Considering William Faulkner’s canonical status today, it is hard to fathom that in 1944, in the middle of his writing life, all but one of his novels were out of print. Six years later, he won the Nobel Prize, in no small part because of the 1946 publication of Malcolm Cowley’s The Portable Faulkner and the championing of this quintessentially American writer’s work by such European masters as Sartre and Camus.
Faulkner died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death, Modern Library is reissuing six classic Faulkner works in handsome new hardcover editions. Four of these feature new forewords by authors like E.L. Doctorow (As I Lay Dying), Marilynne Robinson (The Sound and the Fury), John Jeremiah Sullivan (Absalom, Absalom!) and C.E. Morgan (Light in August). There is also a single-volume edition of the Snopes trilogy (comprising The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion) and Selected Short Stories.
All of the novels are set in what Cowley called “Faulkner’s mythical kingdom,” the northern Mississippi county that the writer called Yoknapatawpha, which was modeled on real-life Jefferson County. To revisit these books—or read them for the first time—is to be submerged in a literary world that is unique to Faulkner, although many later writers have tried to emulate it: multiple voice narratives, intricately told. What the critic George Garrett says of the Snopes trilogy is true of all of Faulkner’s best work: It is about storytelling itself, “how stories come to be and come to us and how the sum and substance of them become our history; how history is made.” Doctorow suggests that “Faulkner’s greatest work has behind it the overreaching desire to hold together in one place the multifarious energies of real unstoried life.”
This complex, distinctly Southern writer changed the way we think about storytelling.
Faulkner’s work, of course, is distinctly Southern, and though he traveled far afield, and lived for a time in Paris, New York and, perhaps most famously, Hollywood (where he worked on the screenplay adaptations of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Chandler’s The Big Sleep), in his writing he always returns home. For those seeking more about the man, the seminal work on his life is Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner: A Biography. Jay Parini’s One Matchless Time looks at the life and work to better understand “what it meant for him to invent himself as a southern writer of universal significance.” Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner by Philip Weinstein explores the writer’s pervasive sense of failure and embattled sense of self. Selected Letters of William Faulkner is out of print, but Thinking of Home, a collection of youthful letters to his parents, is still available.
With prose that can be elliptical and densely wrought, Faulkner demands much from the reader. As a result, these days many outside academia may shy away from his masterful work. But, as Garrett points out, Faulkner is not intrinsically “hard” to read. The intensity and complexity of his work “invites the reader to deeper engagement in the experience of the story.” As readers, as humans, we crave good stories, and there has certainly never been a storyteller with a more sweeping, and at same time more penetrating, vision than William Faulkner.