"Sublimating the Actual into Apocryphal": Bootlegging in Sanctuary


     Bootlegging has become significant in the popular culture of the South through the years, frequently appearing in literature, in country songs and in comic strips (Foy 697).   It is true that bootlegging frequently furnished anecdotal and illustrative material to William Faulkner too, but it is not so simple how the author made use of and depicted it in his works.

   According to M. Thomas Inge, the primary purpose of popular culture is to entertain us, to cause us to relax and escape the pressures of our jobs, our problems, and our    personal relationships.   He explains elaborately that by providing a vicarious outlet for our emotional tendencies and a safety valve for our aggressions, the cultural act has a therapeutic effect and makes us feel better physically and psychologically (Handbook  xxviii).   Viewed in his definition, bootlegging or moonshining, which seems to have provided a vicarious outlet and a safety valve with people and makes them feel better physically and psychologically, can be regarded as popular culture.

     The beginning of bootlegging in the South can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth Times New Roman when the government tried to impose an excise tax on whiskey to pay Revolutionary War debts.   The manufacturers of illegal intoxicating liquors started to try to avoid paying the tax.   Moonshine is generally made from water, sugar, yeast, cornmeal, and malt, and the process of making it is divided into three stages; fermentation, distillation and condensation.   Corn liquor produced from such process was sold for a higher price than unprocessed corn.   It was readily marketable and brought a secure income in the undeveloped, economically unstable regions in the South.   It could be more easily and effectively transported to the distant marketplace than could bulky unprocessed vegetable because of the bad road conditions (Foy 697).   In a word, bootlegging was closely related to a regional history and daily simple economy in the South and it was mainly by economic causes that bootlegging thrived and continued to exist there.

     Most Southern communities have had many legends about the classic confrontation and the contest of wits between a moonshiner and a revenue agent, which have been passed down from generation to generation in the South.   Bootlegging has caused some tensions between them, involving the general public, and shaped popular culture that has been at once glamorous and questionable.   Moonshining had been traditionally not a commercial venture, but a family practice, and even around Jefferson there were not a few people who made moonshine by themselves and gave or occasionally sold it to their neighbors.   Calvin Bookwright in The Mansion, who lived in Frenchman's Bend, for example, was one of them.   Old Calvin Bookwright still made corn whiskey and had "shared now and then with the few people tactful enough to retain his precarious irascible friendship" (The Mansion 372).   It is apparent from the Chick Mallison's remarks that Old Bookwright had been making moonshine precariously and distributed it only to whom he could get along well with: "I went alone, to sit in Ratliff's immaculate little kitchen with a cold toddy of old Mr Calvin Bookwright's corn whiskey that Ratliff seemed to have no trouble getting from him, though now, in his old age, with anybody else Mr Cal might sell it to you or give it to you or order you off his place . . ." (The Mansion 229).

     Lucas Beauchamp and his son-in-law, George Willkins, were also bootlegging individually with their stills.   An episode of their calm and peaceful moonshining is told humorously in "The Fire and the Hearth" of Go Down, Moses as follows.

He [Lucas] wasn't afraid that George would cut into his established trade, his old regular clientele, with the hog swill which George had begun to turn out two months ago and call whisky.   But George Wilkins was a fool innocent of discretion, who sooner or later would be caught, whereupon for the next ten years every bush on the Edmonds place would have a deputy sheriff squatting behind it from sundown to sunup every night. (GDM 35)

The background of the story is set in around 1940, and Lucas had had "his old regular clientele" for twenty years.   The situation also indicates that "Mississippi was the last to give up statewide prohibition in 1966" (Prohibition 11).   Lucas began bootlegging only "for his first fun" (GDM 35), and he seems to have been bootlegging privately only to earn his pocket money.    Lucas, of course, had been able to retain his clients because of his considerable skill of moonshining.   Moonshine such as "the hog swill which George had begun to turn out two months ago and call whiskey" could hardly bear comparison with Lucas's.

     The Eighteenth Amendment ratified by Congress in 1919, however, changed the situation of bootlegging.   From 1920 the manufacture, sale, transportation, import or export of intoxicating liquors were prohibited all over the states.   Prohibition continued in the United States to 1933 when the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified and proclaimed in force on December 5, 1933.   It is needless to say that the South was also placed under the law.  It is true that bootlegging has enlivened the popular culture of the region with thrilling episodes, but it has been an unmistakable tax violation itself.

