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William Faulkner
Anecdotes and Trivia


*Prehistory of Faulkner
*A Patriarch's Profession  
*The Old Colonel's Ouster  
*Larger than Life  
*Business Is Hell
*Young Colonel's War Record  
*Bank Builder  
*Career Dreams Dashed  
*Childhood and Adolescence
*Kindling Choppers
 *An Early Start
*Early Adulthood
*Phil Stone  
*Canada Cadet  
*A Plate in His Head
*The Card-Playing Postmaster  
*The Ousted Scoutmaster  
*The Writing Life
*Sherwood Anderson  
*Dark Houses  
*Colored Ink
*A "Cheap Idea"...  
*...But Not Too Cheap  
*Fact and Fiction
*On Eagles' Wings  
*Like a Brother  
*Church Related
*Col. Dickey's Kindness  
*Benjy's Brother?  
*Barton Fink and Bill Faulkner  
*A Mickey Mouse Job  
*Studio Directive
*Clark Who?  
*A "Nobel" Achievement  
*The Butler Did It...Or Did He?  
*The Nobel Prize
*A Timely Award  
*A Farmer in Sweden
*Nothing to Wear  
*Seen, Not Heard  
*The Faulkner Stamp 


A Patriarch's Professions

Faulkner’s great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, died eight years before William Faulkner was born, but nonetheless he dominated the lives of all his descendants. During his life he was, in turns, a Civil War soldier, a planter, a lawyer, a politician, a best-selling novelist (for The White Rose of Memphis), and a railroad entrepreneur.
William Clark Falkner
William Clark Falkner

The Old Colonel's Ouster

W. C. Falkner's nickname was the "Old Colonel," for his rank in the Civil War, and he was commended by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston for his courage in repelling the Union General Irwin McDowell's final assault at the Battle of First Manassas. Nonetheless, he was ousted from command by his troops the following year for being too reckless. Undeterred, Falkner returned to Mississippi and raised a regiment, the First Mississippi Partisan Rangers, to defend his homeland.

Larger than Life

W. C. Falkner had a larger-than-life-size statue made of him in Carrara of Italian marble in expectation that his grateful townspeople would erect it in the town square of Ripley, Mississippi, to commemorate him. The statue — eight feet tall and resting upon a base six feet square and fourteen feet tall — was never erected in the town square as he envisioned. Instead, it rests atop his grave, intact except for the fingers of his right hand, which at some point were shot off.

Business Is Hell

Falkner died in the streets of Ripley in 1889 when his former business partner shot him. Falkner had forced the partner, Richard J. Thurmond, out of his railroad. In the subsequent trial, Thurmond was acquitted.

Young Colonel's War Record

William Faulkner’s grandfather, John Wesley Thompson (J.W.T.) Falkner, was nicknamed the "Young Colonel," out of respect for his father, the "Old Colonel," but the younger Falkner in fact never fought in any war.
J.W.T. Falkner
J.W.T. Falkner

Bank Builder

J.W.T. Falkner, the first Falkner to live in Oxford, founded the First National Bank of Oxford in 1910. The bank is still in operation today.

Career Dreams Dashed

William Faulkner’s father, Murry Falkner, had his career dreams dashed when his father sold the family railroad in 1902. Murry had been working for the railroad in Ripley and had hoped to inherit the railroad from his father, just as his father had inherited it from the Old Colonel. But when Murry went to a banker hoping to secure a loan to buy the railroad, the banker laughed at him, thinking it was a joke that someone would sell something so profitable as a railroad. Offended, Murry stalked out, effectively ending his best chance to save the only job he would ever love.
Murry Falkner
Murry Falkner

Childhood and Adolescence

Kindling Choppers

When Faulkner (then named "Falkner") was born in September 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, he was sick enough most nights that his mother, Maud, would rock him steadily, not in a rocking chair but in a straight kitchen chair, and the sound of the chair's legs could be heard through the open windows. One neighbor said, "Those Falkners sure are the queerest folks. They chop kindlin' all night on the kitchen floor."

An Early Start

Faulkner knew at an early age what he wanted to do with his life. When he entered third grade (after having skipped second) and was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he responded, "I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy."


One of William Faulkner’s most formative experiences happened in 1908 when a black man, Nelse Patton, was lynched on the square in Oxford. A man named McMillan who was in the Oxford jail asked Patton, a trusty at the jail, to take a message to his wife, Mattie. According to reports, Patton made advances upon Mattie, which she refused, and when she reached for a pistol to force him to leave, he slashed her with a razor that nearly took her head off.

