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.
He published his first novels, "Soldiers' Pay" and "Mosquitoes," with Boni & Liveright, though the firm refused "Flags in the Dust" in a crushing letter of rejection. A less determined writer would have quit. Instead, Faulkner wrote "The Sound and the Fury," one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. When it was published, he was night superviser at the university power plant.
The rest of Faulkner's story is well known, thanks largely to Joseph Blotner's magisterial 1974 biography, which Parini acknowledges taking much from. Like his great-grandfather, Faulkner wrote, traveled widely, and devoted hours daily to the care of his property and business interests; the difference was that he confined his violent tendencies to a recarpentering of English, which he regarded, in Parini's words, as "his personal property." Over time, the reclusive Faulkner made the world come to and honor him. He won the Nobel Prize in 1950.
What Parini adds to our knowledge of Faulkner is not so much new information but a new understanding of how the novelist connected his violent, inchoate past with literature's perdurable future, how he turned the savagery of his own blood into the permanence of art. Parini is the author of 15 other books, five of them novels, and this biography reads like a novel about a novelist - not a Faulkner novel, but one by Balzac, whose vitality and breadth of vision Faulkner first envied, then admired, and finally surpassed.
• David Kirby is a professor of English at Florida State University and the author of 'What Is A Book?'