The Faulkner Sequel. "Faulkner Stole My Father's War Wound:" Centennial Reflections on William Faulkner and John Reid, PART 2
By Panthea Reid
*Last week, WWrite published the first part of this riveting story by Panthea Reid about her startling discovery while writing her book on William Faulkner. Faulkner, who received the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, had claimed that he was wounded while serving in the British Royal Flying Corps during WWI. Not only did Professor Reid debunk these claims with archival research; she also learned that Faulkner had confiscated the record of her own father's WWI wound and claimed the story for himself. Special thanks to Peter Molin, veteran, writer, and blogger for bringing this article to WWrite. Be sure to read Peter's blog, Time Now, about Iraq and Afghanistan here and his two WWrite pieces on Aline Kilmer and James Joyce.
Now, here's where we left off:
...Faulkner continued to parade about Oxford in a uniform, his limp and overseas insignia inspiring salutes from returning soldiers. He was photographed in at least six different combinations of military garb, looking jaunty, dapper, and self-assured.
Before she married Will Parks in 1922, a number of suitors pursued Carolyn Smythe. In probably early 1919, a soldier stationed at a nearby army camp arranged to meet her in the lobby of the old Peabody Hotel. When they met, William Faulkner also appeared “in uniform and bandaged.” His arm was in a sling and he walked with a cane. Faulkner told Carolyn’s beau, who later told Carvel Collins, that, when Faulkner’s plane had been hit, the British Major with him had been killed. Faulkner had also said he had “fallen through trees so that he was only injured, not killed.” Carolyn’s soldier friend found her an “extremely attractive and energetic spicy girl.” She thought Faulkner rather humorous. Her beau thought she led Faulkner on.
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 answere the questions as good as I can and so you can understand them.” On ten pages of a lined tablet, Dombrowski laboriously detailed the agonizing events of October 5-6, 1918, when he had rescued the paralyzed John Reid. (I quote this letter near the close of this essay.)
In 1919, William Faulkner continued to write static poems about failure and loss. From time to time he donned the uniform of a soldier who had seen overseas service. Calvin S. Brown remembered that Faulkner told neighborhood boys he escaped injury when he crashed in France 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 family sitting around it at the Sunday dinner table!”
For much of 1919, Walter Reed surgeons tried to rehabilitate John Reid’s brain and body through state-of-the-art surgery, but, contra newspaper optimism, paralysis was not easily “relieved.”
That fall William Faulkner enrolled as a special student at the University of Mississippi. Though college fraternities and the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages were both outlawed, he joined the now underground Sigma Alpha Epsilon, whose alumni included Falkners and Smythes. Among current “brothers” was Ben Wasson, who would later work as Faulkner’s agent. Wasson remembered the SAEs enjoyed Faulkner’s drunken story-telling but were skeptical about the veracity of his tale of crashing a plane and “receiving a leg injury that caused him to limp.”
On December 16, 1919, at the Southern Surgical Association’s meeting at the elegant Grunewald (now the Fairmont) Hotel in New Orleans, H. H. Kerr, M.D., a Canadian who had become a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Medical Corps, gave a talk on “The Late Treatment of Gun-Shot Wounds of the Head.” Given that he too was a Lieutenant Colonel, one of three Chiefs of Surgical Service at hospital #57, and a Fellow of the Southern Surgical Association, Dr. Frank David Smythe must have been deeply interested in, perhaps involved in, Dr. Kerr’s talk.
Considering the “defect syndrome” that injured patients exhibited, Dr. Kerr optimistically assumed that surgery would cure such psychological symptoms, along with most physiological ones. 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 both gave cryptic accounts of the surgeons’ convention, printed as Dr. Smythe traveled home from New Orleans.
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!), it contained six or eight poems, a dramatic prose conversation, and pen and ink drawings in the Aubrey Beardsley manner. (Unfortunately, this book—which would be almost invaluable today—was lost in a fire.) Carolyn remembered that all the idealized female figures Faulkner drew looked like his lost love, Estelle Oldham.
