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William Faulkner’s “War Wound”: Reflections on Writing and Doing, Knowing and Remembering

ISSUE:  Autumn 1998

For most Americans, Armistice Day is indistinguishable from those other Mondays when the mail does not come. Even for the military, this observance has lost most historical connections with the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

Trying to know more about historical connections, I exhumed an 80-year-old newspaper from a trunk in my attic. Advertisements in the Owensboro Daily Messenger of Friday morning, Nov. 15, 1918, depict a world of intractable ailments and unproblematized patriotism. Remedies are promised on most pages for catarrah, persistent coughs, white tongue, sour stomach, lumbago, neuralgia, grippe, sciatica, biliousness, colds, and the flu. Articles and ads fretted about the stamina of young girls, of “tired, nervous mothers,” and of draftees (the draft had yet to be canceled). A butcher offered beef as safe-guard against Spanish flu. (His top price was for rib roast at 250 a pound.) Sketches of Uncle Sam and soldiers pointing to the boldly printed name of a bank dubbed it “one of the most patriotic,” while a public service announcement chauvinistically depicted fire as the “Kaiser’s Greatest Ally.”)

The paper printed the texts of telegrams exchanged between President Wilson and King George and between Generals Pershing and Haig. A cabled story from the front told of “Cheers by Yanks” over news of the Armistice. Another feature speculated that with the dissolution of the war machine peacetime uses of aviation might develop. “Vast material progress” was possible. Optimism reigned.

The Daily Messengers front page did include a note headed “Germany Appeals to Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Jane Addams.” But this note (only a paragraph, in which Addams is correctly identified as “Miss”) merely announced that German women had appealed to these Americans to help modify the terms of the peace lest “unspeakable disaster” result. The paper did not indicate what disaster the German women feared. The front page also included a picture of the ruined French town where the peace treaty was signed, an article on the release of American prisoners, a story on the unruliness of “Hun Soldiers” in the retreat, and an announcement that Daviess County, Kentucky, is “near top” in raising funds for the war effort.

Chilling for me, however, is the second photograph on the paper’s first page: it is of my father. The headline reads: Sergt. John Reid Wounded in France. Beneath the picture of him, taken in fatigues when he enlisted, is a letter written by a nurse at American Red Cross Base Hospital No. 18, France. It reads:

Dear Mother: I got wounded in the head, and I can’t sit up enough to write myself, but will as soon as I can. I am getting on fine, and just wanted to give you my love and tell you not to worry. Love to rest of family. JOHN.

That letter is not so cryptic as standard-issue postcards (the sort of fill-in-the-blank communication Paul Fussell discusses in The Great War and Modern Memory and Joseph Heller ridicules in Catch-22). And it did assure my grandparents that their son was alive. Otherwise it should have been alarming, given the distance between the cheery words and the disturbing fact that a nurse had to write them, the disparity between the admonition not to worry and the fact of a head wound, and the disjunction between formulaic phrases and John Reid’s actual voice. Later a regular column called “Bugle Calls” even suggested that Reid’s letters were “evidently written with his left hand,” rather than by nurses. The nurses themselves falsified, writing in Reid’s name “I will be able to use my arm in two or three weeks,” when he had no feeling in that permanently limp, paralyzed right arm.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell argues that, though all war is ironic, the First World War was “more ironic than any before or since.” Most undergraduates can recite a litany of factors that produced a radical disparity between World War I expectations and realities: tanks, machine guns, gas, trench warfare, air bombing of civilian targets, unprecedented casualty rates, and permanent alterations in gender roles. After the naive idealism that had catalyzed the war effort, such grim realities undermined heroic Western values. Skepticism reigned.

Or so the story goes. But just possibly that view was a later construct, and a literary one at that, one fostered chiefly by Ernest Hemingway. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s Frederic Henry pronounces the language of heroism (words like “glory, honor, courage, or hallow”) obscene. Such disillusionment however did not capture John Reid and William Faulkner, whose life-stories from the war years form odd mirror images.

Both begin with the romance of flying. From 1903, when the Wright brothers made their first short flight and from 1906, when they were issued an American patent for a flying machine, the American press fueled speculation about the possibilities of flight. That speculation inspired many a childish endeavor to soar off the roofs of barns, the branches of trees, and the edges of cliffs. Among children trying to take flight were the four Reid boys in Kentucky and the four Falkner boys in Mississippi.

