Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Beetlecreek has often been out of print, and William Demby is practically unknown. It was published before many important advances in civil rights for African Americans and before the barriers came down to admit the coarsest realism in speech. For these reasons, the book might strike modern readers as quaint. The black and white communities in Beetlecreek coexist in a peaceful symbiosis that does not reflect any of the injustices that were common at the time; in this respect, the dramatization of life in Beetlecreek is perhaps unrealistic.

At the same time, however, there emerges a picture of a black community that is settled and self-sustaining, with ordinary people going about their business in a culture untroubled by drugs and violence. The tableaux of life in the local barbershop, for example, are pure Norman Rockwell in their comforting normality, and the excitement stirred up by the Fall Festival evokes a Middle American ritual familiar to people of many other racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.

Demby does not try to represent the speech of any of his characters by dialect spellings, mispronunciations, or any other idiosyncrasies. The effect is in keeping with the general movement of the novel’s tendency to minimize racial differences rather than stress them in the name of cultural uniqueness. Beetlecreek may seem dated to modern readers, but it pleads for a vision of racial harmony and is certainly wise and up-to-date in doing so.