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William Faulkner, Unlikely Nobel Laureate

By Kristin Masters. Sep 25, 2013. 2:25 PM.

Topics: American Literature, Nobel Prize Winners, History

On September 25, 1897, William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi. Despite lacking both college degree and high school diploma, Faulkner established himself as one of America's preeminent authors. The Nobel laureate's life holds a few surprises for most of his readers.

"I'm old fashioned and probably a little mad too: I don't like having my private life and affairs available to just any and everyone who has the price of the vehicle it's printed in, or a friend who bought it and will lend it to him." --William Faulkner

  • Faulkner was born William Cuthbert Falkner. The spelling was changed thanks to an error by Faulkner's employer the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Faulkner used the misspelling when he applied for the Royal Air Force because he believed it sounded more British.

  • The "original" William Falkner was Faulkner's grandfather and namesake, William Clark Falkner. A Civil War veteran, Falkner was known as "Old Colonel" and was himself a bestselling author (The White Rose of Memphis).

  • Estelle Oldham, Faulkner's childhood sweetheart, accepted a marriage proposal by another man in jest--only to be pressed into honoring the obligation when the man actually sent an engagement ring. The couple eventually divorced, and Estelle married Faulkner soon thereafter.

  • After being rejected from the US Army for his diminutive height, Faulkner entered the Royal Air Force by lying on his application and affecting a British accent. He started training in Toronto, but the war ended before he saw combat.

  • Faulkner purchased an officer's coat and a set of wings, though he was certainly never an officer. When he returned to Oxford, Mississippi, he frequently spun yarns about his adventures in the war. At one point he even claimed that an injury left him with a silver plate in his head!

  • After moving to New York City, Faulkner took a job as a postman...but he spent most of his time playing cards and losing people's mail. The postmaster was sent to investigate, and was so appalled that he convinced Faulkner to resign. Faulkner was also forced out of a position as scoutmaster for "moral reasons" (probably drinking).

  • Faulkner fell in with New Orleans' literary crowd in January 1925. The group, which included Sherwood Anderson, was built around The Double Dealer literary magazine, which first published the works of Ernest Hemingway and a number of other prominent writers.

  • Wright's Sanitarium was Faulkner's preferred place to recover from his drinking binges, and he stayed there many times. Though he wasn't an alcoholic, Faulkner would plan drinking binges, particularly after he had finished a new novel.

  • Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying (1930) while working nights at a power plant. He claimed to have written the novel in only six weeks and called it a "tour de force." His motivation? He'd married Estelle and was now responsible for supporting her and her two children.

  • Faulkner also headed to Hollywood to earn more money. He befriended director Howard Hawks; the two shared common interests in hunting and fishing. Of the six films where Faulkner was credited as the screenwriter, five were done with Hawks. 
  • Although today Faulkner is probably best known for The Sound and the Fury (1929), it was never a very popular novel during his lifetime. The rather lurid Sanctuary (1931) would be Faulkner's bestselling novel until he published The Wild Palms in 1939.

  • Faulkner was much more popular in Europe, especially in France, than he was in the United States. Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed, "For the young people in France, Faulkner is a god."

  • In 1949, the Nobel committee could not reach consensus on who should win the prize in literature. The following year, they named Bertrand Russell and Faulkner as corecipients, designating Russell winner of the 1950 prize and Faulkner as winner of the 1949 award.

  • Faulkner had no desire to go to Stockholm and accept the Nobel Prize. He did so only after pressure from the US State Department. Faulkner delivered his acceptance speech with such speed, and in such mumbled tones, that no one recognized its brilliance until the transcript was published.

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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