The Aviators James McConnell & William Faulkner—Two Views of WWI from UVA

On the walkway between Alderman and Clemons libraries looms a winged man—Icarus in bronze, the image of aviator James Rogers McConnell poised for a fatal ascent near the sun on wings of wax. The Aviator statue was dedicated in 1919 by the University in memory of McConnell, a former UVA student whose Nieuport biplane was shot down by German aircraft over the Somme battlefield on March 19, 1917. He was the last American member of the Lafayette Escadrille to die before the United States entered WWI. In his writings published as Flying for France McConnell speaks of the willingness of young men to die; a comrade once told him he wanted “six months of freedom [to] get everything I wanted out of life,” and then he would “be perfectly willing to come back and get killed.”

The James Rogers McConnell statue “The Aviator” by Gutzon Borglum

Only a short distance from the McConnell statue, in the main gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library, the exhibition “Faulkner: Life and Works” tells of another would-be flyer’s willingness to die. In the summer of 1918, William Faulkner was perhaps more willing than most young men to lay his life on the line; his fiancé, Estelle Oldham, had yielded to her parents’ wishes and agreed to marry another man. Devastated, Faulkner took his parents’ advice to visit his friend Phil Stone at Yale and wait to be drafted, but Faulkner didn’t wait. Posing as British, and adding a “u” to the name Falkner, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force. The RAF’s height and weight requirements—lax because casualty rates were high—made it possible for someone of Faulkner’s small stature to join. He trained a few months as a cadet in Canada before the Armistice ended the war and any romantic dreams of a glorious death.Visitors to the main gallery can see the British officer’s uniform that Faulkner had made to impress the folks at home. It was a fantasy, a role he had envisioned for himself when he told his brother Jack he would try somehow to get “into military service other than by enlisting as a private.” When he arrived in Mississippi, sporting unearned eagle’s wings, leaning on a cane, and feigning injury from a crash, Jack Falkner, who had enlisted in the Marines, was in a French hospital with shrapnel wounds to his leg and head sustained in the Argonne. Billy later explained the cadets’ situation to Jack with perhaps a hint of guilt, “The war quit on us before we could do anything about it.”

William Faulkner (center rear) and his younger brothers: Murry Charles “Jack” Falkner (left), John Falkner (right), and Dean (center front)

As a writer, Faulkner at least tried to do something about it. In his novel Flags in the Dust, (manuscript pages of which are on exhibit) the main character, young Bayard Sartoris, arrives in Mississippi after witnessing his brother’s death in the skies over France. He had tried to prevent his brother, John Sartoris, from taking his “pop-gun” Camel biplane on a suicidal assault against superior German Fokkers. John fired a gun burst past Bayard’s nose to keep him from interfering, and jumped without a parachute from the burning CameI, adding in death to a rivalry that existed since before the war between young Bayard and the affable and popular John—who, on a lark, once parachuted from a hot air balloon at a Mississippi fair. If Faulkner’s novel was his way of vicariously entering war, he couldn’t write away the guilt he felt because of his brother’s wounds.

In Mississippi, young Bayard compensates for his failure by speeding on country roads in a 1919 sports-model automobile. His father, old Bayard Sartoris, succumbs to a heart attack in a near accident while riding in the car. And young Bayard dies pointlessly, test-flying an unstable experimental aircraft, perhaps reflecting Faulkner’s real frustration at being cheated of an opportunity to die a hero’s death. At the time he was writing, his motive for risking death—Estelle Oldham Franklin—was still married, still beyond his reach. He corrected the situation in the novel by having Bayard marry a girl who’d been infatuated with his brother—in real life Estelle had once dated Jack Falkner.

Faulkner also made Bayard a UVA graduate, which begs the question: Did Faulkner see The Aviator statue or know of it? There’s no evidence he did, although it’s tempting for those familiar with McConnell’s story to imagine Faulkner sending young Bayard to a school that, after the war, erected a memorial to a fallen flyer who achieved a heroic immortality denied to Bayard Sartoris and William Faulkner.

If Faulkner was aware of McConnell at all, it was most likely from reading Flying for France, as might be expected of a cadet in training. Faulkner, however, did not need McConnell’s example as a reproach for his failure; Jack’s wounds were a reminder that he’d never been tested in war like his Civil War forebears. Nevertheless, for the rest of his life Faulkner made extravagant claims of being wounded and impaired by a metal plate in his head, as if, in his novels, he had written into being his own wished-for war experiences, as real to him as if they’d happened, entitling him to a place, with Jack Falkner and James McConnell, among the war’s true victims.

The exhibition “Faulkner: Life and Works” will remain on display through July 7, 2017 in the main gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library. The exhibition represents one of the great archives of American literature: the University of Virginia’s William Faulkner collections.

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