William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, but his family soon moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Almost all of his novels take place in and around Oxford, which he renames Jefferson, Mississippi. Even though Faulkner is a contemporary American, he is already considered one of the world’s greatest novelists. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the highest prize that can be awarded to a writer. When he accepted this prize, he maintained that the duty of the artist was to depict the human heart in conflict with itself. This attitude is revealed in the conflicts that Henry Sutpen undergoes in Absalom, Absalom!
Faulkner came from an old, proud, and distinguished Mississippi family, which included a governor, a colonel in the confederate army, and notable business pioneers. His grandfather, Colonel William Culbert Falkner (the “u” was added to Faulkner’s name by mistake when his first novel was published, and Faulkner retained the misspelling), came to Mississippi from South Carolina during the first part of the 19th century. The colonel appears in many of Faulkner’s novels under the name of Colonel John Sartoris. Colonel William Falkner had a rather distinguished career as a soldier both in the Mexican War and in the American Civil War. During the Civil War, Falkner’s hot temper caused him to be demoted from full Colonel to Lieutenant Colonel. After the war, Falkner was heavily involved in the trials of the reconstruction period. He killed several men during this time and became a rather notorious figure. He also built a railroad and ran for public office.
During all of these involved activities, he took out time to write one of the nation’s best sellers, The White Rose of Memphis, which appeared in 1880. He also wrote two other books, but only his first was an outstanding success. He was finally killed by one of his rivals. The interceding members of the Falkner family are not quite so distinguished as was the great-grandfather.
With the publication of his third novel, Sartoris, William Faulkner placed his novels in a mythological county which he called Yoknapatawpha County. Most of the rest of his novels take place in this county. Thus many of the people who appear in Absalom, Absalom! have appeared in other novels or will later appear in some novel. For example, the Compson family is the subject of an entire novel called The Sound and the Fury. In this novel we find that Quentin Compson committed suicide shortly after he finished his narration to Shreve. Thus one of Faulkner’s great achievements is the creation of this imaginary county. He worked out his plan so carefully that many characters who are minor characters in one novel will become the central characters in a later work. And with the first appearance of Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner included a map of this county and showed the places where certain events had taken place. The events which Faulkner identifies occur in six different novels: Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!
In all of his work, Faulkner has used new techniques to express his views of man’s position in the modern world. In his early works, Faulkner viewed with despair man’s position in the universe. He saw man as a weak creature incapable of rising above his selfish needs. Later, Faulkner’s view changed. In his more recent works, he sees man as potentially great, or, in the words of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, man shall “not only endure; he will prevail.” In almost all of his novels, Faulkner penetrated deeply into the psychological motivations for man’s actions and investigated man’s dilemma in the modern world. Among his greatest achievements, Absalom, Absalom! is considered one of his masterpieces.
Faulkner took the title for this novel from the Old Testament of the Bible. The story of King David and Absalom is concerned with a son who revolts against his father and a brother who commits incest with his sister. In its broadest outlines, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! deals with the same issues.