I’ve taken to writing answers on Quora lately, a good option for a frustrated writer — and the question ‘what book written prior to 1968 should be read by most Americans and why’ gave me a great opportunity to write about a book that has been on my mind for many years, The Intruder by Charles Beaumont.
I knew of Beaumont from watching the old Twilight Zone’s as a teenager. He was one of the main writers of this wonderful series, along with Rod Serling and Richard Matheson. He was also the first author to be published in Playboy, after his short story Black Country about a jazz musician was rejected by Esquire magazine and gleefully picked up by Hugh Hefner, who didn’t like Esquire!
Though Beaumont was mostly known for writing sci-fi, fantasy, and generally socially ironic stories, The Intruder was a completely ‘straight’ story based on the Civil Rights movement and the violent anti-desegregation protests at Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
The story is about a small town newspaper editor, Tom McDaniels, who is covering the planned desegregation of the local high school. At first, he shares the sentiment of the rest of townsfolk — that he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, the general feeling being that it is a decision forced on them from ‘above’. But as a Supreme Court ruling from Washington, the town is expected to comply with it — and they’ve been given a deadline.
However, after the arrival of a charismatic outsider, Adam Cramer, who ingratiates himself with some powerful local figures (including the wealthy owner of Tom’s newspaper), all hell begins to break loose, with Cramer stirring up trouble by holding fiery public talks against the desegregation plan.
Tom McDaniels feelings begin to change, and he starts to stick up for the local African-American community, even though he finds that the town begins to turn on him — including his wife — and he is badly beaten up.
But unable to stop, McDaniels uses all of his journalistic skills to unearth the truth about this stranger, in a classic ‘race against the clock’ story. By way of a colleague, Tom discovers that Cramer had African-American friends, including a girlfriend, back in his college town; a strange fact considering the rhetoric he is spouting; and as the story evolves, Tom realises that Cramer’s motives are much more complicated and misguided than just plain old-fashioned bigotry.
This book had a profound effect on me, and I remember coming home from work on the bus, being unable to get off, just because I was desperately finishing the last couple of chapters; it was one of the best books I read in my twenties.
I really identified with Tom, as he was not a flawed genius, or an impenetrable idealist, or even a moralist; but a down-to-earth human being. I liked that he could change his mind about what he believed, and it showed me that having conflicting feelings about something is a normal human experience.
Although a made-up story, it is firmly grounded in reality; there are possibly a number of ‘historical’ events fictionalized besides the Little Rock protests. It also presages other events that anyone familiar with modern American history might recognize.
I have actually wondered for a long time just how Charles Beaumont would have written this book. Apart from everything that he would have heard and read about in the news, I thought for a while that maybe his association with Playboy magazine would have indirectly helped him, as Hugh Hefner was a great supporter of the civil rights movement (a few years after The Intruder came out, Martin Luther King was interviewed by Alex Haley).
But a few years on from when I first read it, I now think that he did most of the leg-work on his own. He was living through the era, as was the rest of his generation, and it would have been regularly on the news. It just took someone as socially-minded as Beaumont to piece it all together into a great story.
For a while, I also thought that Beaumont could have possibly based Tom McDaniels on a real newspaper man named Jack Nelson, who was born in Alabama, and spent most of his life covering the Civil Rights movement. He was present at the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, and there was an incident early in his career when he was mobbed by the townfolk in Georgia while covering a police corruption hearing, and he was spreadeagled across the top of his car. Anyway, coincidence or not, I still think that it is an interesting connection.
The Intruder was also made into a movie by the filmmaker Roger Corman in 1961, starring William Shatner as Cramer, with Charles Beaumont having a cameo as the school principal. But despite it following the story closely, I personally felt disappointed by the film. Having read the book first, I felt that it deserved to be something much more like On the Waterfront, with a proper budget and some Hollywood support.
The Intruder didn’t really get much of a critical reception — but it didn’t pass unnoticed either. I know that an African-American journal noticed it, and gave it a good one page review.
Another mark of distinction was that The Intruder was also translated into French. The English and the American publishers had given Beaumont’s book a kind of ‘lust in the dust’ sleazy cover — but the French put a hopeful young African boy on the cover, with the letters ‘ABC’ by his folded arms, completely underscoring the theme of the book: equal education.
Personally, I would love to see The Intruder find its way into a literary ‘place of honor’ in the US, as I think that any American reading it would gain something from it — if not only a positive message, but also an insight into a significant part of modern history.
Fellow writer Robert Bloch wrote about Beaumont, that “only in retrospect is it possible for the average reader to realize just how incisive Beaumont’s insights were — and are.”
And he is completely right. If you ever get the chance, give The Intruder a read. Valancourt Books republished it a couple of years ago.