The past is never dead: The story of William faulkner

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Perhaps America’s greatest novelist, William Faulkner lived a life scarcely pictured on screen. Born in New Albany, Mississippi in 1897, he grew up to be one of the greatest writers of his generation. His ties to his home in Oxford, Mississippi remained central to his work throughout his career. While tales of Yoknapatawpha County and Jefferson resonate with many people, less familiar is the creator of these worlds. Many do not know about the details of Faulkner the man, like the jobs he worked to support his family, the tragedies of his personal life, and his brief stint in the Canadian military. The Past is Never Dead: The Story of William Faulkner remedies this absence. It tells Faulkner’s untold story—taking inspiration from the literary great himself.

Starting with the framing of his 1950 Nobel Prize speech, The Past is Never Dead draws on the innovative use of time in Faulkner’s favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury. Instead of telling Faulkner’s story from cradle to grave, it starts with the launching point of Faulkner’s success—his winning of the 1949 Nobel Prize. The film then travels back in time to Faulkner’s formative period in New Orleans, back further to the time of his great grandfather William Clark Falkner, and then to the birth of the main subject – William Cuthbert Faulkner. It proceeds in a more chronological fashion from there, documenting Faulkner’s early life, most productive period in the 1930s, time of crippling debt and work in Hollywood 1930s and 1940s, and finally his time at the University of Virginia.


Inspired by Faulkner’s idea that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” the documentary connects Faulkner’s life, his words, and contemporary events. It builds on the universalism championed in his Nobel speech, a device that frames the entire film. More concretely, Faulkner’s commentary about Southern society, slavery and race, the environment, and the post war atmosphere of fear connect to present times. Different segments of the film draw out these themes and show their relevance not only in Faulkner’s time and literary works but also to present day.

Historically informed reenactments form the narrative ark of The Past is Never Dead. Taking inspiration from a narrative biography technique (like that of Joseph Blotner in his authoritative biography), they retell the most important episodes of Faulkner’s life and showcase his most formative relationships, summarizing longer stretches of time. They probe into Faulkner’s early influences from his mother and caretaker Caroline Barr, his life with his wife Estelle, his formative time in New Orleans, among many other facets of his life. To supplement the more narrative depictions, interviews with literary experts, biographers, and family members round out the story. These voices more deeply explore themes in Faulkner’s life and works.


The Past is Never Dead aspires to engage all levels of Faulkner fans and focuses on William Faulkner’s life as a way into his literary works. The Mississippi and Virginia-rooted creative team brings various backgrounds in music, history, narrative film, academic research, and documentary technique to tell Faulkner’s untold story.