Carolyn Smythe had been a friend of the Memphis ace, Mack Grider, whose daredevil flying record and dramatic death, along with her father’s and brother’s service in France, were likely topics of conversation whenever Faulkner visited the Smythes. The elder Dr. Smythe seems also to have told Faulkner about the new surgical methods for treating war wounds to the head. Though the association’s journal was on the shelves in the Ole Miss library in Oxford, Smythe probably shared with Faulkner his 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. The photographs of his shaved head, first battered-in and then patched together, expose Reid’s vulnerability. Severely wounded, he no longer looks imposing or confident.
I believe Faulkner did hear about Dr. Kerr’s talk from Dr. Smythe and did “get” his war wound by reading Dr. Kerr’s article, because in the early 1920s Faulkner’s “war wound” metamorphosized. He no longer suffered a rather vague injury in arm and hip that produced a limp. Suddenly, Faulkner had a highly specific wound to the skull, supposedly covered over by a silver plate.
With his own wound to his left skull covered by a bone graft from his right skull, John Reid remained in Walter Reed until May of 1920. Through relentless physical therapy, he gained partial use of his right leg. He stands straight among his “graduation” class from Walter Reed, but his good left arm has to hold his limp right one behind him. John Reid, front row, second from right in the photo (now at the University of Virginia), grimaces bitterly.
When 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 memorialized Faulkner in “A Meeting South,” a story about a little southern poet, formerly an aviator who has survived a crash in the Great War. The poet drinks prodigious quantities of illegal liquor to ease the pain caused by a silver plate covering a wound in his head. Anderson’s poet passes out on the brick patio of a bordello talking to the madam, an actual New Orleanian called “Aunt Rose” Arnold.
When “Miss Maud” read Anderson’s story, her son did some fast explaining. He maintained that Anderson made up the tale about him 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. One friend remembered that in New Orleans he lived the life “of a war hero.”
In New Orleans during the first half of 1925, Faulkner began his metamorphosis from failed poet into great novelist by writing Soldiers’ Pay. Though Faulkner could have heard of war wounds from a variety of sources, this first novel offers another suggestion that he had indeed read Dr. Kerr’s article. Donald Mahon’s symptoms from a gun-shot wound to the head resemble the “defect syndrome” Dr. Kerr described. Mrs. Powers’ faith in surgeons echoes (and almost parodies) Dr. Kerr’s self-confidence. Mahon soon dies from his wound (as, miraculously, Reid did not), but the oddity of this novel is that the unscarred Cadet Lowe envies the maimed Lt. Mahon. While developing the theme of Lowe’s desire to swap his healthy body for Mahon’s shattered skull, the healthy William Faulkner himself was masquerading as what John Reid actually was: a veteran with a shattered skull.
Contrary to Dr. Kerr’s optimistic report on the newest procedures of 1919, surgical patching partially mended the hole in John Reid’s skull but did not address the psychological aftermath of losing a possible fiancée, a promising profession, agility in the right leg, and control of the right arm. Nor could it address the lifetime “defect syndrome” Reid suffered.
In 1927, John Reid suffered a terrible relapse. His brothers, Robert and Allan, Jr., rushed him (in a coma for the whole train trip) back to Walter Reed. As they maintained twenty-four-hour watches, his wound was reopened, his surgery redone.
William Faulkner was at that time writing stories and a third novel about twin brothers, 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. As he goes down, John’s last chivalric gesture is to thumb his nose at his twin brother, Bayard.
Bayard Sartoris lives but is haunted by guilt because he has played the game of war more cautiously than his twin. After his return to Mississippi, Bayard engages on one foolhardy gesture after another until he finally 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 neither fighting nor being wounded. He expressed that guilt in the words of another Bayard: “those who can, do, those who cannot and suffer enough because they can’t, write about it.”
After he had appropriated the silver-plate-in-the-head story, Faulkner wrote about “it” with power and finality. Rather as he had objectified his “wound” and covered it with the silver-plate story, so Faulkner’s myriad experiments with narrative form became henceforth his cover for and escape from residual feelings of pain and loss.
In 1929, when he was finishing The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner married the once-lost, now-divorced, and at-last-available Estelle. In 1938 Reid married Nell Marshall, an Alabamian, who held an MA in mathematics from Columbia University but was working during the Depression as a YWCA staffer in Kentucky. Each marriage brought both happiness and bitterness. In each, bitterness was alleviated by the birth of a single daughter, born late to the Faulkners, very late to the Reids.