      Patton was captured and returned to the jail, and by sundown a crowd numbering in the hundreds had gathered outside. A judge and several ministers had nearly convinced the throng to let justice take its course, but then a friend of J.W.T. Falkner, former U.S. Senator W. V. Sullivan, arrived and harangued the crowd, now numbering nearly 2,000 people. Now a mob, the assembly managed to break into the jail and shot Patton; they then dragged his body out, castrated it, and mutilated the head. They tied a rope around Patton's neck and dragged him behind a car to the square, where they hung his naked body from a tree. The coroner's jury determined that Patton "came to his death from gunshot or pistol wounds inflicted by parties to us unknown."

Early Adulthood

Phil Stone

If any one person is responsible for Faulkner’s emergence as one of the twentieth century's most gifted novelists, that honor would go to Phil Stone. Four years older than Faulkner, Stone first noticed Faulkner in the summer of 1914, after having earned a B.A. from Yale and learning that Faulkner was writing poetry. After he had read Faulkner’s poetry, Stone sensed his potential as a writer and took Faulkner as his protégé, encouraging him in his pursuits and ambitions and instructing him in his many interests, including literature, philosophy, and history.

Canada Cadet

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Faulkner (still spelled "Falkner" at this time) tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps as a pilot. When he was rejected for being too short, he decided to spell his name "Faulkner" and adopted a British persona, even affecting an English accent, hoping to join the Royal Air Force in Canada. He was accepted and reported for duty in Toronto on July 9, 1917.

      Nevertheless, he never flew in combat. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, Cadet Faulkner was stationed at the School of Military Aeronautics in Toronto in the third and final phase of pre-flight training. He returned home to Oxford in December 1918, having never left North America for the skies over Europe.

William Faulkner in 1918
Faulkner in 1918

A Plate in His Head

Even though Faulkner never flew in combat during the war, that didn't prevent him from suggesting that he had. He returned to Oxford in his R.A.F. uniform sporting wings that he had purchased in New York City and with a limp he claimed he had suffered in a crash during training. The tales he told varied — on occasion he claimed he had suffered a skull fracture that had left him with a silver plate in his head and lingering pain, and when listeners assumed that he had incurred his "injuries" in the skies over France, he did little to dissuade their beliefs. Some of his tales of injuries even made it into later biographical notes accompanying his novels.

The Card-Playing Postmaster

Faulkner’s most notorious stint as a working man was his role of postmaster at the University of Mississippi post office, which incredibly he held for nearly three years. By all accounts, he was a terrible postmaster — he would ignore patrons calling at the window, he delayed taking outgoing mail to the train station, and on occasion he even threw away mail. He spent much of his time in the post office writing, and other times he would play bridge and mah-jongg with friends whom he'd appointed as part-time clerks. When a postal inspector came to investigate, Faulkner agreed to resign. Later, Faulkner said about his experience: "I reckon I'll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won't ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who's got two cents to buy a stamp."

The Ousted Scoutmaster

At the same time Faulkner was working as postmaster, he also volunteered as a scoutmaster for the Oxford Boy Scout troop — but he was relieved of his duties because of his drinking.

The Writing Life

Sherwood Anderson

Besides Phil Stone, Faulkner’s other literary mentor was Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio, whom he met in New Orleans in 1925 through Anderson's wife. Anderson encouraged Faulkner in several ways, most notably in his instruction for him to write about the region he knew in Mississippi (see introduction to The Library). Anderson also played a crucial, if hurtful, role in having Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers' Pay published; Anderson agreed to recommend the novel to his publisher, Horace Liveright, if Anderson did not have to read it.

Dark Houses

Faulkner twice used "Dark House" as a working title for a novel in progress, and both times he changed it for a more impressionistic title. The first novel had originally begun with a character named Hightower and his bride arriving at a church in Jefferson. Later, however, Faulkner made another start, "knowing no more about it than a young woman, pregnant, walking along a strange country road." One afternoon in August, Faulkner and his wife Estelle were having a drink on the east gallery of Rowan Oak. Estelle looked across the grass to the bushes, bathed in the afternoon sunlight, and to the sunken garden in the shade beyond, and said, "Bill, does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?" A little while later, Faulkner rose, said, "That's it," and walked into the house. A few minutes later, he returned without explanation. He had gone to his worktable, struck out "Dark House," and substituted "Light in August." Later, Faulkner said he used that title because "in my country in August there's a peculiar quality to light and that's what that title means." (Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography, Rev. ed., pp. 280-81)

     The second novel, bearing the working title "A Dark House," began from "Evangeline," a story that he had first begun in the mid-1920s, which involved two young Americans, twenty-three-year-old Don and a twenty-two-year-old narrator, attempting to solve a murder mystery having to do with a plantation owner named Colonel Sutpen and his children. In 1933 Faulkner had approached the material through a different character, Wash Jones, a poor white who "looked after" Colonel Sutpen's plantation while Sutpen has been away fighting the war. The story, "Wash," was published in Harper’s.

