The Time William Faulkner Wrote An Essay About Hockey For Sports Illustrated

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For a decade that's so totemic to two divergent types of polemic, the 1950's are oddly difficult to picture today. It doesn't help that both caricatures are, if you're just joining us, caricatures. The right-leaning story of the '50s elides the decade's brutal racial and gender discrimination and government-abetted economic equality (abetted, for starters, by a confiscatorily high income tax rate on high earnes) and instead paints the decade as the nation's last prelapsarian high pointa last moment of virtuous consensus and righteous resistance to subversion of all kinds—before Ronald Reagan descended in glory to set right and re-simplify all the wrongs and complications that came in the 1960's and after. The left's caricature of the '50s as a time of relentless dehumanization and repression also leaves a lot out, including the high-water mark of a certain narrow type of middle class economic dignity and some legitimately great acts of artistic resistance to that supposedly unbreakable status quo.

There are some good books about the decade as people lived it, but it somehow seems even stranger and more distant today than it probably should. I know, for instance, that it's not at all like the '50s-themed Bacardi commercial that runs during NBA broadcasts, but mostly all I've got in terms of a mental image of the decade is a specific type of men's suit and the image of a certain type of square-headed white Senator-type guy, jutting his finger in a black-and-white photo. And also Julianne Moore in period garb, crying really hard. This is mostly because I'm an imbecile, but the 1950's were weirder than either of the decade's caricatures or my own limited intellectual thumbnail, I'm sure.

And so it makes sense that Sports Illustrated would have been weird in the 1950s, too. The magazine was just getting started, and was forward-thinking enough to offer a job to a young Kurt Vonnegut (that didn't work out, although it did go hilariously) and bold enough to ask William Faulkner, at that point already a Nobel laureate, to go to a hockey game and write about it for the January 24, 1955 issue of the magazine.

The resulting essay, which I found out about through Classical buddy David Davis's terrific overview of hockey literature in the Los Angeles Review of Books, is more or less what you'd expect. Which is to say that "An Innocent At Rinkside" is brief, intermittently dazzling and self-parodic, and quite clearly the thing that would result if you sent William Faulkner to a Rangers game at the old Madison Square Garden in 1955, asked him to write about it, and then ran what he wrote. So it sounds like this:

He watched it—the figure-darted glare of ice, the concentric tiers rising in sections stipulated by the hand-lettered, names of the individual fanclub idols, vanishing upward into the pall of tobacco smoke trapped by the roof—the roof which stopped and trapped all that intent and tense watching, and concentrated it downward upon the glare of ice frantic and frenetic with motion; until the byproduct of the speed and the motion—their violence—had no chance to exhaust itself upward into space and so leave on the ice only the swift glittering changing pattern. And he thought how perhaps something is happening to sport in America (assuming that by definition sport is something you do yourself, in solitude or not, because it is fun), and that something is the roof we are putting over it and them. Skating, basketball, tennis, track meets and even steeplechasing have moved indoors; football and baseball function beneath covers of arc lights and in time will be rain-and coldproofed too. There still remain the proper working of a fly over trout water or the taking of a rise of birds in front of a dog or the right placing of a bullet in a deer or even a bigger animal which will hurt you if you don't. But not for long: in time that will be indoors too beneath lights and the trapped pall of spectator tobacco, the concentric sections bearing the name and device of the lion or the fish as well as that of the Richard or Geoffrion of the scoped rifle or four-ounce rod.

It's brief, and I think it's pretty great, and I had no idea it existed. Credit to Sports Illustrated for originating Tom Scharpling's Hockey Dope idea back in those unimaginable Eisenhowerian days, and of course credit to William Faulkner for being so incredibly and distinctively William Faulkner.

It's a shame, for all of us, that Faulkner never got to watch this year's Denver Nuggets play, let alone attempt an 88-word sentence on watching JaVale McGee tip a rebound to himself and then heave the ball out of bounds. But of course these Nuggets, and JaVale McGee, couldn't have existed in the 1950's. Nice as it is to visit the '50s with writing like this, we're all probably happier here in our own fucked and flawed time, with our JaVale McGees and voting rights and smoke-free arenas.

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