Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reading “Ferguson” in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust

Peter de Lissovoy


The tragedy that has become a household word—“Ferguson”—cannot be understood without a sense of our history. To get a picture of life in America as it used to be, and so America as it has become today, in which “Fergusons” are commonplace, certain novels might be more useful than the history books, because a good novel presents a vision of life as it is, or was, lived whole. The novel transports us into deeper and richer worlds than, for instance, what we read about in the newspapers or on the Internet.

For the young person or modern reader or anyone wishing to have a sense of what the relations between the races were in the United States until very recently (and thus mainly still are), Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust would be a good place to go. Faulkner also famously remarked on the rootedness of the present in the past, that is, the living presence of the past in our lives. Of course, to the African American reader of the novel, the direct link to the present day will be unmistakable as it is regrettable. Intruder in the Dust is a window on America and the South and also how a Nobel Prize–winning writer from the South was thinking about race as World War II came to a close and what we call the modern Civil Rights Movement was beginning, in the late 1940s. A pretty good movie was made from the novel many years ago.

The novel is about a would-be lynching of an innocent black man (the character Lucas Beauchamp) in Mississippi in about 1948 with the peculiar quality of completely lacking any sense of outrage except against the affectation of his essential manhood by the would-be victim.  In the early pages Faulkner establishes the precise origin of the near fatal prejudice against Lucas Beauchamp in a scene where he goes into a country crossroads store and buys some ginger snaps and eats them. His manner of eating them offends one of the white backwoodsmen there, who goes to brain him, only prevented by the store’s proprietor, familiar with Lucas’s ways, who is completely oblivious and absolutely indifferent to whatever is offensive in his manner of eating ginger snaps. Confronting his would-be assailant boldly, indifferently, and intractably (Faulkner loves words that start with “in”), Lucas insults him further than just by his manner of eating the cookies. He sucks his tooth loudly in an aggressive manner and puts the white man in his place in locally resonant and effective terms. (If this reaction and the ginger snaps hauntingly call to mind a kid named Trayvon Martin and some infamous “Skittles,” you see what I mean by the transporting function of the novel.)

The premise of the story in Intruder is that a poor white man from a clan and of that class that is so low as to be customarily beyond the reach of the law has been murdered and on flimsy circumstantial evidence an “uppity nigger” (Lucas Beauchamp)  is picked up to answer for it. The way he eats ginger snaps, among other things, has already sufficiently established his suspiciousness. Both victim and supposed perpetrator being in their different ways assumed not to function within the normal framework of the small-town society, the conscience of the community is not aroused, the powers that be are not moved to interfere, and it is left to a boy, an old woman, and the sheriff to fend off the lynch mob and prove Lucas’s innocence, but especially the boy.  

How is it that the white boy comes to save Lucas Beauchamp? When at the start of the novel Lucas takes the boy home who has fallen in the creek to dry him off, warm him by his fire, and feed him dinner, but then refuses to take the half a dollar (and then seventy cents) that the white boy tries to force on him not so much in gratitude but as to wipe away the shame of having been helped by a black (as he describes it his manhood and his sense of his whiteness have been challenged), this sets off a cycle of strange one-upsmanship that goes on a while as the boy has to get back at him. He saves up and sends Lucas some cigars and his wife a dress, only Lucas sends him back a beautiful gallon pail of molasses he’s made, and what’s worse, delivered by a poor white, and so the cycle of weird retribution for a kindness has to go on.

. . . and [the boy] writhing with impotent fury . . . was already thinking of the man . . . [as] every white man in that whole section of the country had been thinking about him for years:  We got to make him be a nigger first. He’s got to admit he’s a nigger. Then maybe we will accept him as he seems to intend to be accepted. . . . the Negro who . . . said “sir” and “mister” to you if you were white but who you knew was thinking neither and he knew you knew it but who was not even waiting, daring  you to make the first move, because he didn’t even care.  [italics in the original]

This is Faulkner’s genius, rendering these pathological social relations, which of course feed into our own today, and explain many a “Ferguson.” It is an ironic and deft touch of the author and an essential insight into the white mentality that the boy is enmeshed and entrapped by the refusal of Lucas Beauchamp to be rewarded for his good deed. It is not enough that he helped, he must be paid off with a sop, as you would give a too mindful slave, to preserve white honor. With this Faulkner is on the verge of self-awareness (he never entirely gets there). The boy, no less than his elders, cannot stop being exasperated by Lucas’s utterly independent attitude. Only he has fatally been helped by Lucas.

Yet because of his strange intimate adversarial quintessentially southern relationship to him it is this very boy who is accessible to the insight that Lucas must be innocent of the murder. There is romance in this conceit—that children and women can see through the non-clothes of the emperor while the menfolk are too busy carrying out evil orders—which is the hinge of the plot of the novel, the white boy’s adventure digging up the corpse to prove Lucas Beauchamp is innocent (as his gun is a strange .41 caliber not the one guilty). Whether or not there was ever such a boy, we accept Faulkner’s hope for his shred of humanity.