     Faulkner began writing A Dark House in February 1934, substituting two characters named Chisholm and Burke for the narrator and Don of "Evangeline." After several false starts, he hit upon using a character who had previously appeared in The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson, first telling the story to his Harvard roommate, Shreve, then as the recipient of a letter from his father dated January 12, 1910, which began, "My dear son, Miss Rosa Coldfield was buried yesterday. She had been in a coma for about a week and two days ago she died without regaining consciousness...." Mr. Compson's reflections on death lead to a flashback in the home of Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law. The murder mystery that had first arisen nearly a decade before in "Evangeline" would fall primarily on Quentin's (and Shreve's) shoulders, but it would also be explored by other characters as well. The novel was published as Absalom, Absalom!, and it would take Faulkner another two years before he finished writing it. (Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography, Rev. ed., pp. 176, 324-27)

C o l o r e d Ink

When he was trying to get The Sound and the Fury published, Faulkner suggested using colored ink as a means of delineating the multiple time periods represented in Benjy's section rather than simply indicating a shift in time with italics, but he was told publishing was not advanced enough to accomplish it.

A "Cheap Idea"...

Faulkner wrote in the introduction to Sanctuary — one of the few introductions Faulkner ever wrote for his novels — that the book was "a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money." Though Faulkner did not want the introduction published in future editions of the novel, in a sense he was right, since Sanctuary was his only bona-fide bestseller at the time of first publication, and fifteen years later — when Malcolm Cowley's edited version of The Portable Faulkner was published — it was the only Faulkner book not out of print. Faulkner’s comments would have the unfortunate effect of convincing critics to accept the book at face value, ignoring the novel's obvious skill and craftsmanship as well as its exploration of "Faulknerian" themes.

...But Not Too Cheap

Faulkner may have called it a cheap idea, but ultimately it was costly. He wrote the manuscript for Sanctuary immediately after The Sound and the Fury and sent it off to his publisher, who said of the novel's lurid subject matter, "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail." Faulkner then wrote As I Lay Dying, which was published, and late that year received the galley proofs of Sanctuary. Reading through them, and realizing how badly written the novel was, he chose to rewrite numerous parts of the novel, sharing the cost of such an immense change with the firm. The cost of revising the novel came to $270 for Faulkner, "at a time," he said, "when I didn't have $270.00" (Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography [1984] 268-70).

Fact and Fiction

On Eagles' Wings

In Faulkner’s first Yoknapatawpha novel, Sartoris, the epitaph he had chosen for John Sartoris, a pilot who dies in the novel, was "I bare him on eagles' wings and brought him unto me." In 1935, when Faulkner’s youngest brother, Dean Swift Faulkner, died crashing the airplane Faulkner had sold to him, the same epitaph was used on his gravestone.

Like a Brother

Faulkner felt tremendous guilt over the death of his brother Dean: he had sold the airplane to Dean, and he had encouraged him in his flying. At the time of Dean's death, Faulkner was writing Absalom, Absalom!, a novel in which the central mystery concerns the murder of a brother by his brother.

Church Related

According to Faulkner’s nephew, James Faulkner, the church which Thomas Sutpen "rode fast to" — and in which he was married — in Absalom, Absalom! is the same church, College Hill Presbyterian Church, in which Faulkner married Estelle Oldham Franklin in 1929.

Col. Dickey's Kindness

The first Union cavalry officer to arrive in Oxford during the Civil War was a "Col. Dickey," who demonstrated an act of kindness to the "Widow Sample" for teaching the children of her 100 slaves to read — he returned to her six mules and a wagon earlier taken by Union troops and gave her a wagonload of salt from Union stores. In The Unvanquished, the name of the Union commander who ordered the return of Rosa Millard's silver (not to mention her mules and slaves) was named Colonel Nathaniel G. Dick (Hinkle and McCoy 112-13).

Benjy's Brother?

The Compson home in The Sound and the Fury was based on the Chandler House in Oxford, a few blocks away from Faulkner’s childhood home. Faulkner’s first-grade teacher, Miss Chandler, lived there with her family, which included a mentally retarded brother who may have been a model for Benjy Compson.
Photo by John B. Padgett
The Thompson-Chandler House
The Thompson-Chandler Hosue in Oxford

Barton Fink and Bill Faulkner

Joel and Ethan Coen's 1991 film Barton Fink, which depicts the story of a "serious" writer who hesitantly accepts a lucrative Hollywood screenwriting job in the 1940s, features a character conspicuously modeled on William Faulkner: Bill Mayhew, a Southern novelist (America's greatest living novelist, according to Barton Fink) who is having an affair with his secretary. Mayhew, played by John Mahoney, bears a strong resemblance to William Faulkner, who himself had taken up screenwriting in Hollywood to make ends meet. However, there are other parallels in the film between Faulkner and the title character: like Faulkner, Barton Fink's first screenwriting job is to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery.


