William Faulkner and the Influence of New Orleans

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By: Megan Kroger

William Faulkner is known world-wide for bringing the questions of his time to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Controversy in the South was prominent and Faulkner was an expert, being from Mississippi himself. Even though he spent most of his life in his home state, Faulkner spent time in New Orleans as well. With its artistic base and youthful lifestyle, the city influenced him throughout his career, aiding him in the winning of several awards, including the Nobel Prize in 1949 and a Pulitzer Prize in 1955.

The southern writer was born September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He only spent his first five years there, until he moved to Oxford, Mississippi where he would end up living the majority of his life. He moved to New Haven in 1918 to work with Winchester Repeating Arms Company but decided to leave and join the Canadian Royal Air Force. This was short-lived as the war ended soon after he joined. Faulkner moved back to Mississippi where he studied at Ole Miss, playing up his un-earned soldier swagger (MWP). He never graduated, as he was bored of the curriculum and wanted to get into the world. By the end of 1924, with the plan to go to Europe, Faulkner ventured to New Orleans.

The trip to Europe was postponed by half a year, as the city sucked him in. Still in his early days of writing, Faulkner looked up to more experienced and well-known writers, including Sherwood Anderson, a writer residing in New Orleans. He read much of Anderson’s work and was especially intrigued by his description of the city (Blotner). Luckily for Faulkner, he was acquainted with Anderson’s wife and was able to drop in on his first visit to New Orleans in late 1924. He left but came back after this trip with a friend, Phil Stone in January 1925. After Stone left, Faulkner decided to extend the vacation when he was offered by Anderson’s wife, Cornelia, to stay in their home, as Sherwood was away on a tour in Europe and there was space available (Blotner). During his time in New Orleans, Faulkner met many other literary figures, including John McClure and Roark Bradford. Because he was staying in the French Quarter he was able to spend time with this crowd, drinking in cafes, learning about art, and discussing the news of the time, like Freud. Eventually Anderson came back from his tour and there was no longer room for Faulkner to stay at their house. After a brief visit to Oxford, he returned to New Orleans and stayed with William Spratling, an artist who lived in the French Quarter on Pirate’s Alley. He and Spratling eventually collaborated on a collection of caricatures of the artists and writers they knew, entitled Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles (1927). With two artists under one roof, the house became a gathering place for young people. Faulkner enjoyed these get-togethers but still made time to write for the literary magazine Double Dealer and the local newspaper, The Time Picayune. In 1925 while living in the French Quarter, he wrote a series of stories, entitled New Orleans Sketches. He also wrote a novel inspired by the friends he met, called “Mosquitoes”, written in 1925 but published in 1927. He based one particular satirical character on Anderson (Minter). This caused a strain in their friendship but Anderson continued to support and advise Faulkner. The more time he spent with Anderson and other literary figures, the more he become an expert himself on the lifestyle.

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As his desire for fame became greater, Faulkner started to relax his New Orleans party life come spring and got more serious about his work. He instead spent long hours of the day for three months writing his first novel Soldiers Pay, about a World War I soldier’s return home to Georgia. After its completion in spring of 1925, he left New Orleans for short trips over the summer to Oxford, where he visited with his childhood friend and love interest Estelle Oldham, and to Pascagoula to see an admirer, Helen Baird. He returned to New Orleans but made a quick turn-around and went on his delayed trip to Europe with Spratling, arriving in early August. Faulkner started in Italy but continued on to Western Europe until November when he felt discouraged by the poor sales of Soldier’s Pay (Minter). He again came to New Orleans but still feeling out of touch with his writing, went to Mississippi at the advice of Anderson to write what he knew (Minter). What he knew was home. Over the course of his life Faulkner took brief trips to New York and to Hollywood as a screen writer. In 1957, he made home in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a year, working as a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia (MWP). He married Estelle in 1930 and settled in Mississippi, always returning to its familiarity. Faulkner died in his home state July 6, 1962 from a heart attack after a third fall from a horse.

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Even though he only spent about a year and a half in New Orleans, Faulkner continued to be influenced by it. Depressed after the death of his and Estelle’s first child, a daughter who only lived a few days, Faulkner wrote on and off a story entitled “Dark House”, written in 1931 and eventually published in 1936 with a new name. It dealt with issues of family, race and history, with important scenes set in New Orleans. When seeing the story unfold Faulkner changed the title to Absalom, Absalom! a reference to a biblical story in which a son rebels against his father (Gale). Faulkner also sets part of his novel If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem in New Orleans, serving as an escape for his characters from society’s constrictions. Today the house on Pirate Alley where Faulkner resided is a major tourist attraction. The first floor is a bookstore, serving as mecca for literary aficionados. It is clear through his fiction that he was greatly inspired by the city and through its representation of him, it is obvious the influence is mutual.

Illustrations

  1. William Faulkner, c.1962, The Cofield Collection, http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/faulkner_william/cofield.jpg
  2. Sherwood Anderson and Other Creoles Cover, 1927, Square Books, http://images.indiebound.com/812/741/9780292741812.jpg
  3. William Faulkner’s House in New Orleans, 2010, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/remsberg/6553552199/
  4. Location of William Faulkner’s House in New Orleans at 624 Pirate Alley in the French Quarter

Works Cited

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner; a Biography,. Vol. 1. London: Chatto and Windus, 1974. Print

Gale, Thomas. “Absalom, Absalom! – William Faulkner – 1936.” Literary Themes: The American Dream. BookRags, 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://www.bookrags.com/research/absalom-absalom-william-faulkner-19-ltsd/

Minter, David. William Faulker: His Life and Work. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1980. Print

“William Faulkner.” The Mississippi Writer’s Page. N.p., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/faulkner_william/

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