Faulkner, yes William, once captured Derby’s essence in prose
The Western Union wire chief was puzzled.
It was May 1955, and he had been handed the first 300-word installment of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Faulkner’s account of Kentucky Derby week.
The single page of neatly typed prose had no punctuation. No commas. No periods. No capital letters. Just words strung together: “this saw boone the bluegrass the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave …”
“What the hell is this?” the Western Union man asked. “You gone nuts or something?”
Whitney Tower, turf writer for a new magazine called Sports Illustrated, explained that he hadn’t written it. He told Western Union to go ahead and file the page “and let them straighten it out up in New York.”
In a time when Twitter has reduced communication to 140 characters, it’s fitting to look back at an age when some of the world’s greatest writers captured the essence of the the Kentucky Derby in long, literary form.
Although he was the first in a string of literary greats to take the assignment for Sports Illustrated, Faulkner was not so unusual a choice.
His novels, including The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Light in August, delved into the moral rot behind the façade of columned mansions of the Southern aristocracy alongside the rites and rituals of working-class Southerners and the descendants of slaves.
Faulkner, who came to the Derby’s 81st running, also was familiar with horses. His father had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, Miss.
He enjoyed riding and fox hunting and he appreciated the beauty of animals in motion.
“It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh,” Faulkner said in an interview with The Courier-Journal, conducted during his stay in Louisville.
The Derby was Faulkner’s second assignment for Sports Illustrated, which had debuted the previous year. In January 1955, the magazine published an An Innocent at Rinkside, in which Faulkner wrote of watching his first hockey game: “It was filled with motion, speed. … It seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”.
That spring, Sports Illustrated sent Faulkner to Louisville to record his impressions of Derby Day and the days leading up to it. Tower would cover the race itself.
Faulkner’s only instruction to Tower — as Tower recalled in a 1986 Sports Illustrated story — was: “You call me Bill, and in Kentucky, please never introduce me as Mister. I’m very informal and want to stay that way.”
Meanwhile, the only instructions Tower received from his editors concerning Faulkner “were to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.”
As a hedge against that possibility, Tower was to ask Faulkner to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville. Tower would wire them via Western Union to New York.
Faulkner and Tower arranged to meet at Louisville’s Brown Hotel, where the author was to stay in relative peace and quiet. But a few hours after Faulkner got off the train, reporters were seeking his reaction to the news that he had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable, his 1954 novel about World War I.
Faulkner found the win gratifying. But he got down to business.
Tower, the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional” in his approach to the Derby.
“His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back, and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington,” Tower wrote. “At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm.
On the drive back to Louisville, Faulkner took a nap. Somewhere near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache.
“He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”
And there was one, a quarter-mile ahead. Tower’s account doesn’t make clear whether they stopped.
In the days leading up to the Derby, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith (who would win the Pulitzer for commentary in 1976). The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.
Despite the warning about his fondness for bourbon, Faulkner wrote his assigned 300 words night after night. His piece on the Kentucky Derby ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. It was titled “Kentucky: May: Saturday.”
The piece was so memorable that crooner Bing Crosby, a horse lover and racing fan, read it aloud for a recording.
“Once the horse moved man’s physical body and his household goods and his articles of commerce from one place to another,” Faulkner wrote. “Nowadays all it moves is a part or the whole of his bank account, either through betting on it or trying to keep owning and feeding it.”
Later in the piece, Faulkner described what happened after the starting gate opens.
“Though you do not really know what it was you heard: whether it was that metallic clash, or the simultaneous thunder of the hooves in that first leap or the massed voices, the gasp, the exhilaration — 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: 2:014⁄5 minutes.”
Faulkner never mentioned the winner, a chestnut colt called Swaps, or jockey Bill Shoemaker by name. Instead, Faulkner painted this picture of the horse immediately after the Derby had been run:
“And now he stands beneath the rose escarpment above the flash and glare of the magnesium and the whirring film of celluloid immortality. This is the moment, the peak, the pinnacle; after this, all is ebb.”
In July 1962, seven years after writing those words, Faulkner died at age 64. The next month, The Reivers was published, and Faulkner posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Set in 1905 Mississippi and Memphis, The Reivers told the story of a stolen horse traded for a stolen car, with the car being won back in a horse race.