Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

Intruder in the Dust begins with a curious incident in which sixteen-year-old Charles “Chick” Mallison, a local boy and nephew of lawyer Gavin Stevens, is rescued after falling into an icy creek. His rescuer is Lucas Beauchamp, the black grandson of Carothers McCaslin, a white land planter and patriarch of the McCaslin family. He puts the boy into dry clothes and gives him his own supper, and thereafter the two find themselves embroiled in a peculiar game of one-upmanship. Realising the food was Lucas’s, and therefore nigger food, and recognising the “nigger smell” in the house, Chick does not wish to be beholden to a black man and tries to pay for the food with a handful of coins. Lucas refuses to accept and there is a stand-off before Chick lets the money fall from his hand to scatter on the floor. Angrily, Lucas orders him to pick it up and Chick and his black friend, Aleck Sander, do so in cowed submission. Chick now feels, however, that he has ended up the loser in the exchange and defeat consumes him to the extent that he saves his money for months to buy Lucas’s wife, Molly, a silk dress. He is now satisfied he is no longer in debt to a black man but is soon trumped when Lucas responds by sending him a gallon bucket of fresh homemade sorghum molasses.

It is only at the novel’s conclusion that the full import of this humorous interlude becomes clear. It is a metaphorical replay of the racial tensions attendant in the South, the refusal of the white man to afford the black man the dignity of equality. Chick, still a child, parrots the words he hears around him: “If [Lucas] would just be a nigger first, just for one second, one little infinitesimal second,” he concludes, it would be easier to deal with him. In this way, Chick is complicit in extending the mores and customs of the old South into a new generation. By the novel’s conclusion, however, when he has learned to think for himself and reach independent judgements, such notions have been banished from his mind. At that point, Lucas and Chick enjoy a light-hearted discussion in which their mutual trust and admiration is clear. The boy Chick, symbolic of a new age, has matured and thrown off the ways of the past.

If all that sounds horribly naive, then be assured that there is tremendous depth and subtlety to Intruder in the Dust, certainly more than Faulkner has sometimes been given credit for. Taken individually, some of the characters might come close to being stock, but the interplay between them most certainly isn’t.

Lucas Beauchamp is what would have been called at the time an uppity nigger, and like many an uppity nigger his fancy ideas (for which, read a refusal to consider himself in any way inferior to the white folks around him) has plunged him into trouble. Specifically, he is arrested for the murder of a white man – and not just any white man, but Vinson Gowrie, one of the notorious Gowrie clan, “brawlers and foxhunters and whiskeymakers” who are feared throughout the county. A lynching is the most likely – indeed, possibly the only – outcome. Lucas is spared that fate, however, by an improbably (in the sense of heroic, not poorly characterised) resolute defence by the “little driedup wizened stonedeaf” old constable, Skipworth, who handcuffs Lucas to the bedpost and watches over him till Sheriff Hampton can arrive.

Lucas calls for Gavin Stevens to act as his lawyer and insists he will pay. Stevens, although a liberal, immediately assumes Lucas is guilty and doesn’t even allow him to speak, telling him instead that he should plead guilty and, because of his age and good character, he may get sent to the penitentiary instead of being hanged. Given this lack of support from his lawyer, it is not surprising, then, that Lucas turns not to Stevens, but to his nephew Chick for help. He reveals to the boy that Vinson Gowrie was not shot with the 41 Colt which was in Lucas’s possession when he was apprehended. The only way of proving this, however, is to dig up the body. Prisoner and boy make a compact, and at this moment the novel’s moral journey is set in train. Chick is accompanied on his dangerous mission by his friend, Aleck Sander and Miss Habersham, an eccentric old woman who was a childhood friend of Molly Beauchamp, and who hears Chick’s story and instinctively believes it to be true. “Lucas knew it would take a child – or an old woman like me [to reveal the truth],” she says, “someone not concerned with probability, with evidence.” Together, they dig up the grave and find it is occupied, not by Vinson Gowrie, but by Jake Montgomery, his erstwhile business colleague who, unknown to Gowrie, was cheating on him. They re-bury the body and contact Sheriff Hampton to explain what they have discovered. The sheriff orders an exhumation and this time finds the grave empty.

The plot unfolds as a literary murder mystery, in which the murderer is finally revealed to be Vinson’s own brother, Crawford. Instantly, the moral fervour of the lynch mob dissipates into something like embarrassment. What we are left with is an analysis of the racial tensions of the South in the 1940s and a debate on how and how fast to ensure integration. Those are complex questions, and Faulkner’s novel is suitably complex in its analysis.

