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CASEY KAYSER University of Arkansas “The Most Horrific Tale”: Reading Faulkner’s Sanctuary as a Teenage Horror Legend IN JUNE 1930, WILLIAM FAULKNER AND HIS WIFE ESTELLE BOUGHT AND restored a beautiful old house on four acres of land, just minutes from the town square of Oxford, Mississippi. It became their beloved family home and a productive workspace for Faulkner until his death in 1962. Faulkner named the home Rowan Oak, after reading Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which describes Scottish farmers’ custom of placing a cross of Rowan wood over their houses to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft and to provide the occupants with protection, privacy, and peace (Blotner 262). Though this example illustrates a rather academic access to folk custom, Faulkner was also exposed to the practices, superstitions, and the authentic speech of Mississippi farmers, horse breeders, sportsmen, and rural blacks throughout his life (Flanagan 119). Accounts of Faulkner’s life give us “plenty of evidence that Faulkner was brought up in a tradition of oral story-telling and was himself an accomplished spinner of yarns long before he became a writer of fiction” (Calvin S. Brown 162). Manyscholarshavenotedthepresenceoffolkloristicelementswithin Faulkner’s body of work, taking particular note of his use of folk motifs, folk humor, and oral narration. Critics have commented on his use of Southwestern and folk humor in the grotesque and exaggerated adventures of the Bundren family of As I Lay Dying (Wheeler 111); the attention to oral narration and storytelling in such works as Absalom! Absalom! (Swink 202); and features of the tall tale in The Hamlet (Carolyn Brown 131) and Go Down, Moses (Hoffman 108), among others. However, as Daniel Hoffman points out, many areas of folklore in Faulkner’s work still remain “inadequately explored” (ix). One Faulkner text that has received little critical attention in terms of folkloristics is his sixth novel, Sanctuary (1931), despite the fact that its origin is based in lore and its critical framing and reception were initially informed by a typically Faulknerian form of hyperbole. In fact, the idea for the novel emerged from a combination of a seedy legend and a local 122 Casey Kayser rumor. The first influence was a story Faulkner had been told in a Memphis night club, by a woman who told him of a Memphis gangster named Neal Kerens “Popeye” Pumphrey, who was rumored to be impotent, but had raped a young girl “with a particularly bizarre object and kept her in a brothel” (Blotner 176). Faulkner crafted a gangster named Popeye into a short story he wrote in 1929 called “The Big Shot,” which was first published posthumously in Uncollected Stories (1979). According to Joseph Blotner, Faulkner could not stop brooding over this disturbing story, including it in “The Big Shot” and then expanding the plotandPopeye’scharacterizationforSanctuary.Faulknercombinedthe story about Popeye Pumphrey with a local rumor about a University of Mississippi female coed who had gotten off a train bound for Starkville and the Mississippi A&M baseball game and had been attacked sexually (Blotner 235; Cohen 55). Faulkner always claimed that he penned Sanctuary solely to make money, and in his comments in his introduction to the Modern Library edition (1932), he wrote To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money. . . . I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks. (321-23) The way Faulkner framed his novel in the introduction led critics to take Sanctuary less seriously than his other novels, at least for a time. However, Faulkner’s comments were misleading, since he really wrote the original script of the novel in a period of four months rather than three weeks, and then spent time on extensive revision.1 That introduction was not included in further printings, his framing of the novel is now generally dismissed, and Sanctuary has achieved a rightful place in the Faulkner canon.2 In the context of folklore and Sanctuary, scholars have suggested that Popeye might be read as a trickster...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 121-144
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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