When The Sound and the Fury was published, in September 1929, Faulkner surreptitiously and abortively took flying lessons at the Memphis airport. He then cashed in on a vogue for aviation fiction by writing stories, based supposedly on his own but actually on Mack Grider’s flying exploits. As if to pay his debt, Faulkner wrote a tribute to Grider for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
In 1933 Faulkner began secretive, prolonged, and at last successful flying lessons. Having written about the seamy side of Memphis in the notorious Sanctuary, however, Faulkner had lost his anonymity. He deflected reporters’ curiosity with another fabrication, explained in late March by the Commercial Appeal’s headline “Recovery of Lost nerve is Author’s Aim.” The subtitle was “Faulkner, War Flier, Seeks to Use His Wings Once More.”
By the 1940s, Faulkner generally tried to expunge “war flier” stories from his biography, but when his nephew became an aviation cadet, Faulkner resurrected the tales: “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.”
Faulkner had not flown in Europe or anywhere else. John Reid never flew.
Faulkner re-invented himself both as patriarch and pilot. He bought and renovated an antebellum home down an avenue of cedars. He named the place “Rowan Oak” and acquired land around it to create a bucolic retreat. He bought an airplane and a farm, where he set up one brother in a doomed agrarian experiment raising mules. As his fame spread, he became the head and often the supporter of an extended family. (His relatives even added the “u” to their “Falkner.”)
In 1948, after we moved to Alabama, John Reid became a secondary figure in his mother-in-law’s house. We spent all vacations back on the bucolic Reid orchards until my father’s beloved Victorian home-place burnt down, and he lost most of his connections with his agrarian past.
As an adolescent, I was often embarrassed by the difficulty simple tasks, like writing with his left hand or mounting stairs posed for my father. Back then, there were no handicap ramps, so he laboriously climbed the church steps using his left hand to hold a railing and dragging his right foot behind, furious if anyone offered to help. He mastered driving a car but awkwardly. (I was mortified to have my friends with us in our old Dodge, as he tediously shifted the “fluid drive” gears with only one leg and steered with only one arm.) Meanwhile, my mother regressed into being once again something of her mother’s little girl. My father must have felt forsaken.
With a wound in the left brain where the nerve-center for speech is located, John Reid’s moderate aphasia escalated. Bitterness about the disparity between the language of heroism and the gruesome reality of trench warfare intensified his silence. A formal photograph of my father carried an official star. When I learned that it was the Silver Star, I begged to hear of his heroic exploits. He just bitterly remarked that he had rescued a man who died anyway. His only confession about risk-taking in the Great War was that he had smoked Camel cigarettes.
When I desperately needed adult counsel, I found my female relatives too conventional and my father (despite a once broad awareness) unable to put his thoughts and feelings into words. He knew enough to disapprove of my boyfriend, as I did not. My father could not articulate his objections, and I married the guy.
Meanwhile and especially after winning the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner became an articulate public spokesman for equality, tolerance, moderation, privacy, the efficacy of art, and the “old verities.” By 1962, when Faulkner died, my father had all but ceased to read and to speak, except in monosyllables. By the 1970s he had lost most of his ability to talk. In 1974, I left my teaching post at Virginia Tech and my first husband for a post at LSU. There I met and fell in love with the English Department’s eighteenth-century scholar, John Fischer. After I brought John to Alabama to meet my parents, he read various scholarly discussions of aphasia, hoping to help John Reid, but it was half a century too late to restore any of my father’s speech. Still, Daddy reached out with his left hand and clasped John’s to him, clearly grateful that I now had a new good man in my life. By 1980, though, when Daddy died, he was unable even to make such a gesture.
We buried what seemed an empty husk.
As far as I know, my father never read Faulkner. Nor did I as an undergraduate. But when I began graduate school, reading my first Faulkner story was an elemental, almost epiphanic experience. I immediately knew I would study and write about this author. But my memory did not believe or did not acknowledge, how much William Faulkner and John Reid were (to use a Faulknerian term) “dark twins” of each other.
