This great literary writer also wrote mysteries
William Faulkner (1897-1962) was a titan of American Literature and is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, two Pulitzer Prizes, and a National Book Award. His works have been studied and critiqued among literati, college professors, and high school English teachers, and his works have inspired several modern-day writers. He also wrote memorable short stories, was fairly good as a sketch artist, and fairly bad as a poet. What is little known about Faulkner is that he also wrote mysteries and he incorporated mysteries into some of his most famous literary works which ranged from the burlesque to the epic.
He was born William Cuthbert Falkner in New Albany, Mississippi. Prior to his fifth birthday, the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi where he lived the rest of his life. He changed his surname to Faulkner in 1918 apparently because a typesetter had inserted a “u” into his last name on the title page of his first book. He was asked if he wanted it changed but said, “Either way suits me.”
“A Failed Poet”
When he was barely old enough to vote, Faulkner set out to be a poet. He wrote fourteen love poems, Vision in Spring (1921),which he hand bound and gave to his fiancée, Estelle Oldham. His daughter recovered them years later and they were published by the University of Texas Press in 1984. That was followed by The Marble Faun (Four Seas Company, 1924), a title he borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorn, which contained a collection of poems about nature. His poetry showed sparks of greatness but was mostly panned. He considered himself “a failed poet.”
In a 1956 interview in The Paris Review, Faulkner said “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
Hooray for Hollywood
In the early 1930s and 1940s, Faulkner made nearly a dozen trips to Hollywood where he worked as a studio scriptwriter but kept honing his craft as a short story writer and novelist. He needed the money as the income allowed him freedom to continue working on his novels.
He had secured a $500 per week contract (the equivalent of $8,000 today) to write scripts for MGM. At the same time, he learned his publisher, Cape & Smith, was bankrupt. He had planned on earning $4,000 (about $64,000 in today’s money) for his sixth novel Sanctuary (1931). Unfortunately, he would never see it. He realized he was broke when he tried to write a check for three dollars at a sporting goods store in Oxford and the owner told him he’d rather have cash. Faulkner couldn’t even afford to send a wire to say he’d accept MGM’s offer. Fortunately, the studio learned of his plight and advanced him cash to pay for his train ticket to Los Angeles.
When he arrived in Hollywood, Faulkner spent the first four weeks writing four film story treatments. Director Howard Hawks liked his writing and purchased one of Faulkner’s short stories “Turnabout” that had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (March 1932). Hawks asked Faulkner to adapt the story into a script. When Faulkner turned it in, Hawks said, “It was one of the finest scripts I’ve ever read.” The film was made as Today We Live (1933) about two WWI officers who compete for the same woman. It starred Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, and Robert Young. Faulkner wrote the script in five days but when Irving Thalberg, vice president of MGM, insisted that Crawford be written into the script because of her $500,000 salary, Faulkner started the first of many rewrites and received credit only for dialogue. Edith Fitzgerald and Dwight Taylor were credited as the screenwriters.
One day, while strolling Hollywood Boulevard, Faulkner entered a bookstore and asked the clerk if they had any books by William Faulkner. “No,” the clerk replied. “Faulkner doesn’t sell well, and most of his stuff is out of print anyway.”
Faulkner then collaborated with Jules Furthman to adapt Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), a tale of rumrunners and bank robbers in Cuba and the Florida Keys. Produced in 1944, the film was the first to feature Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Later, Faulkner again joined up with Furthman and Leigh Brackett, to adapt Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), a mystery featuring the hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. The film was released in 1946 starring Bogart and Bacall. Film critic Roger Ebert included the noir film in his list of “Greatest Movies” and said, “Working from Chandler’s original words and adding spins of their own, (Faulkner, Furthman and Brackett) wrote one of the most quotable of screenplays; it’s unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it’s so wickedly clever.”
While working on The Big Sleep in 1945, Faulkner began writing a murder mystery of his own—Intruder in the Dust (Random House, 1948) featuring his attorney protagonist Gavin Stevens. The plot revolves around a Black farmer accused of murdering a white man. Stevens, two teenage boys, and an elderly woman solve the murder. Four years later, MGM purchased the film rights for $50,000. The story was shot in Oxford and the film’s world premiere was held there in 1949. Faulkner said he wasn’t much of a moviegoer, “but I did see that one. I thought it was a fine job.” The New York Times rated the film one of the year’s ten best and film historian Donald Bogle said, the film “broke new ground in the cinematic portrayal of blacks.”
A Mixed Bag of Mystery Short Stories
The same year he won the Nobel Prize, Faulkner published a collection of six mystery short stories in which he introduced his attorney Gavin Stevens. All the stories take place in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. That county would appear prominently in most of his famous novels and is based on Lafayette County, where his hometown of Oxford resides.
His mystery stories were published in Harper’s (“Smoke”April 1932), Scribner’s (“Monk” May 1937), Saturday Evening Post (“Hand Upon the Waters, November 1939 and “Tomorrow,” November 1940), and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (“An Error in Chemistry,” June 1946), and Knight’s Gambit (1942) which was originally rejected by Harper’s and revised for the collection bearing the same title.
