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William Faulkner

William Cuthbert Faulkner, né Falkner, was named after his great-grandfather William Clark Falkner, “The Old Colonel,” a Confederate veteran, the namesake of Falkner, Mississippi, and the author of The White Rose of Memphis (1881), a murder mystery set on a steamboat. But William Clark Falkner’s son, John Wesley Thompson Falkner, “The Young Colonel”—a lawyer about whom it was said, “If you want to kill somebody, kill him Saturday night, call Johnnie on Sunday, and he’ll get you off”—insisted that the newborn be given another middle name, because “Father hated ‘Clark.’” So the newborn was christened “Cuthbert,” after his father, Murry Cuthbert Falkner, whom everyone called Buddy. The child was called Willie by his parents and Mimmie by the family’s servant Caroline Barr (likely an inspiration for The Sound and the Fury’s Dilsey Gibson), and Willie in turn referred to Barr as Mammy Callie. His nickname for his grandmother Leila Butler was Damuddy, and Damuddy’s father-in-law, Captain Charles G. Butler, was the man who surveyed and laid out Oxford, Mississippi, the seat of Lafayette County, which Faulkner would fictionalize as Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha, respectively.

The young Falkner was rejected by the U.S. Army during World War I for being too short. In an attempt to join the Canadian Royal Air Force, he began speaking with an English accent, claimed to have been born in the Finchley district of Middlesex, sent in letters of reference from the invented clergyman Reverend Mr. Edward Twimberly-Thorndyke, and added a u to his last name. The ruse worked: He was accepted as a private, and though he never fought in the war, he regaled his family nonetheless with tales of adventure and derrings-do: in celebration of the armistice, he told his brother Jack, he “took up a rotary-motored Spad with a crock of bourbon in the cockpit, gave diligent attention to both, and executed some reasonably adroit chandelles, an Immelman or two, and part of what could easily have turned out to be a nearly perfect loop.” Faulkner’s wartime fantasies were later translated into his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay (1926), which his father neglected to read and his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, refused to accept a donated copy of into its library. It received a warmer reception outside his hometown, from the New York Times, The Literary Review, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other news outlets.

The Sound and the Fury was published three years later, and As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and The Unvanquished (1938), all set in Yoknapatawpha, were released in quick succession thereafter. It was during this productive decade that his stories first appeared in Harper’s Magazine—eight between 1931 and 1939, several of which were later included in Collected Stories of William Faulkner (1950), for which the author received one of his two National Book Awards (the other was for 1954’s A Fable). “Wash” (February 1934) would be incorporated into the novel Absalom, Absalom! (1936); “Lion” would be reworked as “The Bear”; and “Barn Burning” would serve as inspiration for Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film Burning, along with Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” in which, as in his novel Dance, Dance, Dance (1988), a character reads Faulkner in an airport. The October 1950 centennial edition of the magazine featured Faulkner’s “A Name for the City,” a reworking of which would appear in Requiem for a Nun (1951), now remembered mostly for its summary of his works’ overriding sentiment: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, six years before he received his first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for A Fable) and more than a decade before his second (for 1962’s The Reivers, published a month before his death). The writer, he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust.”

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October 1940

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