William Faulkner, “Kilroy Was Here,” & the Purpose of Literature

Hi, friends. I’ve been trying to find the author of a quote that my old 20th-century American Lit professor referenced frequently; it states that art makes sense of and gives meaning to life. In my search, I stumbled across a William Faulkner interview with great quotes about writing. He uses “Kilroy was here” in a comparison at one point, and I thought it’d be fun to share the quote and explain what he’s implying with that reference.



William Faulkner (1897-1962) lived in Oxford, Mississippi. He’s best known for novels like As I Lay Dying and The Sound And the Fury, written in an experimental stream-of-consciousness narrative form with shifting narrators. [Basically, he was extremely modernist.] He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novels A Fable and The Reivers. His father was an entrepreneur and an outdoors man who supported his family well, but the women in Faulkner’s life strongly influenced his artistic imagination. His mother taught him to read classic authors like Dickens before he attended public school, and his having a black nanny from infancy is reflected in the racial and sexual themes of his novels. He excelled in younger years but only attended Ole Miss 1919-1920 before dropping out of college. He began writing in college and eventually turned it into a career.


The Paris Review, launched in 1953, interviews authors and has given readers profound insight into thoughts from their favorite writers. Here’s a post with the full interview, but in the interest of succinctness, I include the quote with “Kilroy was here” along with a quote that adds context to that reference:

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.

“Kilroy Was Here”

Kilroy was here

“Kilroy was here” is an American pop culture icon that popularized during World War II. It doesn’t represent anything in particular; it was simply a funny doodle that popped up in random places.

I included the first Faulkner quote because of its poignancy in describing a book like a little vacuum of its own life/motion that stops and starts on command. I included the second quote to expose Faulkner’s views on art and authorship and connect it with his “Kilroy was here” analogy in the first quote. In the same way the Kilroy doodle is universal because it means anything and nothing simultaneously, the human experience varies so widely though we all have it. Just as anyone could deface an object with “Kilroy was here,” anyone might write a book, and what a literary work says about people/society broadly is more significant than one author’s idea if we grant that every “idea” has probably already existed (according to Faulkner).

Thanks for reading! Do you agree or disagree that the importance of works supersedes the significance of their authors? Is a work’s icon status a factor in that?


10 responses to “William Faulkner, “Kilroy Was Here,” & the Purpose of Literature”

  1. Not gonna lie- I disagree with Faulkner on virtually everything (his postmodernist and structuralist views bother me, especially since they have a tendency to undermine logic and prop up ideological extremes. For instance, his example of attempts to attribute Shakespeare to multiple authors are not only founded on false evidence, but also are driven by various ideological movements eg feminists wish to see him as a woman ergo claim nonsense like “his wife must have written it”, or people who are upper class would prefer if he was Marlowe etc). However, it was fun to see this reference to Kilroy in a historical setting 😉 (sorry for rambling)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely agree that it’s silly when people start bringing up that Shakespeare’s works were written by other people. I also agree with what you’re saying about his views; there’s a connection between a lot of modernist artists and certain ideologies. I call it “cultural Marxism.” In that light, it actually makes perfect sense that Faulkner disregards individuality lol.

      To be fair though, I think a work’s icon status sometimes makes it more significant than its author, though not often. One example I could think of is Gone with the Wind. But I would disagree if someone said that applies to Romeo and Juliet because Shakespeare himself is iconic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah I also call it cultural Marxism 😉 And Faulkner was definitely a proponent of it (his book “As I Lay Dying” is my least favourite book on the planet and, among other things, it is an argument for relativism and the uselessness of words to convey meaning- plus it’s written in the most infuriating way to convey this idea!)

        And yeah, I can see that- the trouble is there’s some truth to these arguments, which is what makes them pervasive (to my mind, the best falsehoods always have a grain of truth). Definitions can be difficult, defining the author (especially in cases like Homer) can be tricky, and most importantly a work can exist without reference to the author. I actually think the last part is important when it comes to analysis- but then, I was never that concerned with that level of context to begin with (it’s funny that it’s always the same people who bring up context and then decide to dispense with it- structuralists have a tendency to create problems for themselves). At the same time, that doesn’t mean that truth (aka who Shakespeare was) should be thrown out the window. To go back to definitions, if things are difficult to define, it doesn’t mean we should dispense with the whole definition process.

        I think that some would argue that postmodernists were coming from a reasonable starting point (although I actually disagree with the utility of such a starting point) but the conclusions that get drawn are somewhat nihilistic and often illogical (to refer back to Faulkner, why *write a book* about how words are inadequate to convey meaning? If words are so useless, paint a picture 😉 ).

        Sorry for the long response- just an interesting topic!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Don’t apologize for writing a lot. I like reading what you have to say lol. 🙂
        I haven’t read that one, but a classmate in American Lit said it was awful. I’ve been assigned The Sound and the Fury twice in school, but I haven’t gotten all the way through it either time. I’m not much of a fan of avant-garde art personally.

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      3. Ah well I’m glad 🙂
        hehe yeah, I studied it too, or I would never have finished reading it 😉 I can completely understand why you didn’t finish Sound and the Fury. I’m not a fan either.


  2. Wow, so many big words in the comments here that I myself am lost for words 🙂

    I have never read Faulkner but I really liked some of the words you’ve quoted from his interview: “Since man is only mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal”, they ring so true to me.

    Still, I think that too often literary masterpieces remain more significant than their authors, who eventually become only a name attached to that other name of their work, though it is definitely not the case with Shakespeare, whether he was or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that some of Faulkner’s insights are really powerful. Quotes like the one you mentioned resonated with me, too. As for reading him, he is avant-garde to say the least lol. Somehow, I’ve been assigned The Sound and the Fury twice in school. 😃


  3. Totally off-topic, but I read somewhere that Faulkner was miffed when Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer for Gone with the Wind. He didn’t think much of her novel because it was popular fiction. Meanwhile she reviewed his first novel [Soldiers Pay] favorably in the Atlanta-Journal when he was still an unknown. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She sounds like a class act! Can’t say the same for him, lol.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. YES!!

        Liked by 1 person

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