Killens, John Oliver
John Oliver Killens has written two long, detailed, humorless, artless, almost documentary race novels, Youngblood (1954) and And Then We Heard the Thunder (1963). The first is a sort of Negro family epic, the expected tale of two generations of long-suffering blacks and their sadistic white masters in a Georgia town. The second tells the interminable story of Negroes (and whites) in wartime, where the ordeal of World War II seems less harrowing, in the long run, than the race war inside it. It runs through pages of somber "graphic realism," i.e., pages of vapidly obscene barracks chatter and hard-boiled crudeness of description: that's the way it was. Both books are sincerely well intended, and packed to bursting with details of Negro (Southern, army) life, episode after episode, as detailed by a careful, intelligent, unimaginative Negro with absolutely no sense of the art of fiction. They represent the kind of novel most Americans with great stocks of experience would probably write, if they had the will and were Negroes. The books are useful, and, to readers who make no great demands on their novelists, mildly moving and exciting. (pp. 143-44)
David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Little-john; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1966....
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William H. Wiggins, Jr.
In his first three novels, John O. Killens makes traditional and structural use of black folktales. A careful re-reading of Youngblood, And Then We Heard the Thunder, and 'Sippi reveals Killens' literary progression, from the former to the latter. Youngblood and And Then We Heard the Thunder have black folktales incorporated into their story line to invoke humor and also to embellish the dominant theme of all three novels: black manhood. This ornamental use of black folktales is traditional—the most common use among black writers. Killens adheres to this method of writing in the two earlier novels. The folktales embedded within them are not inextricably woven into their plots. They could either be replaced by some of Killens' prose or other folktales from the black community which are funny or convey the theme of black manhood. Killens extends this traditional usage to a higher and much more sophisticated level in 'Sippi. Like its two predecessors, 'Sippi includes folktales for humorous effect and as variations on the theme of black manhood. However, in addition to this customary use, Killens breaks new literary ground among black novelists by using both the structure and dynamics of a black folktale as the basic outline of his novel: Unlike the other folktales which appear in these novels, you cannot remove the "'Sippi" folktale from the novel 'Sippi; they are basically one and the same. (p. 92)...
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