Leon Forrest Essay - Critical Essays

Forrest, Leon

Forrest, Leon 1937–

Forrest, a Black American novelist, poet, and playwright, has been called a "fastidious" writer, producing a small amount of high quality work.

Leon Forrest, author of "There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden," is one of those black writers who appear to suffer from the unhappy delusion that they are really William Faulkner. That is to say, his book is written in what seems to be stream-of-consciousness and is pervaded by a sense of what might very well be doom. What it's all about is anybody's guess, although the jacket copy makes a game try. Stream-of-consciousness is just fine, but only if we know from whom it is streaming and why it is streaming that way and not another. And a pervading sense of doom is certainly a nasty thing to have, but it is helpful to the reader to have some notion about what is being doomed, why it is being doomed and who is doing the dooming.

No doubt