Glen Gatenby argues that William Faulkner’s 1918 flying lessons in Toronto launched the writer’s literary career

I’ve read many accounts of William Faulkner’s stay in Toronto where he took flying lessons with the aim of becoming a First World War fighter pilot. On occasion, I’ve observed that a writer, describing the novelist’s stay in Toronto apparently accepts, at face value, Faulkner’s description of the time he allegedly landed with his plane upside stuck upside down inside a hangar.

During his lessons, Faulkner lived at the University of Toronto campus. Part of his training took place at the Long Branch Aerodrome, in what is now Mississauga. Before he could complete his training, the war ended.

Toronto: A Literary Guide (1999)

My favourite account of the novelist’s stay in Toronto, in 1918, is one by Greg Gatenby, in Toronto: A Literary Guide (1999). I am especially taken with Gatenby’s comment about Faulkner’s knack for re-shaping of events for dramaturgical for purposes of image management – a topic productively explored by the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, in his study of the everyday presentation of self as viewed from the perspective of social interactionism.

That is, we are dealing with the social construct of meaning – an essential feature of everyday life, a driving force behind the creation of blurbs, brands, and brand images.

Much of life involves each person’s endeavour in everyday life to capture the narrative, shape the story, define the situation.

A critical variable is how well the story is put together, how it is designed. Another critical variable is how the story fares in the marketplace of stories, the marketplace of thoughts and memes – that is, ideas, behaviours, or styles that spreads from person to person within a culture.

Re-shaping of events for dramatic purposes

On page 207 of Toronto: A Literary Guide, Gatenby notes:

“For some time now I have maintained that Faulkner became a fiction writer in Toronto in two senses. The first is in his letters home. He wrote almost daily to close mem­bers of his family. Reading the correspon­dence one becomes aware that shortly after his arrival he described his accomplishments and progress with tiny exaggerations that soon become outright fabrications, then evolved into real whoppers and reached maturity, of sorts, as complete fiction. For example, two days after the Armistice he told his mother that he was just about to get his pilot’s licence – hardly possible given that he would need at least another half-year’s study to procure his wings. To a friend he bragged that he had taken a plane on a solo flight in Toronto and had crashed through the roof of a hangar only to end up hanging in its rafters. When he returned to his family they were stunned to see him walking with a cane and a limp. The injury was due, he told them, to a flying accident during his train­ing – and he faked the limp for years after­ward. Silly as these white lies were, they illus­trate how Faulkner was learning to re-shape events for dramatic purposes.

“The other sense in which he wrote fic­tion, naturally, was the formal: his very first short story is set in the Leaside aerodrome where he and his fellow students would have been taken on day-trips to study aviation engines. The story is called “Landing in Luck.” And in his two best novels, The Sound and The Fury and Absolom, Absolom!, while the campus and buildings ostensibly belong to Harvard, it is much more likely that he modelled them on the U of T campus with which he was far more familiar.”

Many blurbs are available regarding the launch of Faulkner’s writing career

I am reminded that truthiness is appealing and the past is never dead.

Anyway, Gatenby’s account has prompted me to borrow many books from the Toronto Public Library dealing with Faulkner’s life and career. From the passages I have read, from the books I have borrowed, I get the sense that Faulkner was very much headed toward a writing career before he came to Canada in 1918. I also get the sense that Gatenby’s overview is one blurb among many.

Many blurbs are available, regarding Faulkner’s start as a writer, that provide a quick outline, with a correspondence to factual evidence that varies from blurb to blurb. One of the points that stays in mind, from the additional blurbs I have recently read, after reading Gatenby’s blur, is that not too many people were taken in by Faulkner’s pretence at having war injuries and a limp, when he arrived back home after his stay in Toronto.

As well, one blurb has provided some great information, namely, that when Faulkner was discharged from his training, the First World War having come to and end, he bought a full British fighter pilot’s uniform, complete with all the trimmings.

Another blurb that I enjoyed reading was that, later in his life, he was not keen to see any of his ‘war stories’ committed to print, as material that would serve as part of a biography.

In his earlier years, he  had regaled people with fabrications about his exploits, which in reality never occurred, as a fighter pilot in Europe during the First World War. Later in his life, he was keen to have the stories forgotten, rather than being published as part of any biography.

I have enjoyed reading about Faulkner’s efforts as a screenwriter for The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. These are great movies, and I very much like the fact that Faulkner played a role, however small or large, in their production.


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