. . . now he seemed to see his whole native land, his home—the dirt, the earth that had bred his bones and those of his fathers for six generations and was still shaping him into not just a man but a specific man, not with just a man’s aspirations and beliefs but the specific passions and hopes and convictions and ways of thinking and acting of a specific kind and even race: and even more: even among a kind and race specific and unique (according to the lights of most, certainly of all of them who had thronged into town this morning to stand across the street from the jail and crowd up around the sheriff’s car, damned unique) since it had also integrated into him whatever it was that had compelled him to stop and listen to a damned high-nosed impudent Negro who even if he wasn’t a murderer had been about to get if not what he deserved at least exactly what he had spent the sixty-odd years of his life asking  for—

Intruder is one of those stories whose value and charm lie in one indelible and inspired character, and doubly so in the case of Lucas Beauchamp, who captures the evil quandary of an entire culture, a man who refuses not only his place in the culture, his assigned subservient role in the culture, but even to recognize the central offensive aspect of the culture as if he simply never heard of it, thus rendering it starkly visible.

None of the other characters in the novel operate on the level of interest of Lucas. There is every evidence that Faulkner meant to make his white characters as compelling or at least as functional as his black hero (or anti-hero, one can’t tell finally). The vast majority of the goings-on are white people’s and most of the pages of the novel are devoted to the white characters. All the whites are rather two-dimensional, as all the electricity is short-circuited into the one genius stroke Lucas Beauchamp, as if even the author did not know what hit him when he thought up Lucas. In the later pages of the book, the boy’s Uncle speaks volubly and interminably for the South, maybe for Faulkner or not. One must assume he is saying something the author thinks meaningful and worth saying, for his speeches are so lengthy and no irony is apparent, except for the unconscious irony of having a blathering pillar of the white community speak obtusely for pages in a novel whose real juice comes from an African American misfit:

“Only a few of us know that only from homogeneity comes anything of a people or for a people of durable and lasting value . . . perhaps most valuable of all a national character worth anything in a crisis . . . That’s why we must resist the North: not just to preserve ourselves nor even the two of us as one to remain one nation . . . [we too] postulate that Sambo is a human being living in a free country and hence must be free. That’s what we are really defending: the privilege of setting him free ourselves.”

Apparently we are meant to take this racist piffle seriously, at least as seriously voiced, the white man insisting on the absurdity of being allowed to solve all the horror deriving from slavery by himself. As for homogeneity, it had been tried across the ocean as a “lasting value” in those days, and still is, here and there and everywhere, in our day, whether worth anything “in a crisis” or not. It would be a better book, no doubt about it, if the stupefying Uncle had been excised, but these later passages form a revealing shadow, and show in spades the murky cultural underpinnings of the story, the South, and America.

“We—he and us—should confederate: swap him the rest of the economic and political and cultural privileges which are his right, for the reversion of his capacity to wait and endure and survive. Then we would prevail; together we would dominate the United States.”

As American blacks have had to put up with cruel or flamboyant Mr. Charlie or equivocating half-aware Mr. Faulkner for centuries, the “capacity to wait and endure and survive” came in handy. But what a vision of apotheosis of the old confederacy and a fantastic South conjured out of self-pity, endless evasion, probably Old GrandDad, and midnight memories of the Lost Cause! As deluded and self-serving a vision as an otherwise great writer ever put on a page I think, Jeff Davis and them would have been scratching their heads at these fanciful heights. Note the unreconstructed sentiment (in 1948) wishing white and black (those who “wait”) “confederate” to dominate the U.S.!

To enter the world of Intruder in the Dust by Faulkner is to discover an America in which everything is upside down, like Alice in Wonderland. So much is this true that the hero of Intruder is never to be recognized as such, either by any character in the novel, or by the author himself. The hero of the novel (never recognized as such) has committed the crime of being normal in a crazy land. Never perhaps intending to cast so long a shadow, Faulkner in Intruder shows us the deep roots of a modern American tragedy which presently, and until the next sad act, goes by the tag “Ferguson.”

Lucas is saved at the last from being doused with gasoline and burned alive by the lynch mob by his adversary the boy’s heroics riding through the night to dig up the corpse with the wrong bullet in it, and you would have thought after such an adventure some self-awareness and even god-almighty awe might have set in among close onlookers. But at the last, the “sympathetic” whites having been one-upped one last time when Lucas pays his lawyer “bill” (of two dollars) to the Uncle in pennies, and Lucas insufferably waits for his receipt, all that is evoked is wry smiles of southern gentlemen. Lucas Beauchamp himself is miles beyond smiles, but this masterstroke by the author is passed off as a foible.

It is most likely, in the old South, Lucas Beauchamp would have been lynched, and never a word more said about it. That the author lets him live says something about where America was in mid-twentieth century. When the SNCC kids showed up a few years later, Lucas would have given them shelter and been the first to register.

All said, Faulkner’s genius did even if somehow unknowingly produce the towering and sublimely hopeful character Lucas Beauchamp. (And as sometimes happens in Hollywood, in the movie of the same title, Juano Hernandez even takes the character to another level and a more perfect pitch, with his easy saunter and high hat and inscrutable indifference in the face of outrage and oblivion—the movie like the book worth the price for Lucas Beauchamp.)