In 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, neither the Central Powers nor the Allies expected “aeroplanes” to play a military role. By April, 1917, when the United States officially entered the war, engineering and competition had dramatically altered flight. In the summer of 1917 the Allies introduced new fighter planes, the British Sopwith Camel and an upscaled version of the French Spad, planes that could contest the new air supremacy of the German Fokker and D-3 Albatross. Air combat became legendary, as Allied and Central pilots eluded and attacked each other with twists, spins, half rolls, vertical reverses, and ambushes from behind cloud banks. Balancing the brilliancy of 20th-century aerodynamics with the chivalry of the middle ages, pilots saluted their enemies before shooting them out of the sky.

Tales of the death-defying bravery of flying aces like the Canadian Bishop, the Frenchman Fonck, and the German von Richthofen fired the imaginations of John Reid and William Falkner, as he then spelt his name. Both Reid and Falkner volunteered for pilot training. We know now that the average life-expectancy for pilots flying those tiny biplanes with their wooden frames and rotary engines spinning at only two settings—ON or OFF—was 14 days. Reid and Falkner knew at least that flying was risky. Apparently neither cared.

The Army’s Air Corps quickly rejected Falkner. He was undereducated (in formal terms) and of dubious character. (Though not yet 21, Falkner had already discovered the attractions of Memphis, Tennessee, a notorious center for the blues, prostitution, gambling, and easy liquor.) Most embarrassing for Falkner was the official reason: at just over five feet tall, he was too small. Meanwhile, the Marines accepted his younger, six-foot-tall brother Jack.

With a degree in electrical engineering, a promising career at Western Electric in Indiana, and, according to military documents, an “excellent” character, Reid, at nearly 23, was ideally suited for officer training. Enlisting at Ft. Thomas, Kentucky on Nov. 6, 1917, Reid breezed through all paper tests. After being strapped into a hammock and twirled about side over side, however, he convulsed in spasms of vomiting. He flunked the mandatory air-sickness test.

Both Falkner and Reid were humiliated, but here their stories diverge. If Reid could not be a pilot, he refused to be an officer. He enlisted as a foot soldier, prepared to die in battle.

Falkner covered his humiliation in drink. Periodically he escaped from Oxford to Memphis, often ending up at the Smythes. Carolyn Smythe and Estelle Oldham, Billy Falkner’s sweetheart in Oxford, were cousins. The young women liked taking “Billy” on joy rides in Carolyn’s electric car. Being slightly older, they treated him as their “toy.” (A woman from New Orleans later told Carvel Collins that Falkner attributed his knack for female dialogue to such experiences: “I’m so little and insignificant they forget about me and just go ahead and talk naturally.”)

Whenever Falkner failed to return from Memphis, his mother, “Miss Maud,” would call and ask Carolyn to loan Billy the train fare he had wasted. Once he was found back at the Smythes, passed out on their porch swing in the middle of the night; then Miss Maud asked Carolyn to buy tickets and put him on the train herself. During this time, Carolyn’s father, Dr. Frank David Smythe, recruited volunteers for the medical corps among “leading members,” as a Memphis paper said, of his profession.

In the spring of 1918, Reid and the quickly assembled American forces trained state-side. The German Chief of Staff, General Ludendorff, received a huge influx of men and munitions and launched a major advance. Only the landscape, decimated into a muddy quagmire by years of trench warfare, seemed capable of slowing them.

As Reid trained, Falkner drank, and Ludendorff advanced, Estelle Oldham’s parents announced her engagement to Cornell Franklin, a Mississippian enjoying a lucrative law practice in Hawaii. Though Estelle had thought “Billy” a “toy,” Falkner had thought he was her fiancé. Devastated, he left home. In Connecticut, he clerked in a munitions factory, wrote poetry about a figure paralyzed by failure and loss, and tried to enlist in the Royal Air Force.

Rushed out of training to stop the Germans, John Reid arrived in Brest with the Third Battalion aboard the Agamemnon on April 18, 1918. (The ship must have been christened by officials heedless of what Yeats would call, “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.”)

That same day Estelle Oldham married Cornell Franklin.

By late May, American forces were almost prepared to engage the Germans. In an early June letter, written atop the lid of his mess kit, John Reid assured his mother: “the Huns got loose about a week ago & made some gains but I hear they have driven them back now & I dont think it will be long till we will all be coming home.” He imagined the Reids (who never ate a meal without some sort of fruit) “living on strawberries & cherries now.” He promised to get home to the Reid orchards, trees which his father Allan had begun planting when he arrived from Scotland in 1873, “in time to eat my share of the preserves.” In a postscript John asked his mother to save a clipping labeled “Happy American Marines riding in “side-door” Pullmans to the front in France.” His platoon had ridden “three nights & two days (40 of us) in one of these Pullmans & they are not nearly as big as a first class box car at home. It sure was a great ride.” That hint that the Great War was not as glorious as promised contains as much irony as Reid permitted himself.

