Sanctuary by William Faulkner

48 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I have a confession to make. I’m from Mississippi. I have a degree in English from The University of Southern Mississippi. One of my professors there was Noel Polk, one of the top Faulkner scholars in the world. Yet I have read very little Faulkner. I’ve read the usual short stories. I’ve read As I Lay Dying. I’ve collected a number of other novels at some point (most likely because they were assigned by Noel Polk), yet my memory of reading any of them is sketchy at best. I believe I may have skimmed them for tests, read some Cliff Notes, and left it at that.

I have a good excuse. I was 19-years-old at the time, and the opportunity for a stellar education in Southern literature was completely wasted on me. My apologies to Dr. Polk and to my parents who paid for his class.

I’ve had a few years since then to resign myself to my own Southern identity, though, something I can tell you did not come easily to me. I have always been proud of the great writers from my state, but I have never seen myself as following in their footsteps. Southern Literature, with a Capital S and a Capital L, has felt more like a burden than a privileged legacy to me in my writing. It’s like being the younger sister of the high school valedictorian (which I was). The last thing you want is for anyone to draw comparisons.

And so I have avoided reading the most legendary of all Mississippi writers all these many years. Can you imagine the guilt and embarrassment that has built up in that time?

Last week someone asked if I had read Sanctuary, and I had to admit that though I had owned a copy for about 25 years now and was sure I had opened it up at least once before, I could not remember a single thing about it. She took pity on me and suggested The Reivers as possibly an easier book to get through. I have a copy of it too. Dr. Polk’s reading list was fairly broad in scope, it seems.

I did not rush home and open up either of these books. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. What I did was to use my phone to purchase an e-copy of the new memoir by William Faulkner’s niece while I was still sitting there talking about how many Faulkner books I had not read. I loved it. I read it in practically one gulp, and I put it down wanting more. I decided the only way to get more was to read Uncle Bill himself.

I started with Sanctuary. Before I started, I told myself that even if it was hard to get into I would read 25 pages a day until I had finished it. I ended up finishing it in two days. I might have finished it in one if I had not started it late in the day. I think Faulkner and I are finally starting to understand each other.

Sanctuary was Faulkner’s first real money maker. He wrote it specifically for that purpose. He’d been trying to write masterpieces with other books, and he was having some success with them, but he wasn’t earning much, and he needed money. Thus, he set out to think up the most sensational tale he could. I’m not sure the term psychological thriller even existed in 1929, but that’s what he created with the story of Temple Drake, a spoiled Ole Miss coed who is abducted, raped, and carted off into the Memphis underworld.

Here we have a story of what real evil is and how it happens as well as a story of what justice is and how it goes awry. I was completely absorbed. I was more than absorbed. I was engulfed. The descriptions are stunning, and the characters are haunting. What’s more, this is a novel Faulkner himself was not well satisfied with. This is just a small glimpse of what he was capable of.

I think more than anything Sanctuary is testament to Faulkner’s incredible range. He decided he wanted to write a sensational novel that would be a best seller, and he just sat down and did it. He probably pushed the limits as far as he could go and still make it into print in 1930. Even by today’s standards, the book is nothing but sensational, which we all know is the only real way to guarantee sales.

I’m so glad I’m finally getting around to some of the books my parents paid for me to read back in the 80s. I almost feel educated. Too bad I’ve lost track of Noel Polk. I’d like to hear what he has to say about the readings he assigned back then.

Next up: Requiem for a Nun. It’s a follow-up book to Sanctuary written 20 years later. I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to Temple Drake. I want to know what happens next.

After that I plan to read Absalom, Absalom! This one I’ve picked so that I can talk about it with my friend Andrea who was in college with me and who has also never read her stack of Faulkner books. We probably shared the Cliff Notes, though we have both long since forgotten.

I’m sure I’ll spread the Faulkner out and read other books in between. Even though I could not put Sanctuary down today, I still have this long-held perception that Faulkner is someone I’m supposed to read rather than someone I just want to read. I’ll have to alternate him with lighter fare. Still, I’m making a little deal with myself as of today. By the end of this year, I’m going to at least read all of the Faulkner books that I already own. That means that after Requiem and Absalom, I will still have left The Sound and the Fury, The Hamlet, Go Down, Moses, The Reivers, and Light in August. I told you Noel Polk meant business back in the day.

I’ll have to let you know how this goes. I have this theory that I’m finally grown up enough to appreciate the literature of my own state. Like I said, I’ll have to let you know how that goes.

3 thoughts on “Sanctuary by William Faulkner”

  1. You put into words exactly how I feel about being from Mississippi, going to a university in Mississippi, and yet never reading the Faulkner books I was assigned. I promise to start Absalom! Absalom! as soon as I finish the book I’m reading now. You have inspired me!

  2. Ha! You were great, but I don’t know how you put up with all those years of 19-year-olds fumbling through Faulkner. Still, you should know that sometimes they do go back and finish their assignments 25 years later.

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