William Faulkner was a legendary drinker in two senses: He could consume truly enormous amounts of alcohol, and some contended that he needed alcohol as a kind of potion that gave him creativity and inspiration as an artist. However, common sense states that no one could have produced novels as complex as he did while under the influence of alcohol. This becomes especially clear when considering the almost unbelievably complex family trees that Faulkner constructed for his imaginary families in Yoknapatawpha County. A number of prominent families in the county appear in novel after novel, and Faulkner would follow the history of each clan backward and forward in time, keeping the relationships, birth dates, and death dates of each member in mind as he constructed their stories (and further mixing the families together in any given story or novel; again, no one could have accomplished this feat while as inebriated as the legends say he was).
Of the prominent Yoknapatawpha clans, the one most important in understanding Intruder in the Dust is the McCaslin family; without an understanding of its twists and turns, a crucial level of meaning is missed in the novel.
One source of confusion for a reader of Intruder in the Dust is that the McCaslin family history does not appear primarily in this book. The main source for much of this information is Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), a collection of long short stories that are closely related to one another—so closely that the book is often considered a novel.
The details of what happens to the McCaslin clan are a key to understanding Lucas Beauchamp’s personality and actions. The Yoknapatawpha McCaslin clan is founded by a man with the resounding name of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, who lives from 1772 to 1837, and is normally known simply as Carothers McCaslin. By the era of Go Down, Moses, his grandchildren have entered the picture, cousins Ike McCaslin and Cass Edmonds. Ike is due to inherit the huge plantation established back in the 1800s by Carothers McCaslin. Ike is, however, an idealist. Because he feels a kind of collective guilt for how the South has treated black people, he does not want to have anything to do with the system. He therefore transfers ownership of the plantation to Edmonds. So it is to the ‘‘Edmonds place’’ that Chick goes to hunt rabbits at the start of Intruder in the Dust.
Carothers McCaslin, however, has had many children, not all of them with his wife. As was common among slaveholders before the Civil War, he has at least two children by two of his slaves. One of them, Tomasina, is Lucas Beauchamp’s grandmother; her son is Lucas’s father. Lucas is thus a direct descendant of the patriarch Carothers McCaslin, which explains his otherwise potentially confusing comment when he is attacked at the crossroads store near the start of Chapter Two. The man who attacks him calls Lucas a ‘‘biggity stiff-necked stinking burrheaded Edmonds sonofabitch.’’ Lucas calmly replies, ‘‘I aint a Edmonds. I dont belong to these new folks. I belongs to the old lot. I’m a McCaslin’’. He regards the Edmonds family, which has only recently taken charge of the land, as interlopers, intruders into the old dynasty.
Among the aristocracy in Europe, the system for dividing huge estates was one called ‘‘primogeniture.’’ It is a term from common law, and while the system can take multiple forms, it usually refers to the practice of having the first-born son of a family inherit the land and, in a country with nobility, the title. The Old South modeled itself on Europe and followed this practice. The McCaslin and Edmonds families have, however, violated the system. They specifically did so when Ike McCaslin transferred the land to Cass Edmonds.
Cass descends from a daughter of old Carothers McCaslin, and under the system of primogeniture, he should not be in charge. That position should go to the male heir. The male line, however, is made up of slaves and the descendants of slaves, ending in Lucas Beauchamp. Lucas should possess the whole two-thousand-acre plantation, but does not because of his race and his parents’ condition as slaves. The family is aware of the problem and has tried to make amends, after a fashion. As Chick approaches Lucas’s house after the fall in the creek, he remembers the rest of the story of Lucas’s land: ‘‘How Edmonds’ father had deeded to his Negro first cousin and his heirs in perpetuity the house and the ten acres of land it sat in—an oblong of earth set forever in the middle of the two-thousand-acre plantation like a postage stamp in the center of an envelope.’’
Lucas obviously regards this gesture as inadequate, and it colors his behavior toward everyone. He is actually the rightful owner of the vast estate where he has his tiny cabin. He has been disinherited by the racial traditions of the South, an injustice that explains much of the anger that seems to simmer just beneath the surface of his personality. He veers constantly between something like dignity and something like arrogance— just as a wealthy planter would. The description of Lucas, as seen from Chick’s point of view just after he has fallen in the river, sums up his personality and situation. The appearance and attitude of Lucas Beauchamp’s face is something new to Chick:
“[W]hat looked out of it had no pigment at all, not even the white man’s lack of it, not arrogant, not even scornful: just intractable and composed. Then Edmonds’ boy said something to the man, speaking a name: something Mister Lucas: and then he knew who the man was, remembering the rest of the story which was a piece, a fragment of the country’s chronicle which few if any knew better than his uncle: how the man was son of one of old Carothers McCaslin’s, Edmonds’ great grandfather’s, slaves who had been not just old Carothers’ slave but his son too: standing and shaking steadily now for what seemed to him another whole minute while the man stood looking at him with nothing whatever in his face. Then the man turned, speaking not even back over his shoulder, already walking, not even waiting to see if they heard, let alone were going to obey: ‘Come on to my home.’”
When Lucas refuses the coins in payment for the meal he has given Chick, it is a crucial moment in Chick’s life, because it is the first time he has been bested by a black man. The coins so humiliate Chick that he disposes of them quickly:
“[He] drew the four coins from his pocket and threw them out into the water: and sleepless in bed that night he knew that the food had been not just the best Lucas had to offer but all he had to offer; he had gone out there this morning as the guest not of Edmonds but of old Carothers McCaslin’s plantation and Lucas knew it when he didn’t and so Lucas had beat him, stood straddled in front of the hearth and without even moving his clasped hands from behind his back had taken his own seventy cents and beat him with them, and writhing with impotent fury he was already thinking of the man whom he had never seen but once and that only twelve hours ago, as within the next year he was to learn 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.”
What is happening here is that Lucas is insisting on his rightful position as the owner of old Carothers McCaslin’s property. As a host, he delivers food to the wayfarer free of charge, according to the rules of hospitality. Refusing the money is a way of making it clear that he is neither an innkeeper nor a black servant; the money would make him servile, while the free gift of food makes him an equal, and truly master of this domain. The twelve-year-old Chick is a product of the white society in which he has been raised, so this declaration of social equality is intolerable. It is normal behavior for Lucas, who believes himself to have been cheated out of his rightful inheritance by his race.
Scott Herring, Critical Essay on Intruder in the Dust, in Novels for Students 33, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010