the Civil War. And the Bundrens, who hold center stage in As I Lay Dying, are a sort of proud guerrilla band fighting their own rear guard action against a powerful enemy.
LITERARY APPRENTICESHIPFaulkner wrote little more than poetry before leaving Oxford in 1918 to join the Royal Flying Corps in Canada. Most of that poetry, as Faulkner later acknowledged, wasn't very good. "I'm a failed poet," he once told an interviewer. "Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing."
Faulkner didn't take up novel writing until he went to New Orleans in 1925, after he was allowed to resign from his job as a postmaster near Oxford. In New Orleans he made friends with the novelist Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged him to write fiction.
Faulkner's first novel, Soldiers' Pay, was published in 1926. It is the story of an American soldier who returns home to Georgia to die of the wounds received in World War I. His second book, Mosquitoes, published in 1927, makes fun of the artistic and social circles he knew in New Orleans. Light on plot and heavy on hollow talk, the novel embodies a theme that Faulkner explores in As I Lay Dying: the uselessness of words when separated from action.
In 1928, Faulkner wrote Sartoris, which told of the decay of a proud Southern family much like his own. The book is set in Jefferson, a fictitious town in Mississippi that resembles Oxford. Jefferson is the Bundren family's destination in As I Lay Dying. In that novel, published in 1930, Faulkner for the first time gives a name- Yoknapatawpha- to the county of which Jefferson is the political center. (For the derivation of the name, see Note in section 45 of The Story section.)
While Sartoris was being readied for publication in January, 1929, Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury. Many readers think that this second novel in the Yoknapatawpha saga is Faulkner's masterpiece. It is a study of the collapse of another proud Southern family, the Compsons. A difficult book, it tells its story in three stream-of-consciousness styles Faulkner had learned from reading the Irish writer James Joyce. Faulkner told the story first through the eyes of an idiot, then through the eyes of two brothers.
Convinced that he would never make any money writing, he returned in his next book to a more conventional way of presenting material. He conceived of Sanctuary as a "potboiler"- a salable mix of sex and violence. When it was published in 1931, it became a best-seller.
Before Sanctuary came out, however, Faulkner wrote and published As I Lay Dying. Its plot is relatively straightforward, the story of a poor family's journey from the hills of Yoknapatawpha County to Jefferson to bury one of its members. But the story is told in a way that is anything but straightforward. Like The Sound and the Fury, the novel has no single narrator. Instead, it has 15 narrators- family members and outsiders- who piece together a funeral journey in 59 unnumbered sections. The result is a tour de force, a work of art that displays Faulkner's incredible technical skill as a writer. Even more incredible is the fact that he wrote the book in just 47 days!
That's a story in itself. In June 1929, he had married Estelle Oldham Franklin, a girlfriend who had turned her back on him 11 years earlier. He took a job as a supervisor at the University of Mississippi's power plant. It was night work and consisted of firing the boilers with coal until about 11 P.M., when the students went to bed. There was no more work to do until 4 A.M., so each night Faulkner wrote a chapter or more of As I Lay Dying on a wheelbarrow he had turned into a desk.
A quarter century later, Faulkner recalled the experience: -
Sometimes technique charges in and takes command of the dream before the writer himself can get his hands on it. That is tour de force and the finished work is simply a matter of fitting bricks neatly together, since the writer knows probably every single word right to the end before he puts the first one down. This happened with As I Lay Dying. It was not easy. No honest work is. It was simple in that all the material was already at hand. It took me just about six weeks.... -
Faulkner took the novel's title from a line in Homer's Odyssey: "As I lay dying the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyelids for me as I descended into Hades." The line is spoken by the dead King Agamemnon. Odysseus meets him in the underworld and is moved by his story. The king had been killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. As he died, Clytemnestra- "the woman with the dog's eyes"- demonstrated her heartlessness by refusing to close his eyes and so ease his descent into the underworld. With Faulkner, you can get into trouble trying to make literal sense of titles. Still, when you finish the novel, you may want to return to the title and try to make your own sense of it.
Once you get into the novel, you should have no trouble enjoying it. "Of all Faulkner's novels," the critic Irving Howe said, "As I Lay Dying is the warmest, the kindliest and most affectionate.... In no other work is he so receptive to people, so ready to take and love them, to hear them out and record their turns of idiom, their melodies of speech."
Faulkner had more than three decades of work ahead of him after he finished As I Lay Dying. In 1930, he began contributing short stories to national magazines. He published thirteen of them in book form in 1931, the year he gained some fame- or notoriety- with Sanctuary.
Unlike Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury failed to reach wide audiences. When As I Lay Dying appeared in October 1930 reviewers generally praised it, even when annoyed. But readers found Faulkner's stream of consciousness techniques hard going and the world of Yoknapatawpha County as foreign as Mars.
In 1932, Faulkner couldn't sell the magazine rights to a more conventional novel, Light in August. So he took a job writing film scripts in Hollywood. He would write films, off and on, for the next 22 years. None of the films was especially memorable. Writing them kept him from his family for long stretches. Yet the movies helped him pay his bills.
He wrote a succession of fine novels after Light in August- Pylon (1935), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and The Unvanquished (1938) among them. During most of the 1940s, however, it was hard to find any of his novels in bookstores.
The Nobel Prize for Literature he won in 1950 changed all that. His publishers put his books back in print. And although his great creative period had ended in 1938, even the weaker novels he now wrote sold well.
Faulkner died of a heart attack in 1962, a little more than 32 years after he wrote As I Lay Dying. Some years before he died, he recalled the goal he had in mind when he wrote the novel: "I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again."
As his reader, you are the final judge of his effort. Did he succeed in his aim of writing a book that his reputation could rest on?
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