As Jay Parini's irresistible new biography shows, William Faulkner straddled the gap between the place he came from and the new world of letters that he wanted to make. Explaining why he added the "u" to his name, Faulkner once said, "Maybe when I began to write, even though I thought I was writing for fun, I secretly was ambitious and did not want to ride on grandfather's coat-tails."
It's easy to understand why; the Old Colonel's coattails could have carried Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, and the entire Falkner clan with room to spare. A one-man wrecking crew, he left a trail of corpses in his wake. Yet the Old Colonel prospered as a lawyer and businessman and wrote two novels, a play, and a collection of sketches based on European travels.
Out of this stew of killing and high culture came William Faulkner, a headstrong yet diffident youth. Other than his doting mother, no one expected he'd amount to much. He dropped out of high school and trained with the Royal Flying Corps in Canada just before World War I ended, though not without acquiring enough experience to spin into tales of wartime derring-do.
He enrolled at the University of Mississippi on his return to the family home in Oxford, and behaved so pretentiously that he acquired the nickname "Count No 'Count" from his classmates. As in high school, he worked only at the subjects he liked and, again, dropped out.
He was a parent's nightmare, in other words, but became a reader's dream by taking the path of Keats, Dickens, Twain, and Whitman, studying a curriculum broader than that of any university. But even geniuses have to eat, and as Faulkner worked his way through this long period of self-absorbed latency, he took a series of short-lived jobs, none more comical than that of postmaster at the university, where he read the magazines others subscribed to and learned what editors wanted.