     Manufacturing and selling illegal liquor would bring great benefits and constitute a kind of enormous industry under the situation.   Bootlegging, that is, the violation of liquor laws was, of course, a criminal enterprise.   It was existing criminal syndicates in large cities that undertook the illegal business to get great benefits from it.   During Prohibition bootlegging, which had been a simple and sometimes innocent tax violation, became a backwoods industry of menacing proportions.   It was like a gentle home pet which grew up to become a devouring monster (Kellner 139).   "Moonshiners had reason to look upon the Temperance workers as angels unaware, for the greatest good fortune that could come to any industry, high or low, came to them when the country went dry in 1919.   Backwoods grog which had been selling for $2 a gallon and less now brought $22 a gallon, with no questions asked.   The Temperance workers had won the battle and lost the war" (Kellner 104).

     Bootlegging was extremely attractive for established criminal syndicates, so the early 1920s were a period of intense competition among criminal organizations seeking for  Prohibition's economic opportunities.   Competition for enormous profits among urban gangs was extremely fierce.   Mark Haller explains how gangs like Al Capone's extended a sales network across the country, repeating fierce struggles for leadership:

Leading bootleggers and their partners, then, tended to specialize either in importation, in various forms of manufacture, or in wholesaling.   By the late 1920s a wholesaling group in Chicago, such as that associated with Al Capone and Jack Guizik, might have ongoing arrangements with importers in Detroit, New York, New Orleans, and Florida; with brewers in Joliet, Illinois, and Racine, Wisconsin; with Philadelphia entrepreneurs who diverted industrial alcohol; and with illegal distillers throughout the Midwest. (Haller 140)

The South could not remain unrelated to the situation under nationwide Prohibition.    Bootleggers, who appeared to have a connection with urban criminal syndicates, invaded the countryside of the South and absorbed small-scale retail bootleggers operating an illegal still individually (Carson 108). 

     How can it be understood, however, that not a few citizens unconcernedly broke the law?   Humbert S. Nelli analyzes the situation and explores the meaning of the Volstead Act for the general public in those days:

 Although bootleggers engaged in an illegal enterprise, it was of a nature which millions of otherwise honest and law-abiding citizens fully supported \ in fact, it was a service they demanded.   The consuming public, in effect, became willing, and even eager, accomplices in the widespread violation of the Constitution.   Thus, paradoxically, bootleggers were, in the popular mind, glamorous and mysterious benefactors, and not corruptors of public and private morals. (Nelli 127)

The attitudes of common people, "otherwise honest and law-abiding citizens," toward the Volstead Act in those days are clearly explained: if they could evade criminal charges against themselves, they could buy moonshine without feeling a guilty conscience.     The law caused the transformation of drinking from a masculine privilege into one shared by both sexes, and had a great influence on "the Revolution in Manners and Morals" initiated by young people.   Such social changes set the current trend of the times: "violation of the liquor laws was more acceptable to the public than were the other forms of criminal enterprise" (Nelli 125).

     Even in Jefferson people could buy moonshine from bootleggers without a messy and risky procedure.  A conversation about furtive behavior of Christmas and Brown passed between Byron Bunch and the workmen in the mills demonstrates the situation:

. . . "Brown is what you might call a public servant.  Christmas used to make them come way out to them woods back of Miss Burden's place, at night; now Brown brings it right into town for them.   I hear tell how if you just know the pass word, you can buy a pint of whiskey out of his shirt front in any alley on a Saturday night."  

"What's the pass word?" another said.   "Six bits?"  (Light in August, 46-47)

Christmas's partner, Brown, who dared to sell moonshine imprudently and indiscreetly in the midst of downtown of Jefferson, is depicted as "a public servant" offering "a service they demanded" as Nelli suggests.   The "willing, and even eager, accomplices in the widespread violation of the Constitution" can be observed among the people of Jefferson, who could buy moonshine with only "the pass word from Brown in the open even in any alley on a Saturday night."   It is very interesting that the people in Jefferson could get moonshine easily only with "the pass word" during the Prohibition era.  

     The actual situation of national Prohibition among bootleggers and the people in Jefferson described here is the same as Nelli indicates.  The circumstances in which Al Capone boasted loudly are observed even in a Southern small town, Jefferson:

I make my money by supplying a public demand.   If I break the law, my consumers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am.  The only difference between us is that I sell and they buy.   Everybody calls me a racketeer.   I call myself a business man.  When I sell liquor, it's bootlegging.  When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it's hospitality. (Sinclair 220)

The relations between bootleggers such as Christmas and Brown and the people in the town, therefore, are not peculiar or regional ones but those which could be observed anywhere all over the United States during national Prohibition.