Faulkner in Hollywood
Faulkner in Hollywood
A Mickey-Mouse Job
When Faulkner first went to MGM to work as a screenwriter in 1932, he volunteered to Story Department chief Samuel Marx to write not feature films but two types of movies he claimed he was most familiar with: newsreels and Mickey Mouse cartoons.


According to Hollywood legend, Faulkner went to the studio boss and asked if it would be all right for him to work at home. The studio boss said okay. Later, someone tried to reach him at his Hollywood apartment, to no avail. Finally, they realized "home" for Faulkner meant Oxford, Mississippi. (In fact, Faulkner had gained permission to work in Oxford.)

Studio Directive

While working for MGM in Oxford, Faulkner received a directive to fly to New Orleans to work on dialogue for a picture called Louisiana Lou, which was being filmed there. As Faulkner says, "I could have got on a train in Oxford and been in New Orleans eight hours later, but I obeyed the studio and went to Memphis, where an airplane occasionally did leave for New Orleans. Three days later one did."

Clark Gable
Clark Gable
Clark Who?
In 1932 Faulkner went dove hunting with Howard Hawks and a friend of his, an actor named Clark Gable. Hawks began talking with Faulkner about books, during which Gable remained silent. Finally, Gable asked Faulkner who he thought were the best living writers. After a moment, Faulkner answered, "Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself."

      Gable paused for a moment and said, "Oh, do you write?"

     "Yes, Mr. Gable," Faulkner said. "What do you do?"

A "Nobel" Achievement

Faulkner’s film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not marks the only time in film history that two Nobel Prize winners, Faulkner and Hemingway, were associated with the same motion picture.

The Butler Did It...Or Did He?

What is probably Faulkner’s greatest screenwriting triumph, The Big Sleep, was borne out of confusion that extended even to the source material. As Director Howard Hawks recalled, "It was basically an entertaining film, even though I could never figure out who killed who." When someone asked Hawks who killed the man whose car was fished out of the river, Hawks said he didn't know, so he asked Faulkner. Faulkner didn't know either, so Hawks asked Raymond Chandler, the author of the detective novel on which the movie was based.

      Chandler jokingly responded with the old cliché from stage melodrama, "The butler did it." To which Hawks replied, "Like hell he did; he was down at the beach house at the time."

The Nobel Prize

William Faulkner at the Nobel ceremonies with Dr. Gustaf Hellström and Envoy Ståhle
Faulkner at the Nobel Prize ceremonies
A Timely Award
William Faukner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1949, but he did not actually receive the award until 1950 because the Nobel committee could not reach a decision in time. The initial list of candidates included Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pasternak, Sholokhov, Mauriac, and Camus. Though the list was narrowed down to Sir Winston Churchill, Pär Lagerkvist, and Faulkner, with the voting eventually swinging in Faulkner’s favor, it did not happen in time for the prize to be awarded that year.

A Farmer in Sweden

When Faulkner was informed that he had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize, Faulkner did not want to go to Stockholm to receive it. He told a Swedish reporter, "I won't be able to come to receive the prize myself. It's too far away. I am a farmer down here and I can't get away." His wife, Estelle, eventually persuaded him to go when she told him their daughter, Jill, wanted to go. In reality, Jill was not at all anxious to go, but Faulkner did not know this and eventually capitulated.

Nothing to Wear

Faulkner was unwilling to buy a new suit to wear when he received the Nobel Prize, so he rented one. Afterwards, he told his publisher, Bennett Cerf, that he wanted to keep the suit. When asked what he would do with it, Faulkner said, "Well, I might stuff it and put it in the living room and charge people to come in and see it, or I might rent it out, but I want that suit." Random House bought the suit for him.

Seen, Not Heard

When Faulkner delivered his Nobel Prize speech, no one could understand what he said — he stood too far from the microphone, and his Southern accent and rapid delivery made it even more difficult to understand what he was saying. But when they discovered what he said the next morning, the impact was tremendous. For years afterward, according to one scholar, Faulkner’s speech would be recalled as the best speech ever given at a Nobel dinner.


The Faulkner Stamp

The United States Postal Service issued a first-class 22-cent stamp commemorating Faulkner in 1987 — an ironic honor, considering Faulkner’s notorious stint as a postmaster. The stamp's first-day cancellation was held in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner’s hometown, on August 3, 1987.
The William Faulkner stamp

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