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The Life of William Faulkner

The Past Is Never Dead, 1897-1934
Carl Rollyson

BUY Cloth · 512 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813943824 · $34.95 · Mar 2020
BUY Ebook · 512 pp. · ISBN 9780813943831 · $34.95 · Mar 2020

William Faulkner emerged from the ravaged South—half backwoods, half defeated empire—transforming his corner of Mississippi into the fictional Yoknapatawpha County and bestowing on the world some of the most revolutionary and enduring literature of the twentieth century. The personal story behind the work has fascinated readers nearly as much as the great novels, but Faulkner has remained elusive despite numerous biographies that have attempted to decipher his private life and his wild genius. In an ambitious biography that will encompass two volumes, Carl Rollyson has created a life of Faulkner for the new millennium.

Rollyson has drawn on an unprecedented amount of material to present the richest rendering of Faulkner yet published. In addition to his own extensive interviews, Rollyson consults the complete—and never fully shared—research of pioneering Faulkner biographer Joseph Blotner, who discarded from his authorized biography substantial findings in order to protect the Faulkner family. Rollyson also had unrivaled access to the work of Carvel Collins, whose decades-long inquiry produced one of the greatest troves of primary source material in American letters.

This first volume follows Faulkner from his formative years through his introduction to Hollywood. Rollyson sheds light on Faulkner’s unpromising, even bewildering youth, including a gift for tall tales that blossomed into the greatest of literary creativity. He provides the fullest portrait yet of Faulkner’s family life, in particular his enigmatic marriage, and offers invaluable new insight into the ways in which Faulkner’s long career as a screenwriter influenced his iconic novels.

Integrating Faulkner’s screenplays, fiction, and life, Rollyson argues that the novelist deserves to be reread not just as a literary figure but as a still-relevant force, especially in relation to issues of race, sexuality, and equality. The culmination of years of research in archives that have been largely ignored by previous biographers, The Life of William Faulkner offers a significant challenge and an essential contribution to Faulkner scholarship.


A deeply detailed account of the 1949 Nobel laureate's early life and work.... Throughout, the author, an expert biographer, delivers arresting details and telling images from his subject's life... A filling, satisfying feast for Faulkner aficionados.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Despite Faulkner’s objections to biography, he has not lacked for them....[Rollyson], however, is the first to examine all 105 boxes of material that Faulkner authority Carvel Collins collected for his unwritten account of the author. Tracing Faulkner’s career through roughly the middle of the journey of his life, Rollyson reveals the impulses of Faulkner’s fiction and shows how the author converted his experiences and those of his family and friends into poetry, short stories, and novels.... VERDICT: Rollyson’s astute analysis makes not only for a good story but also a welcome addition to Faulkner studies.

Library Journal

[Rollyson] suggest[s], tantalizingly, that Faulkner’s Hollywood stint affected his novel writing.

Publishers Weekly

Carl Rollyson has done a fine job here, bringing together a vast range of source materials, drawing a sharp and convincing portrait of Faulkner. This reads like a good story, and it is. It’s a great story, in fact, and all admirers of Faulkner should be grateful.

Jay Parini, author of  One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner

It has now been fifteen years since the publication of the last full-length biography of one of the twentieth century’s most important writers, so the moment is ripe for a life of Faulkner with something new to offer readers and scholars. Rollyson has delivered a book that taps into new primary and secondary resources, and that draws on his own unique expertise as a professional biographer. This is a valuable new biography, whose sound, thorough research and judicious interpretive insights make for an appealing, balanced book.

Jay Watson, University of Mississippi, author of William Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity

This is the most comprehensive, most accurate, and most revealing biography of Faulkner yet written. Thoroughly and painstakingly researched, it draws upon sources and materials not available to previous biographers. It will almost certainly come to be viewed as the definitive biography of the famous author.

Robert W. Hamblin, Founding Director of the Center for Faulkner Studies

The Life of William Faulkner is the result of a remarkable amount of research and is clearly a work of love and respect for its subject and his writing. Its bibliography is 15 pages long, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone interested in Faulkner could require a supplementary reference after the second volume is released.

Washington Independent Review of Books

Rollyson’s erudite narrative chronicles Faulkner’s first thirty-seven years—from his childhood in Oxford to the publishing of masterpieces like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August—but it also gives careful attention to Faulkner’s odd personal foibles (feigning a leg injury he supposedly sustained as a pilot in World War I, for instance—in reality he never took flight) and argues for a greater significance than has been previously acknowledged of his profitable career as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

The New Criterion

Rollyson’s analysis of Light in August and his portrayal of Faulkner’s 'pivotal' experiences in New Orleans are worth the wait.


Carl Rollyson is a superb and wondrously prolific biographer, drawn to an admirably eclectic range of subjects, but also a scholar of biography with an unparalleled knowledge of the field.... Acquire the books, install them at your bedside, and make a habit of reading a bit each night. You will quickly find yourself drawn into the saga.

First Things

[M]assive, well-researched two-volume biography.

New York Review of Books

A previously-unpublished, full-length screenplay by 20th-century novelist William Faulkner has been discovered, a murder story so complete experts say it could see him hit Hollywood again.... Professor Carl Rollyson, author of a forthcoming Faulkner biography, spoke of his 'utter excitement' in finding it. He told the Telegraph: 'Nobody knows about it, no film scholar, no Faulkner person.'

The Telegraph

About the Author(s): 

Carl Rollyson, Professor Emeritus at Baruch College, The City University of New York, has published numerous biographies of literary figures such as Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, Amy Lowell, Rebecca West, and Norman Mailer. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New Criterion, and the Washington Post.

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