A member of Company H, 7th Regiment, Third Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, Reid soon found the “Huns” needed much more driving back. He fought from the beginning of June in the crucial battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, where Jack Falkner, with the Fifth Marine Regiment, also fought.

Taking heavy casualties, the British were forced to lower standards of education and physique for pilot training. Masquerading as a British citizen, Falkner got himself accepted in the Canadian branch of the Royal Air Force. From mid-summer, 1918, he trained in Toronto. In his cadet uniform, the 20-year-old looked small and frightened. His letters, however, strike a masterful pose, even about the air-sickness test he barely passed. He signaled a new cavalier persona with a new name—”Faulkner,” as he said his Scot forebearers had spelled it.

With the Third Division, John Reid fought for all of July. In the Aisne-Marne Offensive, the war’s turning point, he rescued his sergeant under heavy machine-gun fire. Leading a seemingly charmed life, Reid was promoted and received the Silver Star for “gallantry in action at la Theodorie Farm, France, July 22, 1918.”

In September General Pershing’s American troops were assigned the taking of the Argonne Forest. A ten-mile deep zone of trenches, barbed wire, railway supply lines, and field fortifications, the Argonne was the most vital point in German defenses. It had been considered impregnable. Inadequately trained troops faltered in the offensive of September 26. Then the next day, Jack Falkner with the 5th Marine Regiment helped a French army corps rebuild roads ruined by four years of fighting so that more experienced forces could advance. Reid’s division trekked by night over those make-shift roads north-west between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest.

William Faulkner remained in Toronto, where the entire city, including the School of Aeronautics, was under quarantine, thanks to an epidemic of Spanish influenza. Faulkner made numerous realistic sketches of “aeroplanes,” often juxtaposing against them stylized images of naked nymphs and goat-footed Pans, figures whose desires seemed directed at both planes and women.

On October 4, the Germans petitioned President Wilson for an immediate cessation of fighting. Dr. Smythe must have had high placed connections, for he sent a letter from France to the Memphis News Scimitar. It announced: “SMYTHE THINKS BOCHE WILL QUIT.” While Wilson delayed, Pershing ordered a further American advance in rain and sleet against now reinforced defenses in Argonne.

On October 4 and 5, Sergeants Reid, Gunter, and Davis commanded three of Company H’s four platoons. Charging machine-gun nests in the dense hilly woods, they met heavy artillery, poison gases, and machine gun fire. Sergeant Reid reformed his lines and reattacked. Then, probably in the Bois des Ogons, John Reid’s luck ran out. A machine gun bullet pierced his helmet and tore into his skull.

Against orders and under heavy fire, Corporal Leon A. Dombrowski spent 12 hours getting Reid behind the lines. Thinking Reid “could live only a few hours,” Sergeant Gunter had him transported by stretcher for more than a mile.

Gunter kept Reid’s watch, expecting to return it to the Reids, as he later explained to their son, “with details of your daring death.”

Not having heard from his son for three weeks, on October 18 Allan Reid wrote to John “I hope the Huns have not got you.” The letter returned unanswered.

Sergeant Gunter searched graveyards for Reid’s dog tag on a fresh grave.

On October 22, Frank David Smythe became Chief of Surgical Service at a 1,000-bed base hospital in Paris, which treated 2,000 patients that month.

On November 1, Jack Falkner suffered from gassing and shrapnel wounds to the knee and scalp. President Wilson accepted the Germans’ surrender. Still in training, William Faulkner wrote his mother ruefully, “It looks like the whole thing is over.” The “whole thing” was the war but also, it seems, the chance of becoming an heroic flying ace. When the Armistice arrived on November 11, he was one week short of completing ground school.

After six weeks of silence, the letter written by the nurse for John Reid arrived at the Reid farm, to be printed by the Messenger on 15 November.

Faulkner had probably not flown in, certainly he had not piloted, a plane; nor, thanks to the quarantine, had he left Toronto. But that was not the story he told when he got home. He arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, in early December, 1918, wearing a second lieutenant’s uniform, “wings” meaning completed pilot training, and a cap signifying overseas service. He leaned on a cane and walked with a limp. He first claimed to have ended a celebratory joy ride by crashing his plane into the hangar in Toronto, where he and the plane hung upside down.

Reid was shipped back with the most seriously wounded soldiers aboard another classically named ship, the U. S. S. Antigone, which left France on Dec. 22, 1918. John Reid’s elder brother Robert traveled from Kentucky to meet him at Newport News, in early January 1919. When Robert boarded ship, he found the seriously wounded men so well wrapped, like Joseph Heller’s “soldier in white,” that he could not find his brother; nor did Reid and Dombrowski recognize each other in their bandage encasements. (Only later did they find that they had been on the same ship.) Dombrowski was shipped to Fort Dix, New Jersey, Reid to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D. C. , where the optimistic Owensboro Messenger announced, “the paralysis in the right arm and leg can be relieved.”

When John Reid’s fellow soldiers wrote his parents, they used the language Hemingway later deplored. One explained that “John was a brave gallant soldier, always out in the worst shell fire, doing every thing he could for his comrades.” Gunter returned Reid’s watch with seven francs. “Most of the fellows who owed you are in the hospital,” he wrote. Or, he omitted, they were dead.

In December 1918, my grandmother Marion, herself a formidable Scot, wrote Corporal Dombrowski at the military hospital in Fort Dix where he was mending. She asked Dombrowski to tell how he had rescued John Reid.

When William Faulkner’s official papers arrived home, under the heading “Casualties, Wounds, Campaigns, Medals, Clasps, Decorations, Mentions, Etc. ,” only the word “NIL” appears. Yet Faulkner assumed the role of military hero. He paraded about Oxford in his uniform, his limp and overseas insignia inspiring salutes from returning soldiers. Instead of being embarrassed over this farce, Faulkner had himself photographed in at least six different combinations of military garb, looking jaunty, dapper, self-assured, and heroic.

In early 1919, a soldier stationed at a nearby camp met Carolyn Smythe in the lobby of Memphis’s old Peabody Hotel, but, to the soldier’s surprise, Faulkner also showed up walking with a cane, “in uniform and bandaged,” with his arm in a sling. He said he had suffered a plane crash in France. Faulkner thought himself dashing. Carolyn found him amusing. Her beau thought he was crazy.

From Fort Dix, that January, Leon Dombrowski answered Marion Reid’s query. A Polish immigrant with imperfect English, he began: “I am trying to be real frank with you Mrs Reid and will answer the questions as good as I can and so you can understand them.” He did so on ten pages of a lined tablet.

Dombrowski’s language differs radically from the effusive rhetoric of a young woman who visited John Reid at the hospital. She wrote his sister, “You’ve no idea how plucky those boys are out at Walter Reid [sic], one boy whose foot is off asked me if when he learned to dance, would I dance with him … isn’t that bravery personified.” She doesn’t seem to have realized that such pluckiness was a defense against despair, as was John Reid’s reaction to being fitted with shoes: “he seemed rather amused that they thought he could ever use them. . . .He says they do something new and uncomfortable to him every day.”

On Jan. 17, 1919, (the day after the Prohibition Amendment was ratified), Allan Reid arrived in Washington, D. C. He sent a lengthy account of his hospital visits to the Owensboro paper. (The attention given to my family seems extraordinary, but provincial papers typically put a personal construction on even international news.) Grandpapa reported, “I never saw such spirit as those boys show, full of larks and jokes.” At least he did not use words like “plucky.” Though the veterans used “such expletives as “we sure gave them hell,”” he assured readers that such words were “only adequate,” not vulgar. Writing of the nurses, he cited Marmion’s “Apostrophe to Woman” as “a ministering/Angel thou.” Ever a good Scot, quoting Robert Burns on the “too pious,” Grandpapa noted that the lads preferred those chaplains “who went over the top with them with a hand grenade instead of a Bible and helped bring in the wounded.” He was quite certain that Germans were not so valiant as the Allies. Asking John how thick machine gun bullets flew, he was amused with the simile “”Oh about like rain.”” Grandpapa did warn: “We do not yet realize the price America paid in her young manhood in this war,” but he did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, the Paris Conference of Allies imposed upon the Germans the harsh reparations the German women had feared. And General Ludendorff, among others, began circulating the “stabbed in the back” theory that Germans had been betrayed by the peace.

In Mississippi, William Faulkner was writing stilted poems and masquerading in ever more elaborate tales as a heroic aviator. He told Calvin S. Brown that he escaped serious injury because the “thatched roof of a peasant’s house broke his fall.” In fact, he added, he “went right through the roof and landed unhurt in the middle of a big tureen of soup, with the [French] family sitting around it at the Sunday dinner table!” Ben Wasson remembered that Faulkner had received “a leg injury that caused him to limp” in the crash.

