Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Faulkner's Kentucky Derby Homage to Einstein

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Faulkner's Kentucky Derby Homage to Einstein

Article excerpt

IN THE MID 1950s, the editors and publishers of the newly formed Sports Illustrated knew they had to do something to distinguish their publication from the numerous other sports magazines already on the newsstand. What was needed, they decided, was a bit of prestige, a bit of the highbrow to set themselves above their lowbrow competitors. Let the newspapers and other magazines merely report the scores; they would be literary. The editors contacted some of America's most celebrated novelists and poets and asked them to become one-time sports writers, to contribute brief articles about sports they enjoyed or even, on occasion, to attend particular sporting events as the magazine's special highbrow reporter. Sports Illustrated offered lucrative payments, and several authors accepted the offers. John Steinbeck wrote about the pleasures of fishing. Carl Sandburg gave tips on putting. And Robert Frost covered the 1955 baseball all-star game. Some of the pairings of authors and sporting events seem obvious. Ernest Hemingway, for example, was the logical choice to write a 1954 article about bull fighting. Other pairings, however, seem inspired more by a sense of humor than by any discernible logic. In January of 1955, Sports Illustrated contacted Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner and asked him if he would be willing to attend and write a piece about, of all things, an ice hockey match between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadians at Madison Square Garden later that month. Something about the assignment appealed to Faulkner, and for once the something that appealed was not just the money offered. He had plenty of other offers at the time which promised equal or even superior payment, but Faulkner accepted Sports Illustrated's offer. As James Meriwether observes, "Faulkner did not accept commissions he did not find attractive and think he could execute well" (viii). Later that month Faulkner travelled to New York, observed his first hockey match, and wrote a short piece, which he entitled "An Innocent at Rinkside," perhaps with a nod toward Mark Twain, a fellow southern writer who years before also had written about being an innocent in unfamiliar territory abroad. Faulkner returned to Oxford with a $1000 check for his efforts (Blotner, Faulkner 1522)-not a bad salary considering that Faulkner's journalistic piece never reveals which team won the match.

The magazine's editors, however, did not seem to mind Faulkner's liberties with the who-what-when-where-and-why formula. A few months later they again contacted him to see if he would be willing to cover an event more amenable to his well known love of horses, the Kentucky Derby. They more than doubled their earlier offer, promising him $2000 and a week's worth of expenses, including a chauffeured limousine, and a possible $500 bonus if the story he submitted was as good as they hoped it would be. He immediately accepted (Blotner, Faulkner 1534).1

About the same time that Faulkner received the offer to again try his hand at sports reporting, a news story caught his attention. Albert Einstein had died at Princeton Hospital shortly after midnight on April 18. Faulkner had met Einstein a year and a half earlier while staying at the Princeton home of his friend and editor Saxe Commins and his wife, Dorothy. The Comminses had invited Einstein and his sister to dinner to facilitate the meeting of the two Nobel Prize winners. Einstein found conversation with the never-loquacious Faulkner difficult. He tried to find something the two had in common and finally said, "You know, when I went to get the Nobel Prize, I arrived a day late" (Blotner, Faulkner 1476). Despite the lack of bantering conversation, the two men nevertheless liked one another. Faulkner was impressed with Einstein's gentle nature and his obvious intelligence. Einstein later sent Faulkner a copy of his recently published book Ideas and Opinions inscribed, "To Mr. Faulkner, (without obligo) A. …

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