Intruder in the Dust proved to be one of William Faulkner’s most popular novels when it was first published. Set in the late 1940’s, it addresses the issue of civil rights for African Americans. In 1949, the novel was made into a film in Oxford, Mississippi.
Lucas Beauchamp, black descendant of the old slaveowner Carothers McCaslin, refuses to fit into the social pattern of race and position in Jefferson, Mississippi. This proud man of mixed blood, accused of murdering a white man, maintains his dignity by refusing to defend himself. Considered the noblest of Faulkner’s black male characters, Lucas also appears in Go Down, Moses (1942), which details the intertwining lives of the black and the white McCaslins.
Distantly related to Lucas through McCaslin is Chick Mallison, a sixteen-year-old white youth who views the old man with awe and respect. When Lucas sends for lawyer Gavin Stevens, Chick’s uncle, Chick goes with him. Initially Stevens believes that Lucas is guilty. Chick, however, does not. He becomes engaged by Lucas’ refusal to clear himself; he cannot let this man be lynched.
Chick determines to dig up the victim’s body to prove that Lucas is innocent. Miss Eunice Habersham’s participation in this scheme makes it possible. Miss Habersham, who grew up with Lucas Beauchamp’s wife Molly, seems utterly fearless. One of Faulkner’s grand old ladies, she knows who she is: descendant of a respected white family and unafraid to take risks for what she knows is right. She puts herself in jeopardy of the lynch mob because she, like Chick, refuses to stand by and allow Lucas to be taken. Only Chick and Miss Habersham have the courage to act at first. Lawyer Stevens is slower but is finally convinced by his nephew.
In this novel of conscience, Chick discovers what it means to be a man. He must choose between conforming to his society and his moral responsibility to the white and the black inhabitants of Jefferson. The loquacious Stevens is given a number of speeches representing Faulkner’s position on the civil rights issue in the South, namely, that the South must take responsibility for and solve by itself the racial problems that it has created and inherited. Stevens tells Chick: “Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame.”