On Dec. 16, 1919, before the Southern Surgical Association’s meeting at the elegant Grunewald (now the Fairmont) Hotel in New Orleans, H. H. Kerr, M. D. , a Canadian, then a Lieutenant-Colonel in the U. S. Medical Corps, spoke on “The Late Treatment of Gun-Shot Wounds of the Head.”

Comparing two methods of treating wounds to the head, either through inserting a metal plate in the skull or through making a bone graft, Kerr explained that, at Walter Reed, they preferred the latter method, which he illustrated with pictures of his patients’ skulls. The New Orleans and Memphis papers printed cryptic accounts of the surgeons’ meetings, as Dr. Smythe traveled home from the convention.

Sometime in this period, Carolyn Smythe received in the mail a small hand-printed book with a title page that read: “Poems by William Faulkner for Carolyn Smythe.” Bound and sewn by Faulkner himself (in purple velvet!), she remembered that it contained about eight poems, a dramatic prose conversation, and pen and ink drawings in the Aubrey Beardsley manner of females that all looked like the lost Estelle. (This book—which would be almost invaluable today—was lost in a fire, her son tells me.) Both words and images (as remembered) suggest that Faulkner was obsessed with lost ideals of himself as hero and lover.

Carolyn Smythe had been a friend of Mark Grider, a famous Memphis flying ace. Glider’s daredevil flying record and dramatic death, along with Dr. Smythe’s hospital service and the talk on treating war wounds he had heard in New Orleans, were likely topics of conversation when Faulkner slept over at the Smythes. Though he could have read it in the “Ole Miss” library in Oxford, at the Smythes’ Faulkner may have read Smythe’s own copy of the Transactions of the Southern Surgical Association which reprinted Dr. Kerr’s talk with its accompanying illustrations.

Two of those illustrations are of John Reid’s skull, as it was first battered in, then patched together in surgery.

I suspect Faulkner did read Kerr’s article, because in the early 1920’s his “war wound” changed. It was no longer a rather vague injury to arm or hip that produced a limp; now he described it as a wound to the skull, covered by a silver plate.

With his wound covered by a bone graft from the right side of his skull, John Reid remained in Walter Reed until May of 1920. Through relentless therapy, he gained enough use of his right leg to limp. Among amputees and other survivors lined up like a football team for a class picture, Reid had to use his left arm to hold his paralyzed right one behind him.

When William Faulkner arrived in New Orleans in the fall of 1924, he introduced himself to the Bohemian crowd in the French Quarter, including the prominent writer Sherwood Anderson, as a wounded veteran of World War I. Anderson immediately penned a story about a little Southern poet, an aviator who had survived a crash in the Great War. Anderson’s poet drinks prodigious quantities of liquor (illegal of course in Prohibition) to ease the pain caused by a silver plate over his head wound. He passes out on the brick patio of a bordello talking to the madam.

When “Miss Maud” read Anderson’s story, her son had to do some fast explaining. He claimed that Anderson depicted him as a wounded and drunken aviator because truth “never makes a good yarn.” Certainly Faulkner’s own non-experience of the Great War did not. But the RAF uniform with the overseas service cap, the crash, the limp, the head wound, and the silver plate in his skull made a very good yarn indeed. It even enabled him, as one New Orleanian remembered, to fulfill his ambition and live the life “of a war hero.”

The pretense of a brain injury objectified whatever agonies Faulkner secretly suffered. A brain injury not only excused, it transformed his brooding and drinking from disgrace into heroism. The emblem of the “silver plate” figuratively allowed Faulkner to cover over his sense of failure and loss.

In New Orleans during the first half of 1925, Faulkner began his metamorphosis from failed poet into great novelist by writing Soldiers’ Pay. This first novel suggests he had indeed read Dr. Kerr’s article. Donald Mahon’s symptoms from a gun-shot wound to the head resemble those Kerr described in Reid and others. Mrs. Powers’ faith in surgeons echoes (and almost parodies) Kerr’s self-confidence. The oddity of this novel is that the unscarred Cadet Lowe wants to swap his healthy body for Mahon’s shattered skull, rather as the healthy William Faulkner masqueraded as what John Reid actually was.

In 1927 John Reid relapsed into a coma from which he did not wake on the entire journey back to Walter Reed, where his wound was reopened and repaired. If I could write that Reid then received an actual metal plate in his head, like the one Faulkner pretended to have, my story would be more symmetrical, but probably untrue. And an invented parallel would demean the actual ones adumbrated here.

