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William Faulkner

William Faulkner

William Faulkner: Air Force & Ole Miss

After leaving high school, Billy seemed content with his life in Oxford. He spent his time working at the bank, writing poetry, and hanging out with Estelle, who was taking classes at Ole Miss. However, Faulkner's world was turned upside-down in the winter of 1918, when Estelle discovered that her parents had arranged for her to marry Cornell Franklin, a handsome Ole Miss grad and a Major in the National Guard. Faulkner had long assumed that he and Estelle would one day wed, and the news sent him into a downward spiral of depression and heavy drinking. Estelle wasn't happy either; she cried all night before her wedding, lamenting, "I don't know if I love Cornell or if I want to marry him."7

In April, shortly after Estelle tied the knot, Billy decided to leave Oxford and stay with his friend and mentor, Phil Stone, who was studying law at Yale. Aimless and dejected, Faulkner hatched a plan to join the British Army in hopes of serving in World War I. In June 1918, after months of practicing his British accent with Stone, William Faulkner—he added a "u" to his last name to appear more authentically English—went to the British consulate in New York City and successfully passed himself off as an Englishman ready for duty in the Royal Air Force (RAF). He was told to report for aircraft training in Toronto in three weeks!

While in Toronto, Faulkner continued to spin stories about his life, describing in great detail his supposed time as an East Coast boarding school student and Yale undergrad.8 Though he never even got to sit inside an airplane, in his letters to his mother (of which there were many—Faulkner wrote to her frequently), he claimed to have undergone extensive air force training. When armistice was declared in November 1918, ending the war, Faulkner's hopes of ever seeing real military action were crushed. Nevertheless, the young "veteran" returned home with a feigned limp and stories of combat injuries.9

In 1919, shortly after his discharge from the RAF, Faulkner ventured to New Orleans, where he spent his days writing and his nights drinking and partying. Despite his hard living, Faulkner's literary efforts paid off on 6 August 1919, when The New Republic agreed to publish one of his poems, "L'Après-midi d'un Faun" (the poem's subject matter was inspired by his love for Estelle). Though he was only paid $15 for his work, Faulkner was emboldened by the publication and boasted to a friend, "I am sending you a drawing which, when I have become famous, will doubtless be quite valuable."10

When Ole Miss announced in the summer of 1919 that it would admit returning veterans—regardless of their previous educational experience—as undergraduate students, Faulkner decided (largely to fulfill his mother's wishes) to return to Oxford to take classes at the university. While in school, Faulkner's first prose publication—a short story called "Landing on Luck"—appeared in The Mississippian, an achievement that bolstered Faulkner's confidence as a writer. Faulkner's confidence, however, soon teetered on the brink of arrogance; this, coupled with his affected British accent and expensive taste in clothing, made him a target of social derision at Ole Miss. Within the student body, he was mocked for his pretentious nature, dubbed "The Count," and had his writing parodied in the school newspaper.11 Sick of school, and convinced that formal education was pointless, Faulkner dropped out of Ole Miss in November 1920.

Faulkner, nonetheless, continued to work on his writing in Oxford. He devoted much of his time to a collection of love poems, entitled Vision in Spring, penned for Estelle. In the summer of 1921, Faulkner gave his lost love a bound copy of the poems, in which he declared that it "was my heart, my ancient heart that broke."12 Otherwise, feeling stifled by life in Oxford, and itching for a bit of excitement, Faulkner moved to New York City in fall 1921, where he landed a job as a bookstore clerk. During his stay in the Big Apple, Faulkner rubbed elbows with other artists and drank quite heavily, ending most nights by passing out in his Greenwich Village room. After only a few months away from home, Faulkner's bohemian lifestyle was abruptly cut short when he was fired from his job. At the urging of his mother and Phil Stone, the aspiring author once again returned to Oxford (Faulkner never seemed able to escape the pull of his hometown).

In Oxford, Faulkner took a new position as the postmaster at Ole Miss. Unfortunately for anyone on campus hoping to send or receive mail, he was absolutely terrible at his job. At the end of two years of rank incompetence, the postal inspector informed Faulkner that his time with the United States Postal Service had come to an end: "you are neglectful of your duties, in that you are a habitual reader of books and magazines, and seem reluctant to cease reading long enough to wait on the patrons; that you have a book being printed at the present time, the greater part of which was written while on duty at the mail; that some of the patrons will not trust you to forward their mail."13 Faulkner couldn't really complain, since he detested the job and actively shirked his duties. After being fired, Faulkner famously said, "I reckon I'll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won't ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-b---h who's got two cents to buy a stamp."14

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