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October 24, 2017

William Faulkner, Flying High

On this day in 1919, twenty-two-year-old William Faulkner published his first prose, a short story entitled "Landing in Luck." It is a lighthearted tale about an air force cadet's first solo flight, and it gives little sign of the style or fame to come, but the autobiographical details behind its telling are pure, playful Faulkner.

Having been rejected by the U. S. Army because of his size (just under 5'6"), Faulkner decided to try to enlist in the Canadian RAF, under pretence of being an Englishman. Preparations for this were elaborate and unlikely -- weeks of being tutored in the rolling British r, reference letters posted overseas from an invented vicar named Reverend Mr. Edward Twimberly-Thorndyke -- but on July 10th, 1918, he began drawing "the king's shilling" in Toronto. Judging by his training notebooks, Cadet Faulkner from Finchley, Middlesex, England, listened to what he was told about the Curtiss "Jenny" and the Sopwith Camel; judging by his mates, Bill from Oxford, Mississippi liked to entertain "with a wealth of unprintable Limericks which he related frequently in his delightful Southern accent," or with late night drill practice on the Toronto sidewalks, calling out commands for himself and then, against all odds, executing them smartly.

The only problem with the training was that when "the war quit on us," on November 11th, Faulkner had still not been in the air. Many biographers -- such as Joseph Blotner, from whom much of all this is taken -- doubt that he ever did fly. Faulkner said that the days before demobilization were so free and easy that he could almost do as he liked, which on one flight, solo but for "the crock of bourbon in the cockpit," meant playing Billy Bishop. A "nearly perfect loop" was spoiled when "a hangar got in the way and I flew through the roof and ended up hanging on the rafters," Faulkner told his brother. In later tellings of this climax to the cadet life, Faulkner added a companion in the plane and described the two of them after the crash trying to drink bourbon while hanging upside down.

In "Landing in Luck," published a year after such a maiden flight might have happened, Cadet Thompson has a similar misadventure, ending upside down but miraculously alive after his crash landing. Perhaps to save his own skin, the too-British instructor congratulates his trainee for having saved himself with "a trick many an old flyer couldn't do." Cadet Thompson, who pretty much had his eyes closed throughout the miracle, is soon reborn to his instructor's view, and at the local drinking establishment that evening he enlarges his accomplishment further. Not that all the cadets are buying: "That guy? That guy fly? ... Every time he goes up they have to get a gun and shoot him down. He's the 'f' out of flying. Biggest liar in the R.A.F." At the beginning of the story the instructor is a "Blasted Englishman"; at the end, Thompson swaggers out of the hotel with him, arm-in-arm and tossing a "Hello, you chaps" to the other cadets.

Faulkner liked clothes, and liked to wear the fancy officer's uniform that he had had made -- complete with swagger stick, trench coat, leather gloves -- to the dances back home in Mississippi. Sometimes he would add the prestigious "overseas cap," indicating achievements beyond a Toronto hangar. At about the same time, Faulkner the young writer was trying on other romantic guises: his first published poem borrowed its title and more from Stéphane Mallarmé, another early one was a condensation of a Swinburne poem, and as a lark he and a friend would submit famous poems to publishers just to see what they said. One magazine editor sent back "Kubla Khan" with the note, "We like your poem, Mr. Coleridge, but we don't think it gets anywhere much."

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