Back to Yoknapatawpha

Gavin Stevens was a minor player in the vast repertory company of characters that William Faulkner created in the 1920s and 1930s, a Harvard-educated lawyer who had gone home to Mississippi and got himself elected as Yoknapatawpha’s county attorney. Faulkner imagined him as someone who could talk to anybody about anything, from ancient Greek to moonshine, and usually at greater length than his listeners wanted. He got a few pages in Light in August (1932), where he voices a racial essentialism that the novel as a whole discredits. His legal role was a useful one, though, so Faulkner made the character grow, made him learn things; and ten years later a bit part in Go Down, Moses required him to realize just how little he or any other white Southerner knows about their African American neighbors. Still, his only starring roles in the first decades of Faulkner’s career were in a few B-productions, short mystery stories in which his “easy, anecdotal tone” invariably lulls the criminal into a false sense of security.

None of them are among Faulkner’s best, but the writer’s bills were always high, and a $1,000 sale to the Saturday Evening Post might keep them paid for a month. By 1945 he had written five of those stories and had a sixth in the works, a chess-inspired novella called “Knight’s Gambit”, in which the pieces take both human and equine forms, actual and dangerous breathing. Yet if Faulkner wrote the occasional mystery, it wasn’t only because he knew it would sell. His major work also depends on crime and violence and family secrets; he liked to plot in all senses of the word, liked to make plots about plots in which hidden things come into the light. Sometimes that led him to the dark fury of Sanctuary (1931) or the buried history of Absalom, Absalom! (1936). At others it kept him busy in Hollywood, where he wrote the screenplay for the Bogart-Bacall film The Big Sleep (1946). Yet by the time that he finished “Knight’s Gambit” and put it together with the other Stevens stories in a collection of that name (1949), both his own position and that of his fictional lawyer had changed.

Faulkner’s obscurity in the years before his Nobel prize has been overstated, but most of his novels were indeed out of print when Malcolm Cowley’s omnibus, The Portable Faulkner (1946), began the revival of his reputation. A few other things happened at the end of the 1940s, though, and they briefly made him into a genuinely popular writer. Early in 1948 he went back to an old idea for a mystery novel called Intruder in the Dustin which Lucas Beauchamp, a Black farmer who had first appeared in Go Down, Moses, is framed for the murder of a white man. Stevens has to work both to clear Beauchamp’s name and avoid a lynching, though he’s not – not quite – a white savior figure, given that Beauchamp directs his every move from bars. Faulkner took just three months to write it and sold it to Hollywood before its publication that fall. The movie was shot in his home town, Oxford, Mississippi, the next year, and remains the best film made from his work. At the same time the book itself appeared, along with Sanctuary, in a line of 25-cent pulp paperbacks from a new publisher called Signet, books made to fit a drugstore’s revolving racks. More volumes followed, and within a few years Faulkner had sold 3.3 million copies in that format.

Intruder in the Dust gave a retrospective weight to Stevens’s dozen-odd pages in Go Down, Moses, the cameo appearance of someone about to become a star. And for a time it turned the garrulous attorney, and Faulkner through him, into a spokesman for the moderate white South. That South clung to the impossible belief that there was a way to ensure racial justice that did not require any real social or economic change. Stevens believes that some change is coming, only “it won’t be next Tuesday”, and in the remaining years of his career Faulkner put him ever more often on the page. He got a lead role in both The Town (1957) The Mansion (1959), the last two volumes of the Snopes trilogy, and in Requiem for a Nun (1951) Faulkner gives him the words that have since become his most famous: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.

In consequence of the pieces collected in Knight’s Gambit have a larger place in the Faulkner canon than their actual merits might warrant. They are entirely professional magazine stories of their period, but no match for his best short fiction, such as “That Evening Sun” or “Barn Burning”. Interesting they have their rewards and pleasures. The texts of Faulkner’s stories have not before now received the same editorial attention as his novels; the same close, painstaking comparison of holograph, typescript, galleys and published versions that the late editor Noel Polk brought to his work for the Library of America. But John N. Duvall has made an admirable start. He is the longtime editor of the journal Modern Fiction Studies, based at Purdue University in Indiana, and an authority, among other things, on the role of mass-market publications in the shaping of American literature; the sales figure given above comes from his earlier work.

The first edition of Knight’s Gambit relied on magazine tear sheets for its five stories, and on Faulkner’s own typescript for the title novella. The copy editing on the latter was especially sloppy, and the magazines inevitably regularized Faulkner’s spelling and punctuation, inserting commas he didn’t want and the apostrophes he disdained. He always spelled “don’t” and “won’t” and “o’clock” without them: “oclock”. But there are other changes beyond the typographic. Faulkner typically used “bitched” as a synonym for the then unprintable “fucked”; the manuscript version of “Monk” has a prisoner tell Stevens that “you’re the one that bitched me up”, which was still too strong for Scribner’s Magazine: an editor shifted it to “crossed me up”. Duvall restores Faulkner’s manuscript choice without going so far as to use the word the writer actually meant, and a similarly tactful refusal to move beyond what the documents warrant marks his other editorial choices.

The greatest changes are to “Hand Upon the Waters” (1939), which in this version is some 3,300 words longer than the one printed in the Saturday Evening Post. Duvall notes that Faulkner’s work almost always got longer the more he revised it. He didn’t trim, he elaborated, enacting at the level of the sentence the same sense of an ever-proliferating world that made his corpus into a single branching tree. So the editor’s job, as both Polk and Duvall have written, is to “de-edit” his first editions, to recover his manuscript readings. In both the Post and this book’s first edition one character is introduced as follows: “The county coroner was an old country doctor”. What Faulkner actually wrote, in contrast, was that “The Coroner was an old country doctor, with a snuffy moustache and the blurred eyes of an old man behind steel spectacles”. The magazine version is functional and efficient. It moves the story smoothly along. The original version makes you see, and it gives that doctor a life quite beyond his immediate narrative use. Any reader of Faulkner will be glad to have lines like that restored.

Knight’s Gambit as a whole provides a series of similar pleasures, even if these stories say little about the racial and historical questions with which Intruder in the Dust is concerned. They focus instead on Yoknapatawpha’s white community, its country folk above all, insular unschooled farmers who nevertheless know that Lawyer Stevens can be relied on. In doing so they offer a sense of Yoknapatawpha’s life, the enduring folkways that lie apart from its flashing moments of intensity. Quentin Compson’s desperate attempts to stop the clock in The Sound and the Fury (1929), Ike McCaslin’s speechless wonder in “The Bear” – those spots of time exist outside of all time. They may grow out of that apocryphal county’s quotidian life, but they also transcend it in a way these stories aren’t meant to. Tales such as “Smoke” and “Tomorrow” instead give us a thick description of its daily existence: the bitter relations between father and son, the long memories required to know just who is related to whom, and how, and what happened long ago .

Gavin Stevens understands all that. He seems to waste a lot of time talking, babbling on so that the guilty won’t realize he’s thinking; which gives him a curious resemblance to Dorothy L. Sayers’s gentleman sleuth, Peter Wimsey. He might have started as a minor character, but these stories make him seem like Yoknapatawpha County’s finest oral historian, and its shrewdest judge of human character.

Michael Gorra‘s books include The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War2020, and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece2012. He teaches English at Smith College in Massachusetts

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