Cotton Plant native and Union County’s unofficial resident Faulkner authority Dr. Kate Stewart delved into some of the mystery writing of the Nobel Prize-winning author at the Union County Heritage Museum this past week.
Stewart, a professor at the University of Arkansas-Monticello, talked about Faulkner’s Knight’s Gambit.
The book is a collection of short stories featuring attorney Gavin Stevens, who plays a significant role in Intruder in the Dust.
Described as mysteries rather than detective stories, they appeared in various periodicals and were finally collected in 1949 to loosely serve as a novel.
The printing was marked by semi-lurid paperback covers and described as “tales of crime and guilt and love.”
Stewart said the stories are not as lurid as the book cover, but rather showcase Stevens’ insight and ingenious detection.
Knight’s Gambit is not one of Faulkner’s more popular or better-known stories in that she said only about 50 critical works about it have been published. Most Faulkner works number in the thousands in terms of papers and studies.
One of Faulker’s friends (and one of his pallbearers) described the book as “a kind of refuse bin for second-rate material when Faulkner had little else to show for the 1940s.”
“Most agree Faulkner did his best work in the 1930s,” she said.
Stewart noted that Knight’s Gambit was done after Faulkner had been doing screenplays for Hollywood – most notably Raymond Chandler’s classic, The Big Sleep.
She said he likely had been influenced by the film noir trend at the time, as well as the marketability of popular fiction over more classic literature.
Faulkner was supposedly talking with historian Shelby Foote about the wisdom of venturing into screenplays and Foote’s advice was, “Go ahead and take the money.”
If the 1940s, when Knights’ Gambit was done, represent Faulkner’s decline, several reasons are usually given.
One, she said, was that he didn’t have anything to write about. She finds it incredible that he would not have anything to write about and she rejects that.
Another reason given is alcoholism. But Stewart said, “He was a binge drinker. He would often go on a tear on finishing a novel.” That doesn’t mean he drank regularly or continually.
A third reason is that Hollywood may have distracted him. There was Intruder in the Dust as well as Chandler’s work, Land of the Pharaohs, Gunga Din and others.
He reportedly got along well with director Howard Hawks but didn’t like working there. As he got older he may have become more curmudgeonly, turning down an invitation to the White House. “I’m too old to travel that far for supper,” he reportedly said.
Faulkner faced something else that other writers may have experienced.
“They were critically acclaimed, but nobody bought them,” Stewart said of his novels. The Depression may have influenced this.
“People tend to think big, beefy novels are more important than short stories,” she said, but added that “short stories are harder. You have to get in quickly. There is less wiggle room.”
Stewart said almost nothing specific about the short stories in Knight’s Gambit, not wanting to spoil the mysteries. She did say that “people either love Gavin Stevens – or think he talks too much.”
Although written separately, she said the six stories are interconnected with Stevens’ nephew, a chess player, helping to tie them together. And chess does play its role, including being the title of the last and longest of the stories.
She reiterated that the stories are mysteries rather than detective stories, but still said that in each story Stevens has to get at the truth. “He is one who seeks justice and truth,” she said.
While Stewart said she has a love-hate relationship with popular fiction, she appeared to be fond of the Knight’s Gambit mysteries, even to the point of deciding to teach it rather than The Reivers.
“Faulkner is writing about everything going on in American right now,” she said. “He is still relevant.