Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

An Ethic of the White Southern Self: The Dialectics of Historical Identity and Individual Anonymity in Intruder in the Dust

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

An Ethic of the White Southern Self: The Dialectics of Historical Identity and Individual Anonymity in Intruder in the Dust

Article excerpt

While the incident at the center of William Faulkners Intruder in the Dust (1948) is supposed to have "happened about 1935 or '40" (FU 141), the books publication coincides with a period of identity crisis for the white South. After the Second World War, as the United States seized its worldwide role as the representative of democracy, the Jim Crow South was regarded as an ideological blemish on the whole nation (Cobb 186). At the same time, however, Cold War politics influenced domestic racial politics, and Faulkner was becoming more engaged with these intersecting ideological problems; as John Т. Matthews recognizes, "conflicts within modernity," including the one between racism and antiracism at the outbreak of World War II, "came to be subsumed under Cold War priorities" in Faulkners works from this period (4). Robert H. Brinkmeyer observes that "Stevens compares the position of southerners facing northern interference to that of citizens of Germany and Russia facing totalitarian rule" (200), and in 1948, after Harry Trumans integration of the armed forces, many Southern liberals otherwise committed to racial progress might also have perceived parallels between the ideological threats of Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism and federal intervention in racial matters. Similarly, Matthews argues that Faulkner himself has a divided perspective on the South during this period, viewing it both as an oppressor of African Americans and a victim of federal intervention and, ultimately, of Northern capitalism (5).1

Examining the relationship between liberalism and racism of the South, Leigh Anne Duck points out that white Southern intellectuals of the 1950s "tended to support the idea of... cultural identity" and attempted to "separate political content from cultural discussion, suggesting that shared commitment to 'the Souths identity' need not be affected by discord regarding the apartheid that continued to shape the regions economic, governmental, and social structures" (216). Through her analysis of Requiem for a Nun (1951), Duck insists that Faulkner, dealing with "the problem of how to articulate the political meanings that might emerge from cultural differences" (217), associates the temporality of the US with neoliberal capitalism which is "more overtly restrictive and speeding" (221) than liberalism. Moreover, Duck claims that for Faulkner, white nationalism-which has traditionally been ascribed to the Souths backwardness-and the teleology of neoliberalism now coincide with each other. The anxiety about the fusion of the North and the South that underlies Faulkner's text thus illustrates his ideological preference for Jeffersonian liberalism rather than neoliberal capitalism.

I argue, however, that Faulkners attention to ethics-evident in the putatively "conservative" conclusion of Intruder in the Dust-transcends the limitations of a practically and immediately effective answer to contemporary racial politics.2 Chick voluntarily chooses to accept his Southern white identity not in order to insist on his cultural difference within the whole nation, but in order to claim persistent moral responsibility for the past sins of his community. Although Chicks actions and attitudes originate from a shameful experience with and a sense of debt to a black man that could not happen anywhere other than in the US South, the perspective that he attains at the end of the novel affirms a moral universalism in terms of human freedom. Faulkner does not leave the novel with a hope that Southerners can possibly solve the race problem someday by themselves. Rather, he believes that they should do so as moral subjects, sincerely and autonomously accepting responsibility for the historical sin of their community. Simply put, according to Faulkner's narrative, Chick learns that the Southern identity-or, identity in general-should be affirmed as a moral means, not as an existential purpose.

My reading of Intruder in the Dust is indebted to Walter Benn Michaels's The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (2004) in two ways. …

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