“The Case of the Unrecognized Editor” (by John Duvall)

John Duvall is the Margaret Church Distinguished Professor of English at Purdue University. He has published extensively on modern and contemporary American fiction. In this post he discusses how EQMM helped to reignite the career of one of America’s greatest literary writers, William Faulkner.  Interested readers can find a fuller treatment of EQMM’s role in popularizing William Faulkner in John’s article “An Error in Canonicity, or, A Fuller Explanation of Faulkner’s Return to Print Culture, 1946-1951,” published in May 2017 in Faulkner and Print Culture (University Press of Mississippi), edited by Jay Watson. We’re delighted to be able to share the insights of so highly regarded a scholar with our readers.—Janet Hutchings

Among scholars of William Faulkner, it’s something of a joke: Nobel Prize Laurate in 1950 but only runner-up in EQMM’s first mystery story competition in 1946. Yet, maybe these two forms of recognition, admittedly very different, are not so unrelated as they might first appear.

After World War II, William Faulkner’s reputation was all but dead. Despite all the positive newspaper reviews in the 1930s, his major novels were out of print. But one writer, editor, and critic reprinted Faulkner and revived the novelist’s reputation. And every Faulkner fan knows the story of the publication that turned things around. In 1946 Malcolm Cowley’s anthology, The Portable Faulkner, appeared as part of the influential Viking Press series that included The Portable Poe and The Portable Hemingway.

It’s a good story and true enough, but not necessarily the whole truth. While The Portable Faulkner would sell 10,000 copies over the next five years, I maintain that Frederic Dannay was at least as responsible as Cowley in bringing Faulkner back the attention of the American reading public. The June 1946 issue of EQMM opens with Faulkner’s “An Error in Chemistry.”

It’s the story of a former magician, Joel Flint, who would have gotten away with the murder of his wife and father-in-law by impersonating the father-in-law, but who gives himself away when Faulkner’s lawyer and amateur detective, Gavin Stevens, sees Flint incorrectly make a cold toddy: Flint fails to mix the sugar and water before adding the whiskey, an error that his father-in-law never would have made. Dannay’s prefatory comments to the story proclaim Faulkner as one of the four leading contemporary American novelists along with Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos. Why has this part of the story not been told? I believe it’s part of the still-present prejudice in academe against genre fiction.

Although Dannay and his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee were the duo who had the fabulously successful writing career working under the pen name Ellery Queen, Dannay alone edited EQMM (and would continue to serve as editor-in-chief until his death in 1982). Begun in 1941, EQMM was designed to evoke elements of the pulp detective magazine but to make the format more reputable. Although like the pulps it cost only a quarter, EQMM was produced on a better grade of paper. And like the covers of detective pulps, EQMM’s often depicted a woman either murdered or about to be murdered. However, even on this score, there was a difference. Because George Salter, the well-known illustrator who produced the dust jackets to many famous modernist novels, did all the covers for EQMM during the 1940s, they have an aesthetic sensibility far more restrained than those of pulp detective magazines.

But what really set EQMM apart from the very beginning was its content. Dannay had aspirations for his magazine, aspirations that he repeatedly made clear not only in his headnotes, which he wrote for each and every story his magazine published, but also in the several books of detective-fiction criticism he published as Ellery Queen. Dannay felt that detective fiction was unfairly disparaged and marginalized by the literary establishment. On the cover of each issue of EQMM, Dannay promised readers “the Best Detective Stories, New and Old.” Only about 40 percent of the stories, however, were new. The rest Dannay reprinted from book collections, mainstream magazines (such as Collier’s, Harper’s, and Cosmopolitan), as well as from other pulp magazines (such as Black Mask). Intermixed with these were stories by more recognizably literary authors. In his magazine’s first five years, Dannay reprinted fiction not only by Dorothy Sayers (creator of the aristocratic dilettante crime solver, Lord Peter Wimsey) and Dashiell Hammett (with his manly noir detective, Sam Spade), but also by O. Henry, Mark Twain, Jack London, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Theodore Dreiser, Graham Greene, and other significant modernist authors. In a special All Nations issue (August 1948) commemorating the formation of the United Nations, EQMM included a translation of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which is notable for being the first time that Borges was published in the United States. Unlike Faulkner, a runner up in the 1946 contest, Borges won the 1948 EQMM contest. All of this points us to the fact that Dannay was a far more discerning and influential editor than has previously been recognized in academic circles.

But as important as Dannay’s headnote is to burnishing Faulkner’s aura is the company in which Faulkner found himself in the June 1946 issue. “An Error in Chemistry” was followed by one of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.” Unlike Faulkner, Christie never struggled with being out of print. In fact, the sales of her detective novels place her only behind the Bible and the works of Shakespeare in the number of books sold. My point is that it matters mightily to the public perception of Faulkner that Dannay juxtaposes this modernist experimenter with Christie, a popular entertainer valued more for her ingenious plots than for her literariness. Clearly, a different set of readers, one unlikely to be impressed by a favorable New York Times review, receives the clear impression that if Ellery Queen endorses Faulkner and places his work next to Christie’s, maybe, just maybe, they should read some more Faulkner!

In addition to the original publication of “An Error in Chemistry,” Dannay reprinted two other Faulkner short stories in EQMM: “The Hound” appeared in the January 1944 issue and “Smoke” (another story featuring Faulkner’s lawyer-detective Gavin Stevens) was part of the October 1947 issue. In each of these issues, Agatha Christie stories also appear. In both his headnotes in other commentary, Dannay notes a resemblance between Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens stories and those of an earlier writer, Melville Davisson Post, whose lawyer-detective stories featuring Uncle Abner were popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Faulkner, who surely saw the issues of EQMM in which his stories appeared, may well have gotten from Dannay the idea of collecting his Gavin Stevens detective stories into his 1949 volume Knight’s Gambit.

Dannay, alas, got no thanks from the author who created Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner publically acknowledged Cowley’s editorial work, saying “I owe Malcolm Cowley the kind of debt no man can ever repay.” However, responding to the letter from his agent with the EQMM check, Faulkner petulantly wrote: “What a commentary. In France, I am the father of a literary movement. . . . In America, I eke out a hack’s motion picture wages by winning second prize in a manufactured mystery story contest.” So since Faulkner wouldn’t say it, I think anyone who enjoys Faulkner’s fiction should: We all owe Ellery Queen/Frederic Dannay a debt none of us can ever repay for his work that helped Faulkner’s fiction endure.

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4 Responses to “The Case of the Unrecognized Editor” (by John Duvall)

  1. I had no idea. Thank you for this interesting history.

  2. Art Taylor says:

    LOVE this essay. Thank you so much, John!

  3. Pingback: “The Case of the Unrecognized Editor” (by John Duvall) | picardykatt's Blog

  4. lindamthorne says:

    This is interesting. All these very famous old writers with stories in Ellery Queen magazine. The history of the writers and the aspirations of the magazine’s editors. This is the first time I’ve heard this information. Thank you.

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