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MICHAEL WAINWRIGHT Royal Holloway, University of London The Morphosis of Faulkner’s Chess1 INWILLIAMFAULKNER’S(1897–1962)“KNIGHT’SGAMBIT”(1949),COUNTY attorney Gavin Stevens teaches chess to his nephew Charles Mallison, but the lawyer’s approach to these lessons alters significantly following an argument between two women in his office. The contretemps in question,whichinvolvesMelisandreHarriss’sdaughterandMissCayley, ends in a brief physical altercation; Stevens’s chessboard, which is set for a game with his nephew, is overturned in the process. Having ensured that the two women have left the premises, Mallison returns to the office to find his uncle sitting “among the scattered chessmen” (190), seemingly dejected. Undaunted, Mallison gathers up the pieces “from around his uncle’s feet,” sets “them back in place on the board again, even advancing the white queen’s pawn” (191). Despite Stevens’s apparent dejection, the lesson begins, and Mallison’s inevitable defeat looms “a little sooner than ordinary.” On the point of victory, however, Stevens sweeps “the board clean and set[s] up a single problem with the horses and rooks and pawns” (192). Knocking over the chessboard, as if in a form of aftershock, has focused Stevens’s attention: he now uses a subset of the game to school Mallison. Paul Morphy (1837–1884), the master strategist from New Orleans, whom Salvatore Marano credits as Faulkner’s “model” (265) for Gavin Stevens, developed the chess problem (or conundrum) from his encounter with the partnership of the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard at the Paris Opera in September 1858.2 While his opponents tried to contemplate every possibility attendant on the endgame, and could foresee nothing but a draw, Morphy realized that only a few pieces held significance, with his rapid, unforeseen, and widely publicized victory promoting the appeal of problems in their own right. The 1 I treat this topic at greater length in my book Faulkner’s Gambit (2011). This essay appearsintheMississippiQuarterlywiththegraciouspermissionofPalgraveMacmillan. 2 Although wholeheartedly agreeing that Morphy is a source of inspiration for the figure of Gavin Stevens, Marano surely goes too far when he precedes this providential possibility with another assertion that he fails to support with textual evidence. “On his part,” states Marano of Stevens, “the county attorney might have a drop of Latin blood in his vein (sic); after all, his model Paul Morphy had some” (265). 368 Michael Wainwright “artistic ideals of single key move, of complexity in the play, and of economy” (73) shape such conundrums, explains the structuralist critic W. K. Wimsatt, and express the inventiveness of Morphy’s play in general. Indeed, the virtuosity of Morphy’s numerous victories during his European tour of June 1858 to April 1859 shocked and impressed chess commentators in equal measure, and Morphy returned to Louisianacreditedwithhavingsingle-handedlydraggedAmericanchess from a condition of national adolescence toward a state of international maturity. “It was widely felt,” notes the American grandmaster Reuben Fine (1914–1993), “that this was the first time in history in which an American had proved himself, not merely the equal, but the superior of any representative in his field drawn from the older countries.” Morphy “had added a cubit to the stature of American civilization” (34). He was, avers Frederick Milnes Edge, “a chess knight-errant, eager to do battle against all comers” (104), but one willing to suffer a handicap to make the game more stimulating for himself, his opponent, and their spectators. Whereas “any other player can give pawn and two moves,” professes Edge, “Morphy can very easily give the knight” (75). Notwithstanding his acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, Morphy remained self-effacing: he was “the chivalrous lawyer-chess player from New Orleans,” as Marano describes him, “who refused the title of world champion because he considered chess a pastime” (257). Furthermore, a loss of recreational opportunity owing to the Civil War prorogued Morphy’s lasting contribution to the game; as a result, the Romantic School continued to inform the technique of late-nineteenth-century players. The Romantics sought perfect solutions, the purity of the final check an important consideration: the “model” checkmate was superior to the “mirror” variety, which was, in its turn, better than the “pure” variation.3 Emerging from the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 367-389
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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