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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMESWilliam Faulkner once said that The Sound and the Fury began with a picture in his mind. Four children, a girl and three boys, are playing in a stream near their house. They have been told to stay outdoors, although they don't know why. In fact, their grandmother, who has been very sick, has died, and the grownups are holding a funeral. The girl, more adventurous than her brothers, climbs a tree to catch a better view of what's going on in the house. Watching her from below, the boys notice that she has gotten her underpants muddy.
Why was that image- which appears in Benjy's section of The Sound and the Fury-so vivid to Faulkner? Perhaps it reminded him of an important incident in his own life. Like Candace Compson ("Caddy" for short), Faulkner had three brothers. And like the Compson children, Faulkner called his own grandmother "Damuddy." She was his mother's mother and died when he was small.
The Sound and the Fury is not the story of Faulkner's life. But it contains many places and people Faulkner knew. Jefferson, where the Compsons live, is much like Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Like the Compsons, the Falkners (an ancestor had dropped the "u" from the original family name, but William Faulkner put it back) were one of the oldest and most distinguished families in town. Faulkner's mother, like Mrs. Compson, came from a family that was not quite as distinguished, and she never forgot it. But Faulkner's father, like Mr. Compson, was a hard-drinking, bitter man, who couldn't live up to his family's past.
Family, place, and past. These things were most important to William Faulkner. After he was five years old, he and his parents lived only a few blocks away from his grandfather's home, The Big Place. Faulkner's grandfather was a successful lawyer and businessman. Townspeople called him the "Young Colonel" even though he had never served in the army. Faulkner's great-grandfather- like the Compson children's grandfather- fought in he Civil War. Nicknamed the "Old Colonel," he commanded the Partisan Rangers, guerrillas who attacked Northern troops behind their lines. The Old Colonel wrote novels, too. One of them, a murder mystery called The White Rose of Memphis, was a bestseller.
So it isn't surprising that when the Young Colonel's oldest son became the father of a boy, he gave him the Old Colonel's first name (William) and the Young Colonel's middle name (Cuthbert): William Cuthbert Falkner. Although the Old Colonel had been dead for eight years when his namesake was born in 1897, he was still alive in the memories of Oxford and of the Falkner family. No wonder that when his third-grade teacher asked Billy Falkner what he wanted to be when he grew up, the boy replied, "I want to be a writer like my great-grand-daddy."
Their pride in the Old Colonel made the Civil War very real to the Falkner family. The war still affected everyone else in Oxford, too, even though it had ended in 1865. Its most important effect was on relations between blacks and whites. As a result of the Civil War, black slaves were freed, but most got little more than freedom. They generally could find work only in white people's fields or as servants in white homes. Except for a few years right after the war, they could not vote. Segregation laws, passed only a few years before Faulkner was born, prevented black children from attending school with whites, or from riding the same railroad cars or entering the same churches or stores. So, although many blacks lived in Oxford, the only ones young Faulkner knew were his family's servants. The housekeeper, Caroline Barr, was a second mother to Faulkner and his brothers, who called her Mammy Callie. She served as the model for Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was a quiet, dreamy boy. Despite his interest in reading and writing poetry, he dropped out of high school. His only real friend was Estelle Oldham, and he was sure they would marry some day. But Estelle's family wanted her to marry a graduate of the University of Mississippi. Although Estelle loved Faulkner, she gave in to her parents' wishes.
Estelle's marriage affected Faulkner deeply. He decided to join the Army in 1917, just as the United States entered World War I. But the Army rejected him because he was too short. Pretending to be British- that's why he put the "u" back in the family name- Faulkner talked his way into the Royal Air Force and was sent in 1918 to Toronto, Canada, for training. The war ended before he even flew a plane. However, Faulkner came back to Oxford with a slight British accent and a limp he called a battle injury. He then enrolled as a special student at the University of Mississippi, taking courses in English and French literature.
Eventually, Faulkner dropped out of college, too, and took odd jobs to support himself while he wrote poetry. Many of his poems were about Estelle, who by now had children and lived in the Far East. Encouraged by a friend, Faulkner sent his poems to magazines, and they began to be published. He lived briefly in New York, where he worked in a bookstore. But the city he liked best was New Orleans. He spent time there, getting to know other writers and artists, and wrote Soldiers' Pay, his first novel, there.
