Literary Break: Faulkner's Rise
Christine Gibson looks at William Faulkner's struggle for greatness. An excerpt:
To pay the bills, he churned out more than 40 short stories between 1929 and 1932. He also started work on a potboiler, “the most horrific tale I could imagine.” But his editors recoiled from the early manuscripts for Sanctuary, the story of a gangland rape trial. (“Good God, I can’t publish this,” his publisher told him. “We’d both be in jail.”) So Faulkner took a job as a night watchman at the university power plant. It was there, to the steady drone of the generator, that he wrote his next novel, As I Lay Dying. “Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word,” he recalled, “I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall.”
In 59 monologues from 15 characters, As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family’s disastrous journey through Yoknapatawpha County to inter their matriarch in her family plot. Published in 1930, the novel ignored most of the conventions of traditional storytelling, such as chronological plotting and an authoritative point of view. It earned favorable reviews but mediocre sales, so Faulkner agreed to revise Sanctuary into publishable form. When it arrived in bookstores in February 1931, Sanctuary finally won him public acclaim. Although reviewers scorned its transparently salacious plot, readers bought 7,000 copies in two months.