Your faithful correspondent rose early Saturday morning to write about celebrated Mississippi authors who wrote first about sports, usually for newspapers. It seemed the proper time with Saturday’s Mississippi Book Festival at the State Capitol.
So later in the day, I was working at the Mississippi Today booth on the Capitol grounds when a visitor remarked that he had read my piece, and then he asked: “Did you know William Faulkner wrote sports on at least two occasions for Sports Illustrated?”
Why, no, I didn’t. I had no idea.
This was in 1955, seven years before the most celebrated of Mississippi authors died, six years after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the same year he first won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.”
In accepting the Nobel, Faulkner famously closed with: “I believe that man will not merely endure: He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Sports Illustrated, by far the most literary of sports magazines, thought it a novel idea to have the world’s most renowned novelist, from down in Mississippi, come to New York and write about ice hockey. The magazine also sent him to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby.
The idea was novel, indeed.
Of the Derby, Faulkner wrote: “Only a little over two minutes: one simultaneous metallic clash as the gates spring. Though you do not really know what it was you heard: whether it was that metallic crash, or the simultaneous thunder of the hooves in that first leap or the massed voices, the gasp, the exhalation – whatever it was, the clump of horses indistinguishable yet, like a brown wave dotted with the bright silks of the riders like chips flowing toward us along the rail until, approaching, we can begin to distinguish individuals, streaming past us now as individual horses – horses which (including the rider) once stood about eight feet tall and 10 feet long, now look like arrows twice that length and less than half that thickness, shooting past and bunching again as perspective diminishes, then becoming individual horses once more around the turn into the backstretch, streaming on, to bunch for the last time into the homestretch itself, then again individuals, individual horses, the individual horse, the Horse: 2:01:4/5 minutes.”
And of an NHL contest at Madison Square Garden, Faulkner penned: “Then it was filled with motion, speed. To the innocent, who had never seen it before, it seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child’s toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers — a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.”
Having once been a sports editor, I eagerly read Faulkner’s sports stories with equal parts enjoyment and with an editor’s eye. As for the latter, I noticed: In the hockey story, Faulkner omitted the score. In the Kentucky Derby story, he did not say which horse won. Obviously, that wasn’t what mattered where he was concerned.
Nevertheless, his words not only endure, they do prevail.