I wrote about Faulkner during most of my academic life; however, my memory believed long before my knowing remembered that Faulkner’s life story and my father’s formed obverse reflections of each other. Once, when he heard me laugh over Faulkner’s war wound story, my late husband John Fischer said, “That’s your father’s story, as you know.” But I had to admit to John that I hadn’t let myself know. I had longed for a more dazzling father than the crippled old man a machine-gun bullet left me, a father who would or could not talk about his own bravery.
After my mother died in 1990, among box after box of worthless papers, I discovered Dr. Kerr’s article. Reading the article with its photos of my father and realizing that the talk had been given in 1919 in New Orleans, my memory believed that Faulkner had read it too. Only when I had completed my biography of Virginia Woolf could I return to 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 October 5-6, 1918. Reading that testimony was as powerful an experience for me as studying the commissary records is for Faulkner’s Isaac McCaslin. While Isaac discovers such shame and perfidy in his family that he revokes his heritage, I discovered such bravery that I was only ashamed of my own blindness, which John Fischer had had to illuminate for me.
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 needed] 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 virtually unpunctuated:
at the edge of the other Hill we were halted as the Fritz was on the Hill with Machine Guns, there we 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 out 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 dug out 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 was). 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 in 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 began 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 2 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 were 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 John Reid on his back, then finally gotten help from others to make a make-shift stretcher, Leon Dombrowski relinquished his charge. Sergeant Gunter later wrote Allan Reid, “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, and I assure you sir the company never lost a better soldier than he.” Leon Dombrowski’s narrative continued with some bitter comments about the commissioned officers:
well we decided to wait till morn 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 comming in we had two Officers at that time 1st & 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.”
When I finished reading that 1919 letter, written on cheap, yellowed note paper, I was crying. My tears were shed for the bravery of both Reid and Dombrowski and for the eloquence of the latter, who had given barely literate but passionately expressive language to the former.
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, who spent so much of his thwarted life taxiing me (however slowly) to music and dance lessons, Girl Scouts, and horse-back riding expeditions, would never have spoken (or even thought) so dismissively. Though that 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, Absalom!, an “overpass to love.”
In the sections of Absalom set in 1910, Shreve McCannon (a Canadian and future M.D., as Dr. Kerr was) asks Quentin Compson to “tell about the South.” Then together they transmute second-hand hypotheses and a Civil War letter written in faded stove polish into the story of the American South. In their joint fabrication, they experience that “overpass to love.” Faulkner often projected the exhilarating joy of such writerly discoveries onto male sleuths and history buffs.
Women in Faulkner sometimes best men in bravery. But, though women preserve documents, Faulkner did not permit them to feel the thrill of deciphering faded handwriting, following up clues, and piecing together puzzle parts to transform the inexplicable into the coherent. Enabled by my family, I have both preserved and investigated. (I imagine Faulkner would have envied me the discovery of Dombrowski’s letter.) Uncovering in attics and archives much of the above information (including Faulkner’s heretofore unnoted connections with the Smythe family) afforded me an intellectual and an emotional “overpass” into Faulkner’s past and into my own too.
John Reid, along with other wounded World War I veterans, exhibited the courage before a near-death experience that Faulkner wished had been his own. I believe that the idea of a brain injury was meaningful to Faulkner because it objectified whatever agonies and injuries he secretly suffered; thus, it transformed his brooding and drinking from disgrace into heroism. Furthermore, the emblem of the “silver plate” allowed Faulkner figuratively to cover over his sense of failure and loss. If the story of my father’s literal paralysis helped rescue Faulkner from linguistic paralysis, then John Reid (or the image of Reid) played an enabling role in William Faulkner’s transformation from a writer of stilted prose and frozen verse into an inventor of kaleidoscopic, dynamic narrative experiments that are both energized and energizing.
No doubt, Faulkner and Reid met in my psyche because Faulkner was the glamorous, articulate father I lacked, but he was also the self-absorbed, lying, chauvinistic father I lacked. My father was not a great author, or a great anything, but he was a better father than Faulkner.
In the year 2000, twenty-five years after John Irwin Fischer and I became a couple, or an “item,” John presented at the Fourth Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift, an essay on Swift’s “Cadenus and Vanessa.” His essay was erudite and sophisticated. His conclusion was personal:
With knowledge deepened by a quarter-century’s experience, I know that a relationship that mingles love and books is possible and joyous. I have written this essay partly to discuss Swift’s habits of composition and partly to revise what I earlier wrote about Cadenus and Vanessa. But I have also written this essay, itself about books and love, for Panthea Reid.
