Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

From the opening entries in Clifford Pepperidge’s diary, the narrator makes comparisons between the Nazi treatment of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals and the American legacy of slavery and persistent racial prejudice. Pepperidge is reflective and detailed in his ability to understand radical differences, as well as troubling similarities, between Nazi extermination policies and American traditions of racial prejudice.

Pepperidge, with unofficial but relatively accurate information channels as a prisoner and as a houseboy for an SS officer, provides eloquent commentary on many national and international events of note during the twelve years covered by the novel. He discusses the proliferation of concentration camps, changes in the contemporary jazz world and the Swing movement, the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis heavyweight boxing prize fights (1936, 1938), and Jesse Owens’s gold medal achievements at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Pepperidge notes with irony that Hitler’s superman theories of a master race have been undermined by the achievements of two of the diarist’s fellow African Americans, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens.

The quality and depth of the novel lie in part in the fact that all its characters are complex, with variegated characteristics. Even a seemingly supercilious Nazi like jazz trumpeter Eric Ulrich can turn out to be a member of the underground who sacrifices his own life and that of his lover, Maria, in a failed attempt to smuggle Pepperidge safely to Switzerland. Therefore, one of the essential meanings of the novel is that people are individuals, and they are capable of extraordinary feats of physical and emotional endurance in order to do what they consider to be the right thing.