Intruder in the Dust (Text Key 227)


On the first day of February, 1948, Faulkner wrote his agent to explain that he had set aside the seemingly unending work of A Fable, his allegorical novel about World War I, to start a "mystery story" he'd first considered in 1940. His relief at returning to his "apocryphal Jefferson" was palpable; he boasted of writing 60 pages, roughly half the novel's expected length, in the preceding two weeks. He promised to have it done before the end of February, and though he burned through the rest of the draft with time to spare, he soon found himself deep in revisions. In April, as he sent the manuscript – more than double its original length – to his publisher, he admitted that what had been a short piece, intended for popular interest, had "jumped the traces" as he reworked it.

The main figures of Intruder in the Dust are familiar ones, though their roles are new. Although Chick Mallison tagged along with his uncle in the five previously published detective stories that Faulkner would collect in Knight's Gambit (1949), he takes the lead in Intruder while his uncle, Gavin Stevens, remains somewhat removed from the main action. Stevens also appeared in the earlier novel Light in August and would return to stay with Intruder, becoming a fixture in the subsequent works Knight's Gambit, Requiem for a Nun, The Town and The Mansion. One of Faulkner's most impressive African American characters, Lucas Beauchamp, who first appeared in Go Down, Moses in 1942, shifts Intruder from a murder-mystery to a much more intriguing puzzle as the young Chick struggles, over a series of years, to see Lucas as more than the locus of a town's hatred, fear, and frustration.

Faulkner drew on his prolonged stints in Hollywood throughout the 1940's for the novel's murder mystery, and its subsequent reworking into a movie (1949) shot in Oxford offered him a reprieve from his persistent financial troubles. But there were larger issues that drove Faulkner to this text at this time: his conviction that above and beyond the murder-mystery, the novel concerned the "relationship between Negro and white, specifically or rather the premise being that the white people in the south, before the North or the govt. or anyone else, owe and must pay a responsibility to the Negro." His quick reassurance to his editor, "But it's a story; nobody preaches in it," is only half true; in the last half of the novel Gavin Stevens offers lengthy speeches that many see as Faulkner's message to the North along the lines of the stand that the Southern Agrarians had taken in 1930 and that the Dixiecrats would take in the 1948 presidential election.

Ultimately the novel reflects Faulkner's own deeply conflicted feelings about the South, and its racial past, present and future. More powerful than Gavin Stevens's soliloquies are the complex, fraught relations between Chick and Lucas. Chick's unpayable debt to Lucas, generated in a boyhood misadventure, re-sets the terms of racial interaction both within Faulkner's fiction and outside it. Chick's attempts to absolve himself of obligation to Lucas recall the pairs of black and white boys who appear throughout Go Down, Moses. This pattern prepares the way for Intruder, where, to Chick, Lucas is first an undesired savior, then a man whose pride "earns" him the hatred of Chick and many others in the town mob, and finally an old man whose wife has died and whose white and black blood forces him to stake claim to an identity outside racial boundaries.

The novel was first published by Random House on September 27, 1948. The text used here is Noel Polk's Corrected Text, published by Vintage International in 2011.

Dating the Story: The main events of the novel take place between a Saturday and a Monday in May. The exact days remain elusive - in one passage the Monday is identified as May 9 (144); in another, May 9 is the Saturday (221). The year is not explicitly identified at all. The narrative's one reference to yearly dates seems deliberately blurred: Chick's mother addresses a grievance to "all A.D. of our Lord one thousand and nine hundred and thirty and forty and fifty" (31-32). Answering a question about Gavin Stevens, Faulkner told an audience at the University of Virginia that "Intruder in the Dust happened about 19—35 or '40." That dash represents the long pause you can hear in Faulkner's answer; his hesitancy can serve to represent the challenge we face in determining a year. Using 1935-1940, the Depression era date Faulkner came up with after the pause, would make the novel more or less consistent with the chronology of Gavin's life throughout the Yoknapatawpha fictions. However, we have chosen to set the story a decade later, in 1947, basing our choice on the novel rather than the larger canon. There is some textual support in the novel for the earlier date, especially two passages that say "seventy-five years" have passed since the Civil War: 1865+75=1940 (117, 151). On the other hand, the novel says the Gowrie farm has been "womanless" for "twenty years" (214), and according to her tombstone Mrs. Gowrie died in 1926 (99): 1926+20=1946. Similarly, given the year Amanda died, her adult son Vinson - whose murder sets the plot in motion - would be only 13 or 14. In addition, there are a number of things mentioned in the novel that did not exist until the 1940s, from the "zoot pants" that Aleck Sanders is wearing at the end (232) to, more notably, the "atom bomb" that Gavin refers to in one of his monologues with Chick (146). Most significantly, both Gavin's and the novel's rhetorical stances are defined by events from the politics of post-World War II America. In 1946, President Truman formed a Commission on Civil Rights. This was an early move in the Cold War with Soviet Russia that began as soon as the hot war with Nazism ended (Gavin refers to both these conflicts in defining "the present" time, 211). Out of that Commission's report came Truman's actions in 1947, over strong Southern objections, to integrate both the armed services and the federal workforce, along with a new national concern with the injustices connected with segregation in the Jim Crow South. Reviewing the novel in 1948, black and white critics picked up immediately on this context; Edmund Wilson, for instance, called it "a kind of blast to the anti-lynching bill [in Congress] and to the civil rights plank in the Democratic platform [in the 1948 Presidential race]." Gavin Stevens' repeated and tetchy insistence that the white South must be left to solve the South's racial problem with no coercion or even "(with thanks) advice" (199, 204) from "the outlanders North East and West" (210); Gavin's declaration that "we" of the South "must resist the North" (151) that seeks to "force on us laws based on the idea that man's injustice to man can be abolished overnight" (199) - these assertions, which make no sense in the context of the Depression, reflect Faulkner's desire to use Gavin's voice and the plot of his novel to address his contemporaries in the late Forties. All that said, however, it has to be acknowledged the our choice is an interpretative act.

First Publisher: 
Random House
First Publisher Location: 
New York
First Publisher Date: 
September 27, 1948
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Edit Copy Publisher: 
Vintage International
Edit Copy Publisher Location: 
New York
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How to cite this resource:
Dye, Dotty, Erin Kay Penner, and Stephen Railton. "Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust." Added to the project: 2015.  Additional editing 2020: Lorie Watkins. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia,

Associate Editors: