Today in History

Today in History: September 25

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

From Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner

William Faulkner
William Faulkner,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
December 11, 1954.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964

Novelist William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi on September 25, 1897. He spent much of his youth in Oxford where his father was employed as the business manager for the University of Mississippi. Creator of the legendary Yoknapatawpha County and its population of decayed Southern white gentry, merchants, farmers, poor whites, and persecuted blacks, Faulkner told about the South, and of how Southerners continue to carry the burden of its history.

William Faulkner left high school before graduating and attended university only briefly, dropping out in the first semester of his sophomore year. Despondent over a love affair and inspired by aspirations for military glory, he joined the Canadian Royal Air Force but never saw active service. Upon returning to Oxford, he was appointed postmaster of the University of Mississippi, a job he proved unable to maintain.

"Tell about the South," said Shreve McCannon. "What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?…Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?"
"I dont hate it," Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; "I dont hate it," he said. "I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!"

From Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Faulkner lived for a short time in New Orleans, where he received encouragement from writer Sherwood Anderson. He also traveled to France and Italy where he made contacts among the "Lost Generation" of expatriate American artists who had settled in Europe after the First World War. Aside from these ventures among the literati and stints as a Hollywood screenwriter, however, Faulkner spent the remainder of his life in Mississippi and Virginia, writing brilliantly and prolifically in isolation from his peers.

After early attempts to publish failed, Faulkner assumed his work would not receive public recognition but determined to continue writing for his own fulfillment. In fact, he achieved notice rather early in his career; his third novel, The Sound and the Fury was received with interest in October 1929. He continued to publish novels and poems for the next three decades. Faulkner was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1955 for A Fable and in 1963 for The Reivers, and the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature "for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel." During his brief acceptance speech, Faulkner spoke of the human condition and the writer's duty in the nuclear era:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things.

William Faulkner,
"Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech"

Faulkner wrote about the troubled legacy of race, the conflicts between the values of the agrarian Old South and the industrial New South, and about dysfunction both within the family and within the larger community. His setting, a mythical county in Mississippi, became a landscape of universal themes. In stories notable for their experimental narrative techniques, Faulkner's characters confront a legacy of institutionalized racial violence and intimate crime while struggling to live with dignity, meaning, and compassion, often in the face of degradation and humiliation.

Two Women, Natchez, Mississippi
Two Women Walking Along Street,
Natchez, Mississippi,
Ben Shahn, photographer, October 1935.

Wife of Negro Sharecropper
Wife of Negro Sharecropper,
Lee County, Mississippi
Arthur Rothstein, photographer, August 1935.

Playing Dominoes or Cards, Mississippi
Playing Dominoes or Cards in Front of Drug Store in Center of Town,
Mississippi Delta, Mississippi,
Marion Post Wolcott, photographer, October 1939.
FSA/OWI Black and White Photographs, 1935-1945