William (Cuthbert) Faulkner

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Author: David Minter
Editors: A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel
Date: 1998
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 15,387 words

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EARLY ON THE morning of November 10, 1950, William Faulkner received a telephone call at Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, telling him that he had been selected to receive the Nobel Prize for literature for 1949. At the time, Faulkner knew that he had a small band of faithful supporters in the United States, including Saxe Commins, his editor at Random House; Evelyn Scott, a novelist from Tennessee who had been one of the first admirers of The Sound and the Fury (1929); and Malcolm Cowley , who had edited The Portable Faulkner (1946) hoping to lift Faulkner's work to new visibility. He also knew that in Europe · where Albert Camus , André Malraux , and Jean-Paul Sartre had praised his work · his reputation was higher than it was in the United States and that rumors linking his name to the Nobel Prize had been circulating for years. In August 1945, Cowley had written him, in a letter later included in The Faulkner-Cowley File, telling him that Sartre had said that "pour les jeunes en France, Faulkner c'est un dieu" (for young people in France, Faulkner is a god). In March 1946, Thorsten Jonsson, one of his Swedish translators, had publicly predicted that he would win the prize, and in 1949, when no prize was announced, rumors that Faulkner would be the next recipient had intensified.

Yet, aside from the small tempest created by the publication of Sanctuary in 1931, none of Faulkner's novels sold well, and during the middle 1940s demand for his books virtually disappeared. Furthermore, although Cowley's book was already contributing to a reassessment, there were few signs of gains anywhere in the United States, including the South. Indeed, few people from his region praised his work, and many would spend years trying to decide whether to feel ashamed or proud of the role that the South played in providing the settings, history, and folkways on which his prize-winning fiction was based. Shortly after the announcement of the Nobel Prize, the New York Times responded in an editorial, quoted by Robert Penn Warren in his introduction to Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, saying that, given "the enormous vogue of Faulkner's works" among foreigners, "Americans must fervently hope" that admirers of his works understood that most Americans thought them "too often vicious, depraved, decadent, corrupt." Rape and incest might be common pastimes in Faulkner's imaginary South, the Times added, but they were "not elsewhere in the United States."

Over the next decade, Faulkner's reputation grew significantly. Publicity generated by the prize helped, as did Faulkner's decision to use his acceptance speech as a "pinnacle" from which to voice long-standing concerns and convictions: that people are too often consumed by fear and that fear is the basest of all human emotions; that only "problems of the human heart in conflict with itself" inspire good writing; and that stories written without "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice" are ephemeral and doomed. In...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1479001543