During the 1920s, many American writers went to live in Paris, where they could live cheaply and be part of the exciting experiments there in writing and painting. The American writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald lived there. So did James Joyce, the great Irish novelist. Joyce pioneered a new technique of writing called stream-of-consciousness. Instead of describing what a character was thinking, like most novelists, Joyce put the character's actual thought process on paper. Joyce's approach had great influence on Faulkner, who spent 1925-26 in Paris and traveling around Europe. Then Faulkner returned to Oxford and to New Orleans and continued writing.
By now Faulkner had turned thirty and hadn't yet established himself as a writer. He had published several novels, but they hadn't sold well. Neither Estelle Oldham nor another woman he'd loved had wanted to marry him. He could barely earn a living. But within a couple of years, his life turned around. In 1929, Estelle divorced her husband and married Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury, his fourth novel, was published later in the year and some people called it a masterpiece. Magazines began to buy Faulkner's stories, and with the proceeds he bought an old mansion, which he called Rowan Oak. He lived there with Estelle, the two children of her first marriage, and several black servants. Faulkner and Estelle's own daughter, Jill, was born in 1933.
Faulkner's novels continued to receive good reviews, but he couldn't make enough money from the books to support his family. So he followed a number of other American writers to Hollywood to work on film scripts. Faulkner never liked Hollywood, but he made enough money there to pay for life at Rowan Oak. Faulkner's reputation continued to grow, and some people said he was one of the best American writers. In 1950 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, probably the highest award for a writer. Faulkner was only the second American to be so honored. Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbit and Main Street, had been the first.
In the 1950s, black Americans, especially in the South, stepped up their struggle for the civil rights so long denied them. At first, Faulkner supported them. As you can tell from reading The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner respected black people. Dilsey keeps the Compson family together, and she and her sons are both stronger and warmer than the white people in the novel. In some of his other books, like Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, Faulkner even said that the guilt for slavery was a curse that would destroy white Southerners.
As the years went by and the civil rights movement achieved some success, however, Faulkner backed away. He said blacks deserved equal rights in American society but needed time to prepare for them. He advised black leaders to move slowly. He wrote that Mississippians should integrate their schools voluntarily, because integration was right. But if the government forced them to admit black children, he would resist. Not surprisingly, black leaders were disappointed in Faulkner, and black writers denounced him. Yet, Faulkner gave some of his Nobel Prize money to local black schools, and he sent several black youngsters from Oxford to college in the North. He was capable of helping individual blacks but couldn't understand why blacks would need a political movement to win their rights.
Faulkner died in 1962, following a fall from a horse, although the long-term cause of death was his lifelong alcoholism. He never saw the bloodiest years of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi nor the movement's eventual triumph. -
Faulkner left a great body of work, which included 19 novels, and is considered one of America's foremost writers. He said that The Sound and the Fury was the book that caused him "the most grief and anguish," and his feeling for it resembled that of "the mother [who] loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest." Perhaps because The Sound and the Fury drew so heavily on emotions associated with his own childhood, its writing opened floodgates in Faulkner. Afterwards "I said to myself, now I can write," he recalled.
And write he did. Most readers believe Faulkner's earliest novels- Soldiers' Pay, Mosquitoes, and, to a lesser extent, Sartoris- are much less interesting than the ones that followed The Sound and the Fury. In the year after he finished it, he completed two other novels, Sanctuary and As I Lay Dying. (Although Sanctuary was written first, it was not published until 1931, a year after As I Lay Dying.) Sanctuary, a dark, bitter novel about corruption and the middle-class hypocrisy that supports it, was the first of Faulkner's books to gain wide popular attention. Sanctuary resembles The Sound and the Fury in its pessimism and identification of female sexuality with evil. As I Lay Dying resembles The Sound and the Fury in other ways. It, too, is the story of a family- the Bundrens, poor Jefferson people attempting to bury the mother. Like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying is technically brilliant, using several narrators to tell its story. Only a year after the publication of Sanctuary, Faulkner completed Light in August. A story of emotional isolation, set in Faulkner's imaginary Yoknapatawpha County like The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, and As I Lay Dying, Light in August focuses on racial problems.
The publication of Light in August marked the end of Faulkner's first creative period. Later books like Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses further explore the South. The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion feature the Snopes family, which took over the town of Jefferson as old families like the Compsons disappeared. Many readers believe that Faulkner stopped writing great novels in the late 1930s. His later books- less pessimistic, more humorous- are also seen as less creative and profound. The Sound and the Fury may or may not be Faulkner's best novel- readers disagree about this. But almost all readers say it is his first great novel.
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