- A Cheap IdeaHow one non-Faulkner fan found sanctuary in the non-Faulkner book
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 176]
Is there such a thing as an easy situation with William Faulkner? His name is synonymous with complexity. It pervades his style, his storylines, and the format of his novels. Interacting with the public, the man obfuscated, exaggerated, and misled. Scholars and readers alike would agree that there’s nothing simple or straightforward about Faulkner or his work.
Such is the case with Sanctuary. It is a much debated and studied book. A story of big-city scandal, it is atypical of canonical Faulkner works and generally not considered among his finest. This thinking began with the man himself, who claimed to have written the novel in three weeks, casting an air of carelessness around it and asserting to have done so for money, rather than for the more literary motives of art and legacy. Eventually, scholars caught up to his bluff, showing that not only did Faulkner spend months on the Sanctuary manuscript, he also painstakingly rewrote it and spent more money to revise its galleys than he’d received in an advance on the book. Still, it suffers the stepchild’s fate.
Truly, I don’t care about delineating the high marks of Faulkner’s canon or otherwise participating in scholarly discourse around him. I came to Faulkner, not because of his mystique or his following, but because of Memphis, Tennessee.
The original first manuscript page of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, 1931.
To back up a little, I initially read Faulkner more than a decade ago as a graduate-school assignment: Absalom, Absalom! At the time, I had no background in Mississippi history or Faulkner. I had never heard of wisteria. I had no idea what the hell was going on. I did, however, catch the aura of the literary following projected around him, a sort of high-school, cool-kids-against-nerds exclusivity, writ nerdy. You either get Faulkner or you don’t. I pretended to get it. The prospect of having to pack so much historical equipment on your journey into Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha has proven endlessly fascinating for his legions of followers. The same baggage casts an air of tediousness around the whole enterprise of Faulkner and Faulkneria for outsiders.
By the time I heard about Sanctuary, I had spent years researching the Memphis red-light district for a book I was working on. Unlike Storyville in New Orleans and Chicago’s Levee, the Memphis underworld has no tawdry memoirs to speak for it and is not nearly as well-remembered or widely renowned as its counterparts from the Bowery to the Barbary Coast. I grinded through decades of city directories, property deeds, fire-insurance maps, census data, court cases, newspapers, and wills. A few oral histories lent color. Gradually, the red-light-district geography and its cast of characters became clear. The district grew around Beale Street, on parallel and intersecting boulevards. None of it remains today, but in just [End Page 177] a few blocks, almost overlapping respectable downtown businesses and posh residences, mayhem ruled for the better part of a century.
Through my research, I got to know long-dead madams. They had been widows and divorcées in a man’s world, generous and loyal to their families, typically Catholic, most over-weight and gaudily attired. Brothel ownership belonged to a few of them, but also to many prominent citizens as well. Their employees danced the cancan on front porches, rode horseback naked through the streets, and made daring, sometimes violent escapes from this life of involuntary entry.
Saloons fell under the control of politically protected gangsters. In this history, I saw the rules of law, race, class, gender, and morality get pushed off a brothel roof and smashed on the cobblestones below. I found one instance of a white man from a prominent family who passed as black and spent ten years in the late nineteenth century as a gambler and pimp in this alternate universe. I began to see Memphis as a city of untold stories.
So I cracked Sanctuary—and...