Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism

By Paul Poplawski | Go to book overview
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Faulkner, William (1897–1962)

William Faulkner is best known as a novelist who exposes the U.S. South’s racial and gendered conflicts within a fictional framework which simultaneously embodies strong links with international modernism. In many of his works Faulkner makes use of a variety of literary modernist techniques. The formal experimentation within Faulkner’s novels can also be tied in with his interest in modernist art and cinema. Also, the radical aesthetic innovations which characterize Faulkner’s own works have become a potent influence upon the international literary and cultural scene, particularly in Latin America.

Faulkner was born at a crucial point within U.S. history. The legacy of the defeat of the South in the Civil War was still recent enough to be strongly ingrained within the consciousness of many Southerners. The ongoing racial divisions between blacks and whites were strongly apparent within the Mississippi in which Faulkner grew up, thereby further contributing towards the sense of a region divided both against the North and within itself. At the same time, the early decades of the twentieth century witnessed a period of economic and social modernization which was also affected by the advent of World War I. It is in this turbulent context that Faulkner developed as a modernist writer, exploring the traumas experienced by his community within narrative forms which redefine traditional modes of perceiving reality.

Faulkner’s early influences included novelists such as Balzac, Dickens, and French symbolist poetry. The assimilation of a wide range of writers whose work derived from diverse cultures laid important groundwork for Faulkner. His first significant published work was The Marble Faun (1924), a long poem written in octosyllabic couplets which owes much to the influence of the French poet Verlaine and also reveals echoes of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. The poem focuses upon a marble faun who realizes that his status as an object of art ensures his immortality. However, this self-conscious knowledge of static artistic form is also a cause of pain, because it means that he can never experience the transitory joys and sorrows which constitute man’s brief existence. Despite the derivative nature of the poem, there are already signs of tension here between a romantic and a modernist aesthetic in Faulkner’s implicit critique of the very pastoral form he employs.

A vital influence on Faulkner’s development as a modernist came when he traveled to Europe in 1925 and encountered the avant-garde artistic milieu of Paris (see France). During his time there, Faulkner was particularly struck by the new modes of visual representation he saw at the various art galleries he visited, and one might trace some of his later fictional techniques

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