At that time, Faulkner was writing about twins, both dare-devil aviators in the Great War. Faulkner’s John Sartoris flies his Sopwith Camel straight up into cloud banks, where the more air-worthy German Fokkers surround him using tactics Baron von Richthofen had refined. When his plane catches fire, John jumps without a parachute, thumbing his nose at his twin, a gesture Faulkner narrates without irony.

Bayard Sartoris lives but is haunted by guilt because he has flown more cautiously than his twin. Lacking a war wound, Bayard engages in one foolhardy gesture after another until he kills himself in his own airplane crash. Like the dynamic between Mahon and Lowe in Soldiers’ Pay, the fictional Sartoris twins’ story seems a parable for Reid’s wound and Faulkner’s guilt over not fighting or being wounded. He later expressed that guilt through another character named Bayard: “those who can, do, those who cannot and suffer enough because they can’t, write about it.”

In 1929, Faulkner married the once-lost, now-divorced, and at-last-available Estelle. In 1938 Reid married Nell Marshall, an Alabamian who worked during the Depression for the Kentucky YWCA. Each marriage brought both happiness and bitterness. In each, bitterness was alleviated by the birth of a daughter, born late to the Faulkners, very late to the Reids.

After The Sound and the Fury was published, in September 1929, Faulkner tried to make good on his decade-long boast. His instructor’s wife remembered that, at the time of the stock market crash, he was surreptitiously but unsuccessfully taking flying lessons at the Memphis airport. Illustrating his maxim about writing instead of doing, he cashed in on the current vogue for aviation fiction in stories that were based supposedly on his own experience but actually on Mack Glider’s exploits.

In 1933 Faulkner again took secretive, prolonged, and at last successful flying lessons. Having written about the seamy side of Memphis in Sanctuary, however, he had lost his anonymity. With the press speculating about Prohibition’s repeal, in late March the Commercial Appeal also announced “Recovery of Lost Nerve Is Author’s Aim”; the subtitle was “Faulkner, War Flier, Seeks to Use His Wings Once More.”

Meanwhile, the “stabbed in the back” theory fermented, fueling German chauvinism and paranoia and laying the groundwork for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

Faulkner expunged most “war flier” stories from his biography. Against Hitler, however, he found the heroic myth again irresistible. When his nephew became an aviation cadet, Faulkner wrote him: “I would have liked for you to have had my dog-tag, RAF, but I lost it in Europe, in Germany. I think the Gestapo has it; I am very likely on their records right now as a dead British flying officer-spy.”

After similar beginnings, the trajectories of Reid’s and Faulkner’s lives became obverse images of each other. Faulkner re-invented himself not only as pilot but as patriarch. He became the head and often supporter of an extended family. (His relatives even added the “u” to their “Falkner.”)

In 1948, after we moved to Alabama, John Reid lost his connections with his agrarian roots. Only then did he grow bitter and silent. When I asked about the Silver Star awarded for gallantry, he brushed off its significance, saying that the man he rescued died anyway. His only confession about risk-taking in the Great War was that he had smoked Camel cigarettes.

Meanwhile and especially after winning the 1950 Nobel Prize, William Faulkner became an articulate public spokesman for equality, tolerance, moderation, privacy, the efficacy of art, and the “old verities,” which he saw not as obscene distortions but as the means by which humankind would not just endure but prevail.

By 1962, when Faulkner died, my father had all but ceased to read and to speak. Embarrassed over his handicaps, I longed for a more dazzling father than the crippled old man a machine-gun bullet had left me. When I began writing about Faulkner’s articulate, powerful fiction, I was no doubt literally engaged in what pre-feminist criticism used to call the “search for the father.” Only belatedly did I realize how much John Reid was (to use a Faulknerian term) William Faulkner’s “dark twin,” and it has taken me even longer to realize that Faulkner was also Reid’s “dark twin.”

After my father died in 1980 and my mother in 1990, among all the worthless papers I inherited, I discovered Dr. Kerr’s article. Reading this article with its photos of my father’s skull and realizing that the talk had been given in 1919 in New Orleans, my memory believed before knowing remembered (to borrow from Light in August) that Faulkner had read it too. Then I began to pour through my inheritance of books, maps, clippings, military records, and letters. Among them, my most dramatic discoveries were articulate letters from my father, written in a graceful handwriting I had never before seen, and Leon Dombrowski’s account of the events of Oct. 5—6, 1918. Reading that testimony was as powerful an experience as studying the commissary records is for Faulkner’s Isaac McCaslin. While Isaac discovers such shame and perfidy in his family’s history that he revokes his heritage, I discovered such bravery that I was only ashamed of my own callow embarrassment.

