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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s most influential and honored writers: William Faulkner, who lived in Oxford, Mississippi, almost all his life.
Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, but his family soon moved to Oxford, and it gave him the world that would make up his great novels. He left Mississippi briefly in World War I. Though he was rejected by the U.S. Army because he was too short, he managed to join the British Royal Air Force in Canada. But the war ended before he could get to Europe.
He pretended it hadn’t and made up tales portraying himself as a war hero with harrowing experiences of battle and valor. He sported a mustache in those years, affected a British accent, and changed the spelling of his name–adding a “u” to Falkner. His friends recognized him as a great storyteller.
EMILY WHITEHURST STONE: (1979) Bill told some of his lies. He told one about how when he was in Canada training for flight. He–something happened to the airplane–anyway he landed upside down inside the hangar, even though I had heard this story. And he said, “Did you ever try to drink a bottle of whiskey when you were sitting upside down in the top of a hangar?” We were just agog–we little country girls–and he said, “Well, that’s what happened.” He said, “I died.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In 1924, he went to New Orleans, planning to work for a newspaper. Instead, he met the writer Sherwood Anderson and began publishing verse and criticism in The Double Dealer, an experimental magazine. A year later he was back in Oxford, and now he began to write about it. He was paying very close attention to how people around him thought and talked and was registering their experiences for his own work.
His first book, a collection of poems, had been published in 1924. Two well-received novels followed, and by the late 20′s he was at work on the four-generation saga of the doomed Sartoris family. Perhaps his greatest creation was the place they lived–Yoknapatawpha County. It was the Chickasaw word for the Yikona River that ran south of Oxford. And in dozens of novels and stories Yoknapatawpha was the background for the intertwining, often violent experiences of rogues and rednecks, farmers and soldiers, whites, blacks, and mulattos, people of all ages and backgrounds. Their stories make up what Faulkner called the tragic fable of Southern history.
“The only subject worth the agony and sweat of the artist,” he once said, “is the human heart in conflict with itself.” He shunned literary circles in big cities and isolated himself with his family in Oxford, placing stories in Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post, and publishing novels like Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Oxford, he was considered eccentric. He drank heavily and some called him “Count No Account” because of his arrogant behavior. Writer Shelby Foote remembered him in a 1979 interview.
SHELBY FOOTE: He came to Oxford in the late 30′s say and that on the square you ask someone where William Faulkner lived, he would be apt to turn his head and spit. The town resented sanctuary, for instance, when Faulkner was known as a corn cob man. And they thought he was sullying the atmosphere.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because his books weren’t big sellers for most of his career Faulkner was very poor. To pay the bills in the 30′s and 40′s he sometimes reluctantly went to Hollywood and worked as a screenwriter. In 1949, MGM made feature film of his novel Intruder in the Dust. It was shot in Oxford, and the townspeople who did not generally support his writing came out in droves to be extras in his film.
By 1945, all of the novels Faulkner had written up to then were out of print. Then a year later the Portable Faulkner was published, and he began to get wide acclaim.
In 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the acceptance ceremony he said, “Writers have a special responsibility.”
WILLIAM FAULKNER: it is privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man; it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
In 1955 he won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. Late in life Faulkner seemed overwhelmed by his achievement. As complex as the characters he created, often troubled and lonely, he had not been aware in his most creative years of the significance of what he was doing.
In 1953, he wrote a friend, “Now, I realize for the first time what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even literate let alone literary companions, yet to have made the things that I made. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why God or gods, or whoever it was, elected me to be the vessel. Believe me, this is not humility, false modesty: It is simply amazement.” William died in 1962.