Faulkner the Pilot

Posted on April 22, 2022

by Taylor Brown

“This was 1915 and ‘16. I had seen an aeroplane and my mind was filled with names: Ball, and Immelman and Boelcke, and Guynemer and Bishop, and I was waiting, biding, until I would be old enough or free enough or anyway could get to France and become glorious and beribboned too.”

—William Faulkner, The Faulkner Reader, 1954

William Faulkner in Toronto, Canada, while a cadet at the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of Toronto in 1918.
This photo is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

On the storied walls of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, hangs a small photograph of William Faulkner quite unlike you may have seen him—not a Nobel Prize winner, gray-haired with tweed jacket and meerschaum pipe, but a young man barely out of his teens, dressed in the uniform of a Royal Flying Corps aviator, his flying cap cocked bold over one eye. This black-and-white photograph, hanging in a dusty shadowbox, is where my fifth novel, Wingwalkers, took flight.

Faulkner has always been the Southern writer to which I was most drawn. No one seemed to wield such biblical thunder from the tip of the pen, calling up family histories and generational sagas with such ferocity. Lightning seemed to flash in his books, driving straight into the bloody legacy of the South. He seemed to raise gothic lightning rods from the map of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County—a “postage stamp” printed in his books, seen as if from a cockpit.

I knew that Faulkner’s early work was full of “aeroplanes” and those who lived among them—aviators and barnstormers, fighter pilots and parachutists. But only after that photograph spurred a deep dive into the author’s life would I discover how deeply the dream of flight had taken hold of his soul—that it was, at times, the wind beneath his creative wings.

In Faulkner’s biographies, letters, and the memoirs of his brothers—pilots, all—I began to uncover stories like artifacts from a lost world. I learned that a “Balloonitic” had crashed at the family home when Faulkner was a boy, right on top of the henhouse, and boy-Faulkner later built a flying machine out of his mother’s beanpoles and wrapping paper, then wrecked himself off a bluff behind their house. Years later, during Mardi Gras 1934, Faulkner would attend the opening festivities of the Shushan Airport in New Orleans, meeting a husband-wife barnstorming duo who would become the main characters in my novel Wingwalkers (he would write his own novel based on his experiences there—Pylon). Later that year, “The Flying Faulkners” air circus would tour the Mississippi countryside in a red Waco biplane that Faulkner gifted to his youngest brother, Dean Swift.

But one story tops the rest—the one behind that photograph on the wall of Square Books. In 1918, broken-hearted that his long-time sweetheart, Lida Estelle Oldham, had agreed to marry a handsome attorney from a well-to-do family, William Cuthbert Falkner left Mississippi and went north to New Haven, Connecticut, where he stayed with a friend, Phil Stone, who was attending Yale University. From there, the two young men began hatching their plan to enter the Great War:

They assumed that they would have to pass themselves off as Englishmen, or at least as “territorials,” if Falkner were to join the Royal Air Force and Stone the Royal Artillery. One of the men at Stone’s table at the Commons was an Englishman named Reed, who offered to drill them at mealtime on pronunciation and usage. Since they could not master all the nuances of the British “public school” accent, he suggested that they pose as Canadians. Stone concurred, but Falkner went on asking for the salt and discussing the weather in the best English accent he could muster.

—Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography

The accent was just the beginning. When Bill traveled to the recruiting office of Lord Wellesley’s staff on Fifth Avenue in New York, he added the “u” to the Falkner family surname, told the enlistment officer that he was born in Middlesex, England, and forged a recommendation letter from an English vicar—a man he named “Reverend Mr. Edward Twimberly-Thorndyke,” no kidding. The letter called Faulkner and Stone “god-fearing young Christian gentlemen.”

Author William Faulkner in 1954.
Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten.

Though Faulkner’s short stature nearly precluded him from service, he was accepted into pilot training at Cadet Wing in Toronto, Canada, and remained there until the conclusion of the Great War on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

Though it would remain dubious whether he received his wings at Cadet Wing—he almost certainly did not—he returned home in the powder-blue uniform of a Royal aviator, affected a limp from an Armistice Day accident, and told people he had a metal plate in his head—the only medal they gave me, bud.

Though it’s hard to forgive such posturing, there was a seeming innocence in Faulkner’s dream of flight, in his tall tales of loop-the-loops and crash landings—scenarios that made their way straight into his work. His sins seemed those of embellishment, amplification—his imagination too big for well-grounded reality. Beneath the surface, I would learn, his bursting aspiration to fly may have been twinned with a wish to escape the hardships of the ground: heartbreak and grief, financial and critical woes—those hard, sharp edges of life as an artist.

In years to come, after several false starts, Faulkner would earn his pilot’s license, purchase his own airplane, and serve as the driving force behind The Flying Faulkners air circus. In a letter dated April 1943, he would counsel his nephew Jimmy, an aspiring pilot, on one of the greatest lessons that flying had taught him.

You must know fear too. That is, you must know how to beat fear. If you cannot feel it, you are a moron, an idiot. The brave man is not he who does not know fear; the brave man is he who says to himself: “I am afraid. I will decide quickly what to do, and then I will do it.”

That’s advice that all of us might take on our own flights through life.

Photo Credit: Addie Jo Bannerman

Taylor Brown grew up on the Georgia coast. He has lived in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, and the mountains of western North Carolina. He is the recipient of the Montana Prize in Fiction and a finalist for the Southern Book Prize. His novels include Fallen LandThe River of KingsGods of Howl Mountain, and Pride of Eden. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.

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