That remarkable tribute still nearly breaks my heart. Now I’d like to dedicate this rewrite of my 1998 essay to John Irwin Fischer, who possessed the courage and decency of John Reid and also carried much of the imagination and brilliance of William Faulkner.
Somehow, memory believes, or, in Leon Dombrowski’s words, “all this happened.”
The elder Smythe probably knew John Reid’s story itself. Army personnel records from World War I were lost in a fire, so I cannot know where John Reid was treated after being evacuated from Montfaucon. The mortality rate for operations on wounds to the head had been as high as 65 percent, but by October, 1918, the Army no longer conducted hazardous partial operations at field hospitals but endeavored to get patients with head wounds to hospitals with the most experienced neuro-surgeons. The base hospital where Reid was first taken specialized in treating contagious diseases. As triage, patients needing neurological surgery would have been sent on to surgical hospitals, such as #57. If Reid had been at #57, Dr. Smythe might have been the surgeon operating on Reid. Certainly, he would have been greatly interested in Dr. Kerr’s illustrations. He might have passed on the story to a hung-over house guest named William Falkner. That Smythe knew John Reid himself is only speculation, that he attended the convention when Kerr spoke and that he owned the printed version of Kerr’s talk, with its picture of Reid’s skull, is probable fact.
Later, Leon Dombrowski received, thanks partly to Allan Reid’s efforts, a Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic rescue of his friend. He visited the Reids in the early 1920s, but then the families seem to have lost contact with each other. Dombrowski attended, perhaps also with Allan Reid’s assistance, Oswego State Normal School, in New York, where he failed English the first time. After a second try, he learned to write a grammatically correct but far less poignant letter.
Unpublished sources for this article are: The Collins Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas, Austin, the Blotner Papers, Brodsky Collection, Southeast Missouri State University, official military documents, and my own trunk-load of papers. I would also like to thank the Council on Research of LSU, and Hamilton Parks, Robert W. Hamblin, Barbara Wittkopf, Mary Marix, Janell Rudolph, Jason Mitchell, Chris Joyal, Paul Doherty, Hermann Real, Aubrey L. Williams, and, especially, John Fischer. These papers and others are now in the Small Special Collections at the University of Virginia.
*The first version of this essay was first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1998. WWrite requested permission from Panthea Reid and VQR **to reprint it on the blog for the Centennial. Both graciously agreed, and Panthea Reid edited it for WWrite to include additional information about her family and her research since its original publication.
**Special thanks to the Virginia Quarterly Review for permission to reprint.
Panthea Reid is Professor Emerita of English at LSU. After long teaching careers there, she and her husband, John Irwin Fischer, left Louisiana for Princeton, NJ, in 2001. There they pursued their several scholarly projects until Fischer died in May 2015. A year later, Reid moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, to be close to her son and grandson and not too far away from her daughter in DC. In 2017, Wild River Books published her memoir and the University of Delaware Press published the book she finished for her late husband. Reid is the author of four books and the editor of three. Her authored books are William Faulkner: The Abstract and the Actual; Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf; Tillie Olsen: One Woman, Many Riddles; and Body and Soul: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing, written after Fischer’s death. She has edited collections of essays on Walker Percy and Ellen Douglas. In 2017, she completed for Fischer and his co-editor A. C. Elias, Jr., Jonathan Swift’s Word-Book: A Vocabulary Compiled for Esther Johnson and Copied in Her Own Hand. It is Swift’s, Elias’s, and Fischer’s last book. Reid’s memoir, Body and Soul, is a touching, often amusing, love story, a poignant tale of loss, a searing warning about medical incompetence, and an inspiring account of recovery. Reid accompanies it with useful citations and practical advice on surviving loss. Reid has written for DoubleTake Magazine and The Princeton Magazine. Reid’s article on surviving a concussion “How I (Almost) Lost My Mind” is available at Newsweek online. Her first published poem appeared in Artemis Journal in the spring of 2018. She was a featured panelist in a session on memoirs at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, 23 March 2018.