Commentary Magazine


Black Fiction, by Roger Rosenblatt

Black Fiction.
by Roger Rosenblatt.
Harvard. 211 pp. $8.50.

Roger Rosenblatt’s study of black fiction is a valuable addition to the existing criticism of black writing, especially since, in attempting to apply literary rather than sociopolitical criteria to the subject, it represents a successful modification of the approach taken by most previous studies. While literary criteria are obviously not the only appropriate ones and may suffer from their own incompleteness, Rosenblatt’s approach offers a useful and an illuminating redressing of the balance. As he notes, criticism of black writing has often been a pretext for black history. In recent works like Addison Gayle, Jr.’s The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, standards of judgment are overtly political, and the value of novels is gauged by the notions of black identity they propound. Stephen Butterfield, in Black Autobiography, another recent study, tries to weld together political and stylistic analysis, but he takes political ideas as the standard of measure, seeing style as a direct outgrowth and reflection of them.

Rosenblatt starts from the opposite end (although a kind of welding occurs in his study as well). His different starting point is perhaps a kind of luxury, dependent on the existence of more explicitly political studies, but it is a luxury fertile in its results: although novels assuredly spring from political circumstances, they react to them in ways other than ideological, and to talk about them primarily as instruments of ideology is to ignore much of the fictional enterprise. Rosenblatt’s literary analysis thus uncovers affinities and connections in black fiction which the political studies overlook or are not concerned with.

Writing critically about black fiction presupposes the giving of a satisfactory answer to a number of prior questions. Is there, first of all, a sufficient reason, other than one based on the racial identity of the authors, to group all these works together? How is black fiction distinct from American fiction in general? Or from modern fiction, with which it is largely contemporaneous? Rosenblatt tackles these questions early on, and answers that black fiction constitutes a distinct body of writing with a recognizable literary tradition. Looking at a diversity of novels written roughly over the period of the last eighty years, he finds in them recurring concerns and designs independent of chronology. These “deep” and repeating structures are thematic, and they spring, not surprisingly, from the central and overwhelming fact that the black characters in these novels exist in a hostile white culture, and that whether they try to conform to or rebel against that culture, they remain circumscribed by its definitions.

The five chapters of Rosenblatt’s study elaborate the implications of this thematic donnée. Through discussions of close to twenty individual works, the book establishes a kind of typology of black fiction. The discussions concentrate on tracing the fortunes of various protagonists and their responses to the conditions imposed upon them. In spite of the range of subjective reactions chosen by black heroes and heroines (the chapter titles—“Eccentricities,” “Exceptional Laughter,” “White Outside,” “The Hero Vanishes,”—suggest some of them), Rosenblatt finds that again and again they are defeated by objective circumstances.

The particular historical actuality animating black fiction guarantees that its characters live in relentlessly determined worlds. They are doomed to become what they are slated for, condemned to repeat the past not because they do not learn from it, but because history does not learn from them. No matter what resources of will, wiliness, intelligence, or wit they bring to their situation, no matter how close they seem to come to breaking out of the circles constraining them, they almost inevitably turn out to conform to their destiny, to the expectations imposed on them from the outside. Time does not bring change or progress, and the usual institutional or personal means of improving one’s condition (education, love, religion), fail to propel them outside fate. Cyclical determinism, then, is the unifying concept of Black Fiction.

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The special set of conditions which constitutes the “subject” of black fiction distinguishes it from modernist writing in general by making the alienation of the protagonist and the novelist’s critique of accepted values more extreme. The novels’ backbone of “hard data” increases their force by placing the heroes in inescapable, because actual, binds. In differentiating black protagonists from existentialist heroes, Rosenblatt writes, using the example of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “Kafka’s K. is beset by allegorical creatures who function in abstract and dreamlike circumstances; whereas the Invisible Man’s enemies, allegorical as their names may be, are real and have historical antecedents. In both sets of instances the nightmares are overwhelming, but only in one set do the heroes have the possibility of awakening.” The distinction is interesting for what it suggests about the sources of impact in black fiction—that they may be dependent on some proximity to historical fact. Black novels, Rosenblatt claims, do not overreach themselves by straining for abstract universality, and that is all to their advantage.

At times Rosenblatt’s thesis becomes too wide an umbrella, covering ideas which do not easily fit under it, as when he talks about the inversions of value that result from living in a distorted mirror-image of the normative world. Thus, for Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright’s Native Son, murder becomes an instrument of creation, white the color of fear, and the Christian cross an emblem of hypocrisy and evil. Rosenblatt makes these inversions nearly synonymous with the notion of circularity, but the connection is in fact elusive. Again, interpretations are occasionally worked for more than they will yield. It may be legitimate to speak of Bigger Thomas as an inverted redeemer, but to say that he “is the native Son who would make the blind (Mrs. Dalton) to see, the lame (Gus) to walk again, who would purify and cleanse the wicked and ignorant (Bessie) and who would lead the little children (Buddy),” is to push a sound idea so far it loses its grounding in the novel it means to explain, which, although it certainly makes use of large Christian concepts, does not draw such exact parallelisms as this to biblical texts.

Some of the finest analyses in the book are performed on characters who escape rigid categories—for example, Langston Hughes’s Simple, about whom Rosenblatt writes with vivacity and acumen. Simple’s humor is itself seen as a way of evading, or at least providing a saving insight into, the situation defining him. The humor accomplishes this by being subtle, multi-leveled, unpredictable, and agile—and this in turn encourages a particularity of analytical observation on Rosenblatt’s part which enlivens the discussion of the Simple collections.

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Black Fiction anticipates many of the problematic issues raised by its subject, but it does leave some questions unasked and unanswered, and most of these fall within the realm of the aesthetic. Thematic analysis, Rosenblatt’s chosen mode of criticism, allows for considerable objectivity, and he explicitly states that it is not his intention to judge the merit of the various works—yet this seems an unnecessary reluctance, especially since an attempt to appraise might have led to interesting results. Thus, some of the novels, in summary, appear to be structurally diffuse. Is this a defect, or are the authors working out of, or trying to forge, a different kind of aesthetic? Again, the style of some black novels (Cane, Home to Harlem), verges on expressionism or surrealism; does this provide a counterpoint to the thematic determinism of the plot, which is usually conveyed through more naturalistic modes of expression? And finally, although Rosenblatt considers it an advantage that the situations depicted are real, what about their extremity? Does this not contain a danger, for the writer of fiction, of encouraging starkly polarized statements and symbols?

In spite of such omissions, what Rosenblatt includes in his discussion makes for an astute and worthwhile study. Black Fiction brings to our attention some fascinating and little-known works (for example, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man); it surveys a wide variety of novels and identifies terms that allow us to see black writing as part of a coherent literary tradition. Its argument is tightly constructed, and its forthright, lucid style attests to a level-headed and penetrating understanding of its subject.

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