William Faulkner’s love of aviation comes through in his writing.
In the summer of 1918, when he was 20, William Faulkner traveled to Canada a Force. He spent six months in flight and talked his way into the Royal Air training, but the November 11 armistice brought an end to the young cadet’s dreams of glory in the skies over Europe. Faulkner never left Canada before the war ended, and never even came close to combat—although that didn’t stop him from returning to his home in Mississippi wearing a lieutenant’s uniform (which he had no right to wear) and walking around with a false limp he claimed was the result of a wreck while stunt-flying.
The future Nobel Prize winner never actually soloed or even received a pilot’s certificate during his brief military career. Yet nearly every biography of Faulkner includes a photograph of the young Mississippian posing in his RAF uniform—evidence of a jaunty bit of playacting, complete with an officer’s hat, cigarette, cane in his right hand, his left hand stuffed casually in his pocket and a set of pilot’s wings pinned prominently onto his chest. In another photo he wears an officer’s Sam Browne belt, an overseas cap and those same wings.
About that same time, Faulkner’s future literary rival Ernest Hemingway was in Oak Park, Ill., sporting a lieutenant’s uniform that had also not been earned. Of course, Hemingway had seen combat in Italy while he was serving in the Red Cross, and he had also been seriously injured—so one might judge his posturing more lightly. Still, a curious mirror image of a pair of 20th-century icons emerges.
Faulkner’s aviation adventures have been chronicled in Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner: A Biography (1974) and Jay Parini’s One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner (2004). The future author’s great-grandfather, they remind us, was a Confederate colonel in the Civil War, later a railroad builder, lawyer and novelist—a larger-than-life figure whose exploits and legends filled young Billy’s childhood. And in 1918 Faulkner’s younger brother Jack joined the Marine Corps, saw combat in Europe and was gravely wounded. For a Mississippian like Faulkner, nourished on tales of valor and heroism, his urge to prove himself in uniform is understandable.
In the spring of 1918, Faulkner was in New Haven, Conn., visiting Yale University with friend Phil Stone. When he heard the RAF was establishing training camps in Canada, it seemed like a promising point of entry into the war, one that especially appealed to the romantic young Southerner. But there were problems to overcome: Only British Commonwealth citizens were eligible to enlist. So Faulkner began affecting an English accent and invented a hodgepodge of Old World relatives and references. He also changed the spelling of his name from the original family name of Falkner to Faulkner, presumably to make it look more British.
The ruse worked. In July 1918 newly born William Faulkner (no longer little Billy Falkner) arrived in Toronto as an RAF cadet. According to Blotner and Parini, Faulkner spent most of his time in Canada engaged in ordinary military indoctrination, calisthenics, parade ground drill and classroom instruction. Still, he wrote numerous letters to his parents and family in Mississippi, boasting of his training: “They have a new ’plane at the flying field. It’s a perfect beauty, lithe as a greyhound, one seater, with a 110 horse power Clerget rotary motor. Talk about your flying! You can turn it about in its own length, and at a 70 mile clip. It’s small and has to go at least 60 m.p.h. to stay in the air.”
Then came November 11 and the end of Faulkner’s military aspirations. But the future novelist wasn’t through yet. In another letter home, he invented a dazzling, climactic last day in the RAF: “The war quit on us before we could do anything about it. The same day, they lined up the whole class, thanked us warmly for whatever it was they figured we had done to deserve it, and announced that we would be discharged the next day, which meant that we had the afternoon to celebrate the Armistice and some planes to use in doing it. I took up a rotary-motored Spad with a crock of bourbon in the cockpit, gave diligent attention to both, and executed some reasonably adroit chandelles, an Immelman or two, and part of what could easily have turned out to be a nearly perfect loop.”
No evidence has been found to support a word of this account. And it was in a purported wreck at the end of this fictional exploit that Faulkner claimed to have incurred his limp—another piece of playacting he diligently practiced for months upon his return to Mississippi. There were other inventions: a metal plate in his hip and later a silver plate in his skull, headaches, war wounds, aerial combat in Europe, etc. Such are the excesses of a fiction writer in the making. Still, as it turned out, aviation was a genuine, lifelong enthusiasm.
Ten years later, in 1928, after publishing a book of poetry and two novels, Faulkner sat down to write his first masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury. By 1933, after he’d spent time in Hollywood as a screenwriter and accumulated some money, he decided to take flying lessons. He eventually acquired a pilot’s license and bought his own plane, a Waco C cabin cruiser. It was the golden age of barnstorming and rural airshows throughout America, and between writing stints Faulkner made the rounds of country airports, chatting with pilots, aerialists and daredevils, and giving rides in his Waco.
Faulkner’s flying instructor was former Army pilot and skilled barnstormer Vernon Omlie, whose wife Phoebe was a wingwalker, aerialist and headliner in the Phoebe Fairgrave–Glenn Messner Flying Circus. According to Omlie, Faulkner was a slow learner. Over the years, the author made several flawed landings and tore up a number of props and gears.
Blotner points out in his biography that, for Faulkner during the 1930s, “Flying had come to occupy an ever larger place in his life.” He took his wife and infant daughter up for rides, likewise his 5- and 10-year-old nephews. There were trips to an airshow in New Orleans in 1934, cross-country jaunts, air circuses and flights in a Command-Aire biplane. He even acquired a leather flying jacket and a silk scarf to look the part.
William wasn’t the only member of his family to fall in love with flying. As boys, he and his brothers had tried to build an airplane in their backyard. His brother John became a pilot and joined The Famous Flyers, an air circus that promised spectators “Three Hours of Thrilling, Death defying entertainment” in the 1930s. Their youngest brother, Dean, also learned to fly. Sadly, he and his three passengers were killed when the Waco he was flying crashed in November 1935. Some accounts suggest that William, who had recently transferred ownership of the airplane to Dean, later blamed himself for his brother’s death. He also grieved for his teacher and friend Vernon Omlie, who died in a crash the following summer.
As a fiction writer dedicated to pushing the limits of his art, Faulkner apparently found some correspondence in the risks of flying. Writing about aviation in the 1930s, he recalled “those frantic little aeroplanes which dashed around the country and people wanted just enough money to live, to get to the next place to race again.” His novel Pylon was set in the raucous barnstorming world of pilots and parachutists—complete with sexual shenanigans, Mardi Gras celebrations and references to T.S. Eliot. Either World War I or aviation played parts in several novels, including Sartoris and A Fable, as well as a number of his short stories.
Even when one discounts his youthful braggadocio about his RAF exploits, it’s not clear how adept a pilot Faulkner later became. In the end, of course, his cockpit skills aren’t really the point, since he fully mastered the art of flying in prose. Describing a race in Pylon, for example, he created this verbal portrait of an aerial ballet, seen from a distance: “the noise was faint now and disseminated; the drowsy afternoon was domed with it and the four machines seemed to hover like dragonflies.”
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.