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William Faulkner:
Frequently Asked Questions

And let them [ask] anything. I think that if you try to rehease the question first, it's not too good. Whether it seems frivolous to you or not, ask it. We'll take the gloves off.
-----William Faulkner

Do you have a question about William Faulkner? Wondering about his war record? Curious about his drinking habits? Intrigued/Confused/Confounded by his style of writing? The answer to your question may be here. And if it's not, I invite you to send me your Faulkner-related question.

ATTENTION, STUDENTS CONDUCTING RESEARCH: Please read this notice.

Biographical questions

  1. Was Faulkner’s name really “Falkner,” without the “u”?
  2. Was Faulkner a distinguished aviator in World War I?
  3. How did the residents of Oxford regard Faulkner?
  4. When did Faulkner buy Rowan Oak, and what does the name mean?
  5. Was Faulkner an alcoholic?
  6. Did Faulkner cheat on his wife?
  7. Did Faulkner fail English?
  8. What awards did Faulkner receive for his writing?
  9. Who is Phil Stone, and what role does he play in Faulkner’s career as a writer?
  10. How did author Sherwood Anderson contribute to Faulkner’s writing career?
  11. Did Faulkner consider Ernest Hemingway his rival?

Literary questions

  1. Is Yoknapatawpha a real word, or did Faulkner make it up?
  2. How many novels are set in Yoknapatawpha County?
  3. How much of Faulkner’s personal life did he incorporate into his fiction?
  4. Of all his novels, which did Faulkner like the best?
  5. Did Faulkner invent stream of consciousness?
  6. What are the major themes in Faulkner’s fiction?

Pop Cultural questions

  1. Is the alcoholic Southern writer depicted in the Coen Brothers’ movie Barton Fink based on Faulkner, and is it an accurate portrayal?
  2. What are some other major allusions to Faulkner in stage and screen?

Miscellaneous questions

  1. How do the “corrected text” editions of Faulkner’s fiction differ from other versions?
  2. I think I might be kin to Faulkner. How can I check that out?
  3. What is the relationship of the PEN/Faulkner Awards to William Faulkner?

Was Faulkner’s name really “Falkner,” without the “u”?

When he was born, William Faulkner’s last name was “Falkner”; at some point, however, he changed its spelling to “Faulkner.” Several stories account for the change — one claims that it was a typographical error on publication of one of his early works, but the more likely story seems to be that he spelled it “Faulkner” when he joined the Royal Air Force in Canada during World War I, after having been rejected from the U.S. Army because of his size. Faulkner apparently thought the alternate spelling looked more British. One psychological theory holds that Faulkner added the “u” as a subtle way of asserting his independence, both creative and biographical, from his predecessors, in particular his great-grandfather and namesake, William Clark Falkner, who loomed in the family as a larger-than-life figure — and who was himself a best-selling novelist in his day.

Is Yoknapatawpha a real word, or did Faulkner make it up?

It was once more or less assumed that “Yoknapatawpha” was a word coined by Faulkner, but more recently, scholars have noted that the word apparently comes from Chickasaw words meaning “split land.” According to Faulkner, the word means “slow water running through the flatland.” The Yocona River — an actual river in Lafayette County, Mississippi, where Faulkner lived—is an abridged form of “Yoknapatawpha.” Early maps of the area called the river “Yockney-Patafa.”

Was Faulkner a distinguished aviator in World War I?

In a word, no. When he was allegedly turned away from joining the U.S. Army, he joined the Royal Air Force in Canada and was in flight training, but the war ended before Faulkner finished his training. During his period with the RAF, he never left North America, so obviously, he never flew in combat. However, throughout his life Faulkner enjoyed assuming various roles, and so when he returned home to Oxford in December 1918, wearing a lieutenant’s uniform and wings to which he was not militarily entitled, he relished playing the role of disaffected war veteran. Perhaps as a precursor to the fictions he would later devote to paper, he also apparently enjoyed spinning yarns about his “distinguished” flying career, one of which concerned a mysterious injury which required a plate to be surgically implanted in his head. Faulkner’s tall tales about his flying career came back to haunt him later, especially when Malcolm Cowley was assembling The Portable Faulkner. When Cowley requested biographical information about Faulkner’s RAF career, Faulkner wrote, “You’re going to bugger up a fine dignified distinguished book with that war business.” Faulkner recommended that Cowley write only a brief “Who’s Who” account: “Was a member of the RAF in 1918.”

How much of Faulkner’s personal life did he incorporate into his fiction?

A great deal. Much of Faulkner’s own family history makes its way into the fiction, just as places and events in his fiction seem patterned on real-life places and events in Oxford. The characters of Col. John Sartoris and Thomas Sutpen, for example, are based in part on Faulkner’s great-grandfather and namesake, William Clark Falkner. Like Sutpen, William Clark Falkner ran away from home at the age of fourteen with the intent of making his fortune. Like Sartoris, Falkner was a colonel in the Civil War until his troops voted to remove him; he returned to Mississippi, raised a local regiment, and continued fighting. After the war, he started a railroad just as Sartoris did, and like Sartoris was gunned down by his former business partner. The Sartoris Bank has its roots in the First National Bank of Oxford, which was instituted by Faulkner grandfather, J.W.T. Falkner. In addition to his family history, Faulkner also relied heavily upon the history, traditions, and landscape of his region when writing his fiction. His apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for most of his fiction, is based largely on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he lived.

How did the residents of Oxford regard Faulkner?