As Doreen Fowler has noted, Stevens’ softly softly approach to racial integration corresponds to some extent with Faulkner’s own public utterances and this has led some commentators to speculate that Stevens can be read as Faulkner’s spokesperson. Fowler takes issue with this and so do I. By the novel’s conclusion, Stevens’ position is clearly portrayed in a less positive light than Chick’s. He was convinced, without any evidence, remember, of Lucas’s guilt. He is a good man though not necessarily a good lawyer, and he has a tendency to declaim higher truths without ever quite acting in a way to suggest these truths are part of the blood and bone and sinew of his moral being. This is not a man, perhaps, who would ever die for a cause. It might also be noted that in an earlier appearance, in Faulkner’s 1942 story collection, Go Down, Moses, he is seen running from the grieving circle of Beauchamps mourning the death of Mollie Beauchamp’s grandson. He is a man of words, then, but not necessarily a man of action. It is true that in public Faulkner urged a similarly cautious approach to integration, but these calls operate at a political or oratorical level, as represented here by Stevens: it is at the community level, however, in the life and soul and blood and toil of the people of the southern communities, that the real work of integration must take place. And that will be achieved, as we learn through the maturation of Chick as the story unfolds, by the people themselves, at a momentum they can maintain.

Thus, it is Chick who presents the moral centre of the novel. In helping Lucas, he goes from being a peevish child acting out the received wisdom of his parents’ generation towards a state where he views events with complete objectivity and decries what he sees. Stevens may be eloquent, but Chick is passionate. The distinction is instinctive. Stevens has taken a intellectual approach to the question of race and reached a logical conclusion that existing ways are wrong. They must be changed, he concludes, and things will change, “but it won't be next Tuesday.” This element of equivocation is absent from Chick, whose understanding of the need for equality appears to grow from a moral sense within him. Chick perhaps senses that Stevens’ approach, a gradual process of legalised equality, will never overcome the ingrained prejudice of the people he has witnessed in the ugly lynch mob: the typical liberal approach of attempting to drive societal change through legislation is doomed to failure because it presupposes that everyone can be made to think in the same, liberal manner. Chick recognises from the twisted anger in the faces of the lynch mob that this is an impossible dream.

And this is what the novel is concerned with: exposing the ghosts of the South’s racist past, revealing how they still held a malign sway over the lives of the population and the moral judgements of the community. Lucas Beauchamp would have been lynched purely because he was a black man who found himself in a particular situation.

However, although it is wrong to assume that Stevens is the author’s proxy in the novel, then it is equally wrong to think that Chick is. It would be a serious misreading of the novel to depict Chick as some sort of hero of mankind leading us to a new dawn of community and brotherly love. His may be the vision of natural justice, but remember it is only carried out through the bloody-mindedness (not to mention downright illegality) of the actions of Sheriff Hope and lawyer Gavin Stevens. As Ticien Marie Sassoubre notes, together they are complicit in “exhuming a body, hiding Lucas at the sheriff’s house, [and] entrapping the real killer” in order to protect Lucas.

Therefore, it may be that the noble triumvirate of old woman and black and white boys may be the ones who could cut through the “facts” and see the truth, but they would have been powerless to stop the lynch mob.

What we see, then, is an alliance of Stevens, Sheriff Hampton, Chick, Aleck Sander and Miss Haversham combining to rescue Lucas Beauchamp. And this is the central point of the novel: it is only a combination of law and community, force and will, experience and willingness, that can overcome the racial tensions which are so entrenched in southern communities. There is no individual hero of Intruder in the Dust, there can be none: without any one of the central characters, Lucas would have died. Instead, they work together and Lucas Beauchamp goes free. And it is worth, at this point, comparing Intruder in the Dust with another classic of pre-war southern society, To Kill A Mockingbird. At first sight, Gavin Stevens may be no Atticus Finch. He may share the same high-blown rhetoric, but does he have Atticus’s moral integrity? Perhaps not, but remember this: Lucas Beauchamp is freed in Intruder in the Dust but, for all Atticus Finch’s integrity and brilliance as a lawyer, Tom Robinson dies.

So it is a combination of people and circumstances and beliefs which can effect change. Moreover, it is clear that the beliefs of a new generation do not mysteriously appear, fully-formed and immediately comprehensible, out of nowhere. As philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy notes, “While this life stretches from the cradle to the grace the life span of an inspiration reaches from the middle of one man’s life to the middle of the life in the next generation.” This is the true message of Intruder in the Dust. Stevens may not have had the moral strength to act out his beliefs, but near the end he makes an important observation to Chick: “Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your pic¬ture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.” There is a preachiness of tone here which is typical of Stevens, but it is a noble sentiment all the same and one which, one feels, the boy Chick is ready to assume and develop in a way that is beyond his uncle. Stevens may say it: Chick may do it. Humans develop across generations and no generation, in itself, can effect profound change.


Bad Catholic said...

Not one of the best Faulkner novels but still one of my favorites, especially the bit about how every Southern boy imagines that it is the third day of the Battle of Gettyburg and Pickett's charge has not yet been launched and it is still possible for the South to win the war. Love it!

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, that is a vivid scene. Even as someone not brought up in the South (or even America) I can feel the power of that. It's a great piece of writing, it really helps get into the southern psyche.