     The conversation between Tommy and Horace Benbow, who happened to stray into a hiding place of bootleggers led by Popeye, known as the Old Frenchman place, also reflects the situation:

"Who drives the truck?" Benbow said.   "Some more Memphis fellows?"
"Sho," Tommy said.  "Hit's Popeye's truck."
"Why cant those Memphis folks stay in Memphis and let you all make your liquor in peace?" "That's where the money is," Tommy said.   "Aint no money in these here piddlin little quarts and half-a-gallons.   Lee just does that for a-commodation, to pick up a extry dollar or two.   It's in making a run and getting shut of it quick, where the money is." (Sanctuary 20-21)

Tommy's remarks make it clear that some "folks" of Jefferson frequently came to the place to get moonshine from Lee "for four years" under national Prohibition.   Even Horace Benbow, lawyer of Jefferson, displays no interest in clear violations of the law: "If it's whiskey, I dont care how much you all make or sell or buy . . . " (Sanctuary 6).   Benbow, however, senses that a criminal syndicate in Memphis, a large city, is spreading its bootlegging network even to Jefferson, a small country town in the South.   And Tommy's reply reinforces Benbow's guess: "That's where the money is, . . ."   As to the background of Sanctuary, Cleanth Brooks assumes that the events in the work occurred in 1929 from the date Temple was raped by Popeye (Brooks 389).   Edmonds Volpe conjectures that it is set in 1930 because Bory, born in 1920, is now ten years old in the novel (Volpe 383).   It may safely be assumed that the background of the work is set around 1930.   In those days moonshine was collected by the henchmen under the big operator from still to still at regular intervals in the backwoods in the southern reagions.   It was carried out to a secret loading place, and was transferred to the trucks or tanker-cars of transporters (Moonshine 111-12).   The passage indicates that Popeye and his fellows, drifted to an out-of-the-way place, Jefferson, had seemingly a connection with a network of an urban criminal gang in the period of national Prohibition.

     The bootlegging by Christmas and Brown also suggests that they had connection with a network of a city gang:

 "But when he took Brown in with him, I reckon Brown wanted to spread out.   Selling it by the half a pint out of his shirt bosom in any alley and to anybody.   Selling what he never drunk, that is.  And I reckon the way they got the whiskey they sold would not have stood much looking into.   Because about two weeks after Brown quit out at the mill and taken to riding around in that new car for his steady work, he was down town drunk one Saturday night and bragging to a crowd in the barbershop something about him and Christmas in Memphis one night, or on a road close to Memphis.  Something about them and that new car hid in the bushes and Christmas with a pistol, and a lot more about a truck and a hundred gallons of something, . . ." (Light in August 86-87)

Through the conversational give-and-take between Byron Bunch and Gail Hightower the reader can understand that Christmas had commenced bootlegging cautiously three years before, but Brown began later to sell moonshine daringly anywhere in Jefferson to chase a profit.   Brown bragged to a crowd in the barbershop "something about him and Christmas in Memphis," and his remarks imply that Christmas and Brown also had something to do with a criminal syndicate in Memphis.

     The more complicated interdependence between bootleggers who have to do with city criminal syndicates and the people in the community can be measured by the observations  of Horace Benbow.   He explained the exposure of Goodwin's bootlegging by the authority to Miss Jenny:

" . . . His business out there is finished now, even if the sheriff hadn't found his kettles and destroyed --"


"His still.  After he surrendered, they hunted around until they found the still.  They knew what he was doing, but they waited until he was down.  Then they all jumped on him.  The good customers, that had been buying whiskey from him and drinking all that he would give them free and maybe trying to make love to his wife behind his back.    You should hear them down town.  This morning the Baptist minister took him for a text. Not only as a murderer, but as an adulterer; a polluter of the free      Democratico-Protestant atmosphere of Yoknapatawpha county . . ." (Sanctuary 123)

The relationship between bootleggers and the citizens of Jefferson observed here seems to be a little complicated, because a kind of peculiar and regional circumstances can be found in it.   The law-abiding people in a community could be willing to be "even eager, accomplices in the widespread violation of the Constitution," only if they could get moonshine in safety, that is, without any criminal charge.  Once the bootleggers from whom they have obtained moonshine for a long time are got hold of something and arrested by the authority, they change their attitudes drastically toward them.   

     Benbow's reports illustrate the possibility that even some of the authorities in Jefferson could be among the "good customers that had been buying whiskey from him and drinking all that he would give them free."   The bootleggers, who cannot have been "corruptors of public and private morals" for "law-abiding citizens" in the community while they have done their "business" safely, abruptly become polluters "of the free Democratico-Protestant atmosphere of Yoknapatawpha county."   In the sermon by the Baptist minister in the passage, the strong "hold of primitive Methodist and Baptist churches and of the fundamentalist sects" and "the monolithic structure of the Democratic party in the South" can be surely recognized.   The Baptist minister seems to represent even a model of the extremes of dry psychology of white Southerners who has carried the dry movement persistently (Sinclair 30-32).   Light in August also depicts such relationship between bootleggers and the community as recognized in Sanctuary.

