Arna Bontemps Essay - Bontemps, Arna (Vol. 1)

Bontemps, Arna (Vol. 1)

Bontemps, Arna 1902–

Bontemps, a Black American, has published novels, biography, essays, children's books, anthologies, and poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Arna Bontemps is a transitional figure whose novels bear the mark both of the Negro Renaissance and of the depression years which follow…. A minor poet during the 1920's, Bontemps turned later to fiction, history, and books for children. He has written three novels, of which the first, God Sends Sunday (1931), is an unadulterated product of the Negro Renaissance. The setting of the novel is the sporting world of racetrack men and gamblers, of jazz and the shimmy, of fights and razor carvings. His historical novels, however, which deal with slavery times, reflect the mood of the Depression era. By choosing slave insurrections as a basis for his plots, Bontemps stresses an aspect of slavery which was emotionally appealing to the rebellious thirties….

The narrative technique [of Black Thunder (1936)], which conveys the action by a progressive treatment of the participants, is reminiscent of the novels of Dos Passos. The plot is developed in fragments, through short chapters which open with the name of the character under consideration. From this constant shift in point of view, the reader must piece together the full panorama. It is a technique especially suited to the presentation of complex historical events, and Bontemps employs it skillfully. At its best, this technique requires deft characterization, since the action of the novel is constantly refracted through a new consciousness, which the reader must understand in its own right….

Arna Bontemps' second historical novel, Drums at Dusk (1939), is in every respect a retreat from the standards of Black Thunder. Deriving its plot from the Haitian slave rebellion which brought Toussaint l'Ouverture to power, the novel is unworthy of its subject. In writing of a successful rebellion, Bontemps is deprived of the dramatic power of tragedy, and he discovers no appropriate attitude to take its place. Upon a highly romantic plot he grafts a class analysis of society which is post-Marxian and flagrantly unhistorical. Frequently lapsing into crude melodrama, he embroiders his narrative with all of the sword-play, sex, and sadism of a Hollywood extravaganza.

Robert A. Bone, in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, pp. 120-23.

Arna Bontemps … captured the poverty, depression, and hopelessness of the southern tenant farmer in his short story "A Summer Tragedy." The season in which the tragedy occurs is significant: in the juvescence [sic] of the American year (in the renaissance of the economy that marked the New Deal and subsequent years), the black southerner remains poor, maimed, sightless, and without hope. The journey over a barren landscape and into death is all too symbolic of the plight of the tenant farmer from the Reconstruction period to the present day. Bontemps, though noted for his prose, also produced several poems that delineated the condition of the black American. The author who won both the Crisis poetry prize and Alexander Pushkin awards during the twenties seems at his best in poems like "Reconaissance," "Southern Mansion," and "Nocturne at Bethesda."

Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, p. 205.