Even with misspellings and almost non-existent punctuation, Dombrowski’s narrative achieves an immediacy and poignancy that rivals Faulkner’s famously unpunctuated stream-of consciousness passages:

The night of Oct 3 or 4th news was received that next morn, we were to go Over the Top, upon reaching the lines and relieving the 176 infantry, I think, which was about 1 a. m. on the 5th of Oct last we took our positions All this time (Sgt) John having command of His platoon laying there waiting for the zero hour to come at 6 a. m. The barrage came over and at 6. 45 was the time to go Over. It was understood that the platoon that Sgt. John had and another in Command of Sgt Davis was to be in 1st line the two other Platoons to be in support. At the Xero hr I shall judge the German Shells must of got 20 or 30 men wounded which left us practically 3 platoons [rather than the four that had begun battle] of Men

Zero hr. came, “over we Boys” I heard John yell and over we went, advancing about a ½ Kilometer down Hill

According to a letter from Sergeant George Gunter to Allan Reid, their captain was killed almost immediately, so the command of the operation devolved to Sergeants Gunter, Davis, and Reid. Corporal Dombrowski’s narrative continues almost unpunctuated:

at the edge of the other Hill we were halted as the Fritz was on the Hill with Machine Guns, there were no Officers and not Knowing what to do, there (Sgt) John gave orders to dig in this was about 8 or 8. 30 a. m. same day, and said we shall wait and find out what will further orders be, just about ½ hr later comes 4 French Tanks and they were to make our way they tr’d and fired a few shots and down [the hill] they come saying something else has to be done (yet no officers), during those operations we were busy lying boys in some holes, for protection [of the] wounded of course, the lines [of Germans and Allies] being about 100 yards apart at that time, this was about 11 or 12 oclock as good as I can remember, about 1 pm [the] same day [the] order came to go over again, we were to receive a smoke screen, which we did receive this was to be stake’t off at 3 p. m. again (Sgt) John’s Platoon in front also Sgt Davis’s Platoon

The smoke screen was a disaster. As one of my father’s books explains: “It made a perfect target for German artillery and caused only confusion in the attacking forces. Severe losses were inflicted on the regiment before the attack was even in motion.” Sergeant Gunter later wrote Allan Reid, “We were met by heavy machine gun fire from the enemy which caused some confusion in our ranks for a few minutes, and at this point I last saw Sgt. Reid who was reforming his lines.” Gunter further explained that “one of [Reid’s] corporals told me that the last command Sgt. Reid gave was: “Come, let’s double time into them.”” Corporal Dombrowski explained:

Here is when the racket started. Over we go and upon reaching the Hill is where John was wounded, at that time I was about 15 yards away from John with my squad of men seeing John fall over I said to my self I must reach Him after crawling from shell hole to shell hole I found that John was Kill’d at this time I was about 5 yards from where Sgt John lay, the Boys saying that he was hit in the Heart I yelled over “John John” but no answer, so I gave [up] all hope of seeing John alive.

The platoon was leaderless, John Reid being apparently dead. And he would have died and I would not be writing this, had it not been for the amazing loyalty and courage of Leon Dombrowski:

Laying there about another hour I heard John gave a moan which I heard and said, to the rest of the Boys “he is alive!” this was about 6 p.m.

after going out [of] the dugout I was told [by another corporal, perhaps] to get back in to it, as the fire of [German] Machine Gunners was something terrible, laying there about 5 minutes, I said I was going to drag John in to some hole in which I succeeded there giving him the first aid, when I found the wound to be in the Head and [I was] saying to John how are you and he said “-huh-huh Leo, I am alright” giving him a drink of coffee which I had in my canteen

(When only a moan had signaled that Reid was still alive, Dombrowski’s version of a conversation seems to me rather implausible, probably invented to protect my grandmother from knowing just how near death her son had been.) Dombrowski’s otherwise authentic letter continues:

he felt much relieved and I told him as soon as it will get dark I shall try and get him to safety about this time it was getting dark and the Germans sent in another barrage hugging to the ground as low as I could me & John pulled through at about this time we had not more than 70 men left.

Then I begin to figure how to get John down the Hill I had asked some of the Boys to help me but found out no one was willing, then I said I shall drag him down as far as I can this was about 8. 30 or 9 p. m. and every few seconds a flare would come so having John on my back I found it to be too hard for me, and I almost gave out my self, I must of dragged him about 25 yards and laid him in a hole saying “by George they’re going to help me or there will be another fight” so up the Hill I go after some men.