For a long time, Oxford residents seemed to regard Faulkner as a kind of harmless eccentric — one nickname he was known by was “the Count” because of his apparent haughtiness. Later, the nickname expanded to “Count No-Count,” alluding to his apparent shiftlessness. When he began writing the great novels, most Oxford residents barely noticed — but at least one novel did pique their interest as well as their ire. The best-seller Sanctuary infuriated Oxford residents, who felt Faulkner was maligning their community and painting a distorted picture of Oxford.

When did Faulkner buy Rowan Oak, and what does the name mean?

Faulkner bought the house in 1930, but the history of the house dates back to the early history of Oxford, when it was built by Robert Shegogg around 1848. The architecture of the house was not unique in Oxford; several houses built from the same design are in fact still standing in Oxford today. When Faulkner bought the house, it was virtually dilapidated; Faulkner continued to renovate the house for years afterward. The name alludes to the legend of the Rowan tree recorded in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough; according to the story, Scottish peasants placed a cross of Rowan wood over their thresholds to ward off evil spirits and give the occupants a place of refuge, privacy, and peace.

Was Faulkner an alcoholic?

It depends on your definition of alcoholism. He apparently did not have a physical dependence upon it. He could, and often did, go long periods without drinking, sometimes for months. Faulkner was, however, a binge drinker; his drinking binges lasted for days, or sometimes weeks, and his habit was to continue drinking until he passed out. His drinking did cause hurt and injury both to himself — such as when he was badly burned by a radiator while passed out during a binge in New York City — to those around him. Often, his binges would come after he had finished a writing project — he seldom drank when he was actually writing.

Is the alcoholic Southern writer depicted in the movie Barton Fink based on Faulkner, and is it an accurate portrayal?

The Southern writer in the movie Barton Fink (played by John Mahoney, who went on to play Martin Crane on the NBC television show Frasier) does bear some relationship to the real-life Faulkner, who did “whore” himself by going to Hollywood and writing screenplays to earn enough money to live. Like Faulkner, the movie character drinks a great deal and has an affair while in Hollywood — but ultimately, the movie version is a caricature of Faulkner. The title character in Barton Fink also shares some characteristics with Faulkner: like Faulkner upon his first trip to Hollywood, Fink’s first assignment was to write a “wrestling picture” starring Wallace Beery.

The Coen Brothers, who wrote and directed Barton Fink, seem to like to inject Faulkner references in their films. In Raising Arizona, the escaped convicts (played by John Goodman and XXX) are the Snopes brothers, and in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Penny’s fiancee, Vernon T. Waldrip, is the name of a character referred to in The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]. And some viewers have even noted a Faulkner reference in the Coen Brothers’ bowling movie, The Big Lebowski: as in the short story “Barn Burning,” a key plot point centers on the issue of a soiled rug.

Did Faulkner cheat on his wife?

In a word, yes. While in Hollywood, Faulkner started a relationship with Meta Carpenter, a secretary for his friend and colleague Howard Hawks, with whom Faulkner usually worked. She was a native of Mississippi, and in fact she had met Faulkner many years before while passing through Oxford. Their relationship lasted for nearly twenty years. Later, Faulkner also had an affair with Joan Williams, a young writer whom he considered a protégé.

What awards did Faulkner receive for his writing?

The most prestigious awards, of course, are the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received for the year 1949 (but which he did not actually receive until 1950), and the two Pulitzer Prizes for A Fable and The Reivers. In addition, he won numerous other awards, especially late in his career. Several of his short stories won awards, such as the O. Henry Short Story Prize.

How many novels are set in Yoknapatawpha County?

Of the nineteen novels published during Faulkner’s lifetime, all but five are set in Yoknapatawpha County. The five and their settings are

In addition to the novels, most of his short stories are also set in Yoknapatawpha County.

Did Faulkner fail English?

It has become something of a trend to discover some ironic fault or failing among geniuses, perhaps the most common of which is Albert Einstein's trouble with algebra. Faulkner, too, exhibits a few such ironic shortcomings. For instance, he never graduated high school — his final months of high school were mainly for athletics (he was quarterback of his high school football team). To my knowledge, however, he never "failed" English. Perhaps the source of this particular legend is from Faulkner’s brief stint as a "special student" at Ole Miss — following World War I, veterans were being allowed to enroll at the university even without the required high school units. In all he was enrolled for only three semesters, from September 1919 to November 1920, and after his first semester, his grades were an A in French, a B in Spanish, and a D in English. However, it is possible that the D was undeserved — according to Faulkner’s uncle, he once received a 99 on an English test which had in error been recorded to Faulkner’s brother Jack, who like Faulkner was enrolled as a returning war veteran. If it was an error, however, Faulkner never bothered having it changed, saying the real benefit from the class was not in the test grade but in his head.

Who is Phil Stone, and what role does he play in Faulkner’s career as a writer?

Phil Stone, four years older than Faulkner, can rightly be considered Faulkner’s first literary mentor. Educated at Ole Miss and Harvard, and pursuing a law degree from Yale University, Stone took the young poetry writer under his wing and

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How to cite this page (MLA style):

Padgett, John B. “William Faulkner: Frequently Asked Questions.” William Faulkner on the Web. 17 August 2006. 26 November 2014 <http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/wf-faq.html>.

This page was last modified on Thursday, August 17, 2006, at 03:21 PM CDT.
Copyright © 1995 – 2006 by John B. Padgett.
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