It’s the birthday of William Faulkner (books by this author), born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). Faulkner was named for his great-grandfather, a Civil War colonel who’d been killed in a duel, but the family name he inherited was indeed Falkner, spelled with no “u.” He permanently adopted the additional vowel when applying for the Canadian Royal Air Force, believing it made his name look British. Having already been rejected by the U.S. Army Air Corps because of his height of only five feet six inches, he also lied about his birthplace, for good measure, and adopted a phony British accent.
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner was still in training when the First World War ended. This didn’t stop him from returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, the town where he’d grown up, sporting an officer’s uniform and claiming to have a silver plate in his head. He went to Ole Miss for a few semesters as a war veteran, even though he’d never finished high school, but dropped out of that, too.
It was, perhaps, one of the last times Faulkner pretended to be something other than what he was. Of the 19 novels he eventually wrote, 18 were set in the South; 14 of those were set in a fictionalized version of Oxford, the town that he strayed from but always returned to. Many of his characters and their exploits were based on his real-life neighbors and family members — like his great-grandfather.
As much as the rest of the world would always associate Faulkner with the American South, the South didn’t always appreciate his representation; Oxford residents alternated between being angered by recognizable depictions in his fiction and disappointed when they weren’t included. But it might have been Faulkner’s stance on segregation that stirred up the most trouble. He condemned it, putting him at odds even with his own brother, but he also rejected the idea of federal intervention on the issue, putting him at odds with nearly everyone else. The South, he argued, needed time to get used to the idea of integration. When W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Faulkner to a debate on the topic in 1956, Faulkner declined, saying, “I do not believe there is a debatable point between us. We both agree in advance that the position you will take is right morally, legally, and ethically.” Faulkner believed that a slow and moderate approach to integration was simply a matter of practicality.
He said, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write about these things. … 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.”
He also said: “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago and, like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: he made the books, and he died.” His obituaries, when they were written upon his death in 1962, were substantially longer. The epitaph on his grave doesn’t mention his books. It reads simply, “Belove’d/ Go With God.”