Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

A Different Drummer was Kelley’s first novel, and many critics believe it is the best. Although the book received lukewarm early reviews, it has been praised for its “brilliant manipulation of point of view” and “inventive stylistic versatility.” In 1963, Kelley was awarded the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for the work.

Kelley, who has identified himself as “an American writer who happens to have brown skin,” argues that a writer “should ask questions. He should depict people, not symbols or ideas disguised as people.” A Different Drummer is faithful to this ideal, as Kelley explores the separate lives of his characters without anger or didacticism. He expresses compassion and understanding for even the most unpleasant characters.

Although in A Different Drummer Kelley stressed his concern for the plight of humanity, by 1965 he believed that the mission of the African American writer had been broadened sociopolitically “to help the Negro to find those things that were robbed from him on the shores of Africa, to help repair the damage done to the soul of the Negro in the past three centuries.” Several critics note a philosophical evolution in his first five books, as Kelley moves from his original humanitarian focus to a more militant concern with ideas. Some African American critics, however, suggest that even in later works Kelley withholds judgment on issues of race. Critical reception of his fourth novel, Dunfords Travels Everywhere (1970), has been mixed, some praising its experimental language and others finding it too derivative.