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The Southern Literary Journal 38.2 (2006) 64-73

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Intruder in the Past

Whom, exactly, William Faulkner intends readers to envision as the intruder in Intruder in the Dust seems a question almost as complex as the mystery contained within the pages of the novel itself. The lack of any definite candidate for the position, combined with Faulkner's difficulty in selecting a title, tempts one to treat his choice as a throwaway, unimportant because likely chosen in a moment of desperation. The beginnings of his frustration appear in a letter Robert K. Haas, his literary agent, received from him on March 15, 1948, in which he complains, "By the way, first time in my experience, I cant find a title." Actually, he already knew that he wanted to use the phrase "in the dust," and searched only for the perfect word to combine with it. He wrote to Haas, "I want a word, a dignified (or more dignified) synonym for 'shenanigan,' 'skulduggery'; maybe" (Selected Letters 264–265). Faulkner's correspondence shows that his mild irritation at his inability to choose a title soon escalated, and he followed his first letter with another to Haas approximately a week later proposing Intruder in the Dust as a title, along with several other possible (though perhaps not completely serious) combinations including the likes of "IMPOSTER," "SLEEPER," "MALFEASANCE," and even "MALAPROP" (265). After initially composing the letter, Faulkner returned to it six hours later and typed, [End Page 64] "I believe INTRUDER IN THE DUST is best yet," and even added in ink on the following Tuesday, "Still like INTRUDER IN THE DUST" (265). Clearly, the matter continued to prey upon his mind, and he hardly settled it so easily. On April twentieth, Faulkner, still in search of a title, again wrote to Haas that he sought a word synonymous with "substitution by sharp practice." Although "JUGGLERY" came closest to expressing the meaning he searched for, he rejected it because he thought it a "harsh ugly word" (266). He finally settled firmly upon the title, though not without reservations, by the time he wrote to Bennett Cerf in early May, that "lacking any short word for substitution, swap, exchange, sleight-of-hand, I think INTRUDER IN THE DUST is best" (268).

Faulker's emphasis on the process of substitution puts forward two characters as possible intruders: Jake Montgomery, the "shoestring" timber buyer whose dead body Chick Mallison, Miss Habersham, and Aleck Sander find literally intruding upon the ground of Vinson Gowrie's grave, and Lucas Beauchamp, the black man who stands accused of Gowrie's murder after essentially intruding into the scam which led to that death. The meaning of the title, though, perhaps should depend more upon the phrase "in the dust" than the initial word that Faulkner never quite found adequate. From the beginning, he seemed sure of the final part of his title, and Patrick Samway implies that the latter phrase might occupy a more central position than the word which precedes it when he notes in his introduction to the novel's concordance that Faulkner uses the word "intruder" only in the title, but the phrase "in the dust" is "used 3 times and in each case there is an association with blacks" (ix). Samway's observation, though astute, limits the importance of the central image, dust, with its focus on the entire phrase. Reducing the phrase to its essential image infinitely expands the implications of the title. Various forms of "dust" float throughout the pages of Intruder in the Dust, and an examination of that dust, in all its various guises, narrows the possibilities for who the intruder might actually be, and, perhaps more importantly, clarifies what, exactly, that character intrudes upon.

Faulkner refers to many types of soil in Intruder in the Dust, and they all serve specific functions. His deliberate usage emphasizes the importance of such subtle differences; for example, as Chick and his uncle, Gavin Stevens, drive through the streets of Jefferson after Chick's all-night adventure in the graveyard, Chick notices the "string...


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