Curtis Evans who blogs at The Passing Tram: Wandering through the mystery genre, book by book, said, “First, half the stories (in Knight’s Gambit) are not even really detective, or even mystery, stories. Second, one of the three that is a mystery/detective story is not very good. The remaining two, ‘Smoke’ and ‘An Error in Chemistry’ are great.” The latter, “Error” has been compared to Agatha Christie’s style in which intuition solves the mystery.
Crime, Mystery and Suspense
Throughout his literary career, Faulkner would often return to crime, mystery, and suspense as key elements in his themes.
His novel, Sanctuary is basically a crime story and his most controversial because the plot concerns the rape and abduction of a well-bred Mississippi college girl. This novel was Faulkner’s commercial and critical breakthrough. He called it a “potboiler” and admitted he wrote the sensational novel for financial gain and not because of any internal passion. He wrote the first draft in three weeks and was forced to tone down certain elements after his publisher read the original. Reviewers called the book “horrific” but labeled him as a “very talented writer.”
Quoting Evans again, “Sanctuary…had a great impact on American crime writing, with its unsparing and for the first time quite explicit combination of violence, sex, and violent sex…It’s visceral stuff indeed.”
After the book was released and because of its lurid scenes, the local administrators of the Boy Scouts removed Faulkner as head of his troop. Time magazine said, “The horrors of any ghost story pale beside the ghastly realism of this chronicle.” Another reviewer called his novel “a detective story with overtones of Greek tragedy.”
In the novel, Light in August (Smith & Haas, 1932),Faulkner employs crime and violent death. His style was considered Southern gothic with a focus on mystery and horror. While this is not considered Faulkner’s best novel, it was moderately successful with four printings by the end of the year. Despite the novel’s dark themes, it was viewed positively for its contrast to the predominately sentimental and romantic Southern literature of the time.
In Absalom, Absalom!(Random House, 1936) Faulkner’s ninth novel mixes fact, legend, and myth, before during and after the Civil War telling the story from three different points of view. The story also features miscegenation, incest, and two murders.
One of the novel’s characters, Quentin, pieces together the varied and conflicting accounts to reconstruct the truth. He’s assisted by his Harvard roommate, Shreve, a “Dr. Watson” type character. One critic said Absalom, Absalom! “belongs to the detective mystery genre, employing an intricately complex and suspenseful plot of a murder frame-up and its consequences.”
In 1936, when Faulkner’s novel was published, America was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That same year, Margaret Mitchell published her historical novel, Gone With The Wind (Macmillan Publishers). Mitchell’s novel was a romantic love story framed by the social milieu of the South during the Civil War. In contrast, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom’s! focused on rape, incest, and racist terror in the South. American’s overwhelming chose the former over the latter: For example, Absalom, Absalom! sold around ten thousand copies while Gone With the Wind sold more than a million and won the Pulitzer Prize (1937).
In his later years, he suffered three separate falls from a horse and was in constant pain. After his last fall on June 17, 1962, he was admitted to Wright’s Sanitarium in Byhalia, Mississippi. Eight hours later, his heart stopped. He died at the age of 64. He was buried the next day at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford. Calls of condolences arrived from around the world with clamors from the press for comment by family members. The family returned this message: “Until he’s buried he belongs to the family. After that, he belongs to the world.”
Faulkner lived in a small town in the poorest state in the nation, was a high-school dropout, attended the University of Mississippi (UM) after WWI but never finished, was fired from his position as postmaster at UM, for neglecting to forward mail, misdelivered some, threw others in the garbage, and when he refused to open the office, he would spend time inside working on his first book. Ironically, in 1987, the US Postal Service issued a 22-cent stamp in his honor.
Faulkner stood only five feet, six inches tall, but was a giant in American literature.
Today, the bookstores in Hollywood carry Faulkner’s novels.
- In 1926, Faulkner earned $200 (about $3,000 in today’s dollars) for the manuscript of Soldier’s Pay, which was originally titled Mayday. The first print run was 2,500 copies. That novel and his second, Mosquitoes were commercial failures as neither sold more than 1,200 copies. After Faulkner won the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, Soldier’s Pay remained in print. First edition copies are still available among collectors and often sell for upwards of $35,000.
- In 2009, a panel of judges called Absalom, Absalom! the best Southern novel of all time. Interestingly, the novel also holds the Guinness Book of World Records (1983) for the “longest sentence in literature” which contains 1,288 words. The sentence resides in Chapter 6 and begins with the words, “Just exactly like father…”
- Noted later in his career for such great American works as The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936),he was relatively unknown until he received the Nobel Prize in 1949. Two of his novels, A Fable (1954) and The Reivers (1962) each won the Pulitzer Prize. He also won the U.S. National Book Award twice for Collected Stories (1951) and A Fable (1955).
- Regarding his Nobel Prize, Faulkner detested the fame and glory and donated part of his Nobel money to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers. That fund resulted in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He also donated another part of his winnings to an Oxford bank establishing a scholarship fund to help educate African- American teachers at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Are you a Faulkner fan? What did you learn about his story that you didn’t know before?