Study Guide


by William Melvin Kelley

dem Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

dem’s unusual title and its lower-case format are a revealing indication of the author’s intentions and orientation. The connotations of a certain vocal tonality and a certain grade of education that the title word conveys are far removed from the white, middle-class milieu in which most of the action takes place. The combination of lexical and auditory element in “dem” also indicates an attitude that, if not necessarily disrespectful, reduces to the status of a common noun material that is generally accorded the distinctiveness of a proper noun. This attitude not only embraces the realm of manners, which occupies the foreground of the novel; it also is the basis for the larger social, cultural, and political perspectives that the story entails, creating them initially by inference but ultimately in fully realized terms, an “us” that exists as an equal and opposite human entity to “dem.”

The provocative undertones of dem’s title are developed in a number of ways in the course of the story. The very setting of the main narrative interest, a well-appointed apartment in Manhattan, is one that does not occur frequently in African American fiction, and the family that lives in the apartment is equally unusual, simply by belonging to the white, professional, upper middle class. Despite the deftness with which personal milieu and general social context are established, the author is more interested in what lies underneath the plausible surfaces of the Pierce household than in reproducing whatever interest and quality those surfaces may have in themselves. The various references to middle-class culture are to its conspicuous consumption in such areas as smoking, drinking, and fashion.

For that reason, and as a means of informing readers that perspective is critical to what the novel intends to express, the Pierces are first seen from the outside. The first scene in the work concerns a mistaken perspective on Mitchell’s part when he is unable to recognize the human inhabitant of a curbside bundle of rags. This mistake anticipates a tissue of ineptitude in the workplace, emotional bankruptcy in the home, and, ultimately, a state of moral nullity. The assemblage of this tissue constitutes the action of the novel.

The action takes place in four sequences. There is an ostensible lack of relationship between each of these...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

dem Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Abraham, Willie. Introduction to dem. New York: Collier Books, 1969. Makes a strong case for the artistic and cultural significance of dem. Includes a consideration of Kelley’s social thought both as it emerges in the course of the novel and as it is developed in his fiction overall.

Bone, Robert. “Outsiders.” The New York Times Books Review, September 24, 1967, 5. dem is one of the novels reviewed in this article, which indentifies the novel’s scope and incisiveness and notes its contribution to African American letters.

Jaffe, Dan. “Almost Real.” Review of dem, by William Melvin Kelley. Prairie Schooner 42 (Spring, 1968): 83. Review of dem that is instructively averse to the novel’s satirical character. A revealing footnote to the critical reception of African American fiction.

Newquist, Roy, ed. Conversations. New York: Rand McNally, 1967. Includes an in-depth interview with Kelley. Of particular relevance are Kelley’s attitudes toward issues raised by the Civil Rights movement.

Rosenblatt, Roger. Black Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Discussion of dem focusing on the novel’s perspective on interracial relations, which has a crucial bearing on how the book’s conclusion is assessed.

Sundquist, Eric J. Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. Study of the literary representation of the relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans after World War II. Includes a chapter on Kelley’s fiction.

Weyant, Jill. “The Kelley Saga: Violence in America.” CLA Journal 19 (December, 1975): 210-220. Examination of Kelley’s fiction focusing on his critique of the moral and physical violence of American society. Conceived as an overview, the article contains numerous scattered excerpts from dem to illustrate the overall perspective.

Wright, John S. Foreword to dem, by William Melvin Kelley. Minneapolis, Minn.: Coffee House Press, 2000. Reappraisal of dem and of Kelley’s career from the point of view of the turn of the twenty-first century.