There I got 4 Boys with 2 rifles and a blanket and back we go laying John on the stretcher which we made out of the blanket and two rifles we took him down Hill every now and then John would say “how much farther boys” but we could not stop to explain, so upon getting at the bottom of the Hill where we dug in that morning we received another shelling there we were all in the open but anyhow the luck was with us so we laid John in the Dug Out and covered him up and up the Hill we go, there I met Sgts. Davis & Gunter and we have just decided to move down hill again, they tell me, so down we went and there I have told Gunter about John and that sure did hit Sgt Gunter very hard, there we were dark, and John wounded so seriously so I told Gunter to see if something could be done.

Having crawled a substantial distance with Reid on his back, then furiously dragooned others to help carry Reid on a make-shift stretcher, Leon Dombrowski relinquished his charge. I wonder now if my father was really able to ask “how much farther boys,” for Sergeant Gunter later wrote, “After I got [John] off the field I thought he could have only a few hours [to live]. It was a very great loss to me there being no other man in the company so close a friend to me as John.” He also insisted to Allan Reid, “I assure you sir the company never lost a better soldier than he.” Leon Dombrowski continued with bitter comments about the commissioned officers:

well we decided to wait till morn then this was about 2.30 or 3 a.m. so this ended my assistance to John after this Gunter took care of John and got some other boys to take Him to the first aid station which was about another mile from where we were, how he got there, and what time he had, I do not know but I do know that it took him about 4 hrs to make the trip.

As far as I know all the Corporals & Sergeants were on the job, but as to the Officers I can say this much that there was not a bit of fighting spirit in them, what so ever, and I think John can approve of that, that same morning we found that our Company went over the top with out an Officer and we were without them till the day when we received news about being released then they started a coming in we had two Officers at that time 1st and 2nd Lieutenants of course I was lucky enough to linger 10 or 12 days longer [until he too was wounded] I also saw Sgt Gunter get wounded upon another front to which we went after being relieved only for a day and night.

Dombrowski ended his narration with one final poignant sentence: “All this happened in the bloody Front of Argonne Woods.”

That almost 80-year-old letter, written on cheap, yellowed note paper, left me in tears over Reid’s and Dombrowski’s bravery and over the latter’s eloquence, as he expressed in barely literate but deeply passionate language his own courage.

Faulkner expanded his narrative experiments and his empathy for an ever-widening cast of characters, but when his own daughter once appealed to him to stop drinking by saying “think of me,” he replied: “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” John Reid would never even have spoken (or even thought) so dismissively. Nor would he have fabricated any tale about his own bravery. Though a machine-gun bullet lost me a more communicative and more dazzling father, I now realize that, as it freed Reid from codes of competition and aggression, I was also its beneficiary. Though he hardly talked, John Reid did show, in Faulkner’s words from Absalom, Abasalom!, an “overpass to love.” Furthermore, once he ceased romanticizing the fallen warrior, Faulkner depicted, in courageously controversial fiction, that overpass.

In the sections of Absalom set in 1910, Shreve McCannon (a Canadian and future M. D. , like Dr. Kerr) asks Quentin Compson to “tell about the South.” Then together they transmute second-hand hypotheses and a single Civil War letter written in faded stove polish into the story of the American South. In their joint narrative, they experience that “overpass to love.” I feel some kinship, for exhuming from attics and archives unpublished information about both Reid and Faulkner has afforded me an intellectual and an emotional “overpass” into my own past and into Faulkner’s too.

That “overpass” confirms the inextricable twinning of doing and writing: of actual courage, as practiced by such unknowns as Reid and Dombrowski, and abstract verities, as bodied forth in Faulkner’s fiction.

Of my long-term belief in Faulkner’s fiction before I knew to connect his story and my father’s, I can say, this 80th Armistice Day, in Leon Dombrowski’s words, all this happened.”


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Wylie McLallen's picture
Wylie McLallen · 4 years ago

Dr. Frank Smythe is my great-grandfather.  I knew my grandmother, Ruth Smythe, the younger sister of Carolyn Smythe (who is in this story), was 2nd cousin to Estelle Oldham Faulkner and that they knew each other well.  I had also heard the tales of William Faulkner spending nights on the porch of their home in Memphis.  In fact, my aunt had in her home framed a drawing that William had given to my grandmother.  But this is the first time I've encountered these things in print.  I would like to speak to the author about this some more.


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