 . . . And it is now no secret what they were doing.   It is a byword among young men and even boys that whiskey can be bought from Brown almost on sight, and the town is just waiting for him to get caught, to produce from his raincoat and offer to sell it to an undercover man. (Light in August 50)

It is apparent that Brown gradually became reckless and careless in his doing "business" because of his thoughtlessness.    When the situation had gotten awkward for Brown and it was a matter of time that he would be arrested, "the town" tried to watch coldly the situation with their hands in their pocket.    Once it was "no secret" what Brown was doing, people in the community came to be "just waiting" for him to be arrested, even though some of them had owed their enjoyment to his "business."

     In Sanctuary, however, a more unstable situation between bootleggers who violate the law and law-abiding people in the community is suggested.   It has been the law that has shaped bootlegging into a kind of popular culture causing tension among them, but in the work, the law itself is depicted as being threatened with ineffectuality.   Popeye, for example, who had killed Tommy and Red without scruple, was arrested for the murder of a policeman in Alabama happened on the selfsame day when Red had been killed.   Popeye was arrested "for killing a man in one town and at an hour when he was in another town killing somebody else" (Sanctuary 309), and executed by hanging in the end.   Goodwin was also arrested on a false charge of having killed Tommy, and was found guilty by Temple's false witness against him.   The jury judged him guilty after deliberating only "eight minutes" (Sanctuary 291), and eventually he was burned alive by an excited mob in Jefferson.   Obviously they were not protected by the law.   It is true that Popeye and Goodwin lived in the wrong side of the law, but they also should attain equality under the law.   The law itself which executes justice does not serve its function in the story at all.

     Puzzling behavior displayed by Horace Benbow and Temple Drake, who seemingly observed and respected the law, on the other hand, indicates the loss of the law.      Horace Benbow, a lawyer who must take the initiative in observing the law was quite indifferent to bootlegging or moonshining, and only confided what he thought to Tommy: "If it's whiskey, I don't care how much you all make or sell or buy . . ."   Although he stated, "I cannot stand idly by and see injustice" (Sanctuary 119), he was hopelessly incompetent to defend Goodwin, who was quite blameless for the murder, after all.   Even before the trial got under way, Benbow disclosed his real intention: "When this is over, I think I'll go to Europe, . . . I need a change.  Either I, or Mississippi, one" (Sanctuary 134).   His remark ominously foreboded Temple's action after committing a perjury in the trial, because she would go to France accompanied by her father as if nothing had happened.   Temple, who had no other identity than as a daughter of a judge, said again and again, "My father's a judge" (Sanctuary 30).   Her father's social position that was established and retained by the law itself formed Temple's psychological basis of behavior, but Temple bore false witness against Goodwin in court insensitively.   Temple was indifferent to obeying the law, and her arbitrary actions clearly threatened the spirit of the law or the existence of the law.

     Bootlegging or moonshining as popular culture affords good material and an effective tool for Sanctuary.   Faulkner, however, depicted not only the actual situation of bootlegging in the South under national Prohibition that "otherwise law-abiding citizens" were sometimes in conspiracy with bootleggers and became "accomplices in the wide spread violation of the Constitution," but the possibility of extinction of the law itself, by "sublimated the actual into apocryphal" (Lion in the Garden 254).


Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1963. 

Bigger, Margaret G. (ed.).  Prohibition Didn't End in '33: How "Wets" Got Liquor in a "Dry" Nation, State or County.  Charlotte, North Carolina: A. Borough Book, 1994.

Carson, Gerald.  The Social History of Bourbon: An Unhurried Account of Our Star-Spangled American Drink. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963.

Faulkner, William.  Go Down, Moses, Vintage International Edition.  New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

The Mansion.   New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

Sanctuary, The Corrected Text, Vintage International Edition.  New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Light in August, The corrected Text.  New York: Vintage Books, 1987.

Foy, Jessica. "Moonshine and Moonshining," Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,  eds. by Wilson Charles Regan, & William Ferris.  Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina, 1993.

Haller, Mark H. "Bootlegging as Businessmen: From City Slums to City Builders,"  Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition, ed., David E. Kyvig.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Inge, M. Thomas (ed.).   Handbook of American Popular Culture, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged.  New York, Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Kellner, Esther. Moonshine: Its History and Folklore. New York: Weathervane Books, 1971. 

Meriwether, James B. and Michael Millgate (eds.).  Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner.  Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

NelliHumbert S. "American Syndicate Crime: A Legacy of Prohibition," Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition, ed., David E. Kyvig.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Sinclair, Andrew.  Era of Excess: A Social History of the Prohibition Movement.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962.  

Volpe, Edmond L. a reader's guide to William Faulkner. New York: The Noonday Press, 1974.


Copyright (c)2006 HANAOKA Shigeru