IN THE SPRING of 1921, William Faulkner and his friend, Phil Stone, made a series of visits to the sporting houses on Gayoso and Mulberry Streets, in the Tenderloin district of Memphis. Four years later, from Paris, Faulkner wrote his mother that he had written 2,000 words of prose-poetry about "the Luxembourg Gardens and Death," having a "thin thread of a plot, about a young woman." In 1927 he was back in Mississippi, once more making trips to Memphis, where he became acquainted with a madam called Bella Rivers, who tried to make her brothel "a model of decorum." Later, Faulkner told someone that he had been offered the job of landlord in a brothel, and that he like the idea because it was "the perfect milieu for an artist to work in." It was perhaps at Bella's place that he met Popeye Pumphrey, a noted local gangster, a "temperate bootlegger" who was never seen with girls.

Then, sometime in the late '20s, a very popular coed from the University of Mississippi was sexually molested after disembarking from the chartered train to Starkville for a football game. Faulkner read about this event, and must have kept it in mind until some time later, when he met a girl in a New Orleans nightclub who told him how she had been kidnapped by a Memphis gangster.

In January 1929, having just completed The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner sat down at his typewriter in Oxford and began a novel called Sanctuary. It was to be (he wrote his friend and agent, Ben Wasson) "a book about a girl who gets raped with a corn cob"; and what interested him chiefly about this horrific event was "how all this evil flowed off her like water off a duck's back." In his haste to make a best seller, he crammed in all he had seen and heard about whorehouses, rapes and kidnappings.

As soon as it was finished, Faulkner sent Sanctuary off to his editor, Harrison Smith. After hearing from three of his firm's readers, Smith wrote Faulkner, "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail." This rejection didn't bother Faulkner much: He hadn't thought that Sanctuary was very good anyway. So he more or less forgot about it, and went on to write one of his masterpieces, As I Lay Dying, not even asking Smith to return the typescript of Sanctuary. He was quite surprised -- and appalled -- when, a year later, galley proofs of the novel arrived in the mail. Smith, it seems, had changed his mind. About the quality of the novel, Faulkner hadn't. He wrote Smith: "You can't print it like this; it's just a bad book." So Faulkner set about revising Sanctuary, tearing down the galleys and spending $240 of his own money to have the type reset. And, in making these revisions (or in writing about how he made them), perpetrated one of the greater canards of modern American literature.

For, when the revised Sanctuary was published in 1931, it contained an introduction by the author, in which he denigrated not only the book, but himself as well. The whole enterprise was, Faulkner asserted, "a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money." When Smith had sent him the galleys, Faulkner wrote, there were only two choices: to tear the whole thing up or to rewrite it. Thinking "it might sell: maybe 10,000 of them will buy it" (notice the lovely arrogance of the "of them"), he decided to rewrite. This he did, and concluded that he had done "a fair job," and that the revised Sanctuary would be nothing to shame The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.

This implication was, of course, that Faulkner had cleansed his most lurid and sensational novel of much that had so shocked Hal Smith and his readers; that he had made it more palatable to gentler tastes among the reading public. In fact, he had done nothing of the kind. Not only did he retain all that was most unsavory in the orginal version, he added what is perhaps the ugliest scene in the revised version -- the lynching of Lee Goodwin, the saturnine bootlegger who is accused of the killing of the half-wit Tommy. What is more interesting, both to Faulkner scholars and students of the novel in general, is that he turned a bad novel into a book that is, like The Hamlet, second-rate Faulkner, but first-rate fiction.

The original Sanctuary was indeed bad, but not because of its lubricity: it was bad because it was so poorly constructed, so sloppily done. The Ur-Sanctuary (as we pedants call it) was one of Faulkner's stabs at avant-garde writing, full of disjunctions in narrative, events discussed long after they had occurred, but long before the reader could know anything about them. For instance: the original version opens with Horace Benbow, the esthete-lawyer whose delicate sensibities are constantly repelled by the frequent incursion of heated carnality into his ideal world of ethereal honor, talking Goodwin and his common-law wife, Ruby, in Goodwin's jail cell. They are discussing a crime about which the reader will learn nothing for several chapters. In the revised version, however, Faulkner begins with one of his best passages ever: the subhuman Popeye watching Horace as the lawyer leans, Narcissus-like, over a pond in midforest, days before the corn cob rape of Temple Drake, the Ole Miss coed, by Popeye.

What is most remarkable to the Faulkner adept is not just the evidence of the author's ability to clean up the narrative mess that he had made of his first version, but the displacement of emphasis between the two versions. When, two years earlier, Faulkner had revised (or allowed to be revised: the question is still moot) Flags in the Dust, which was shortened and turned into Sartoris, he had allowed much of the material dealing with Horace Benbow to be deleted, in favor of concentration on Bayard Sartoris. With Sanctuary, he did the same thing: The first version is really about Horace Benbow and his febrile meanderings about the nature of evil -- most of which he sees as emanating from the bodies of women. (Students of Faulkner's undoubted misogyny will find much ammunition for their argument in the Ur-Sanctuary. ) And much of the Horace-business was excised by Faulkner as he cleaned up Sanctuary. In fact, its first version is very much a sequal to Flags in the Dust: same characters, same moral dilemmas, same fetid sensuality. And, correspondingly, the revised Sanctuary matches the revised Flags in the Dust -- neater, more smoothly constructed, more concentrated on a central event. The specialist will be glad to have the original version of Sanctuary, but I cannot see what benefit it will have for the general reader. Except perhaps that he will see that not even Faulkner could get it quite right with his reworkings: the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens set-piece is quite properly emphasized in the revision; but Faulkner managed to ruin the whole effect by adding a ridiculous coda in which he explained jsut why poor Popeye was the repugnant deviate that he was. Had Faulkner been reading too much Zola, or was he just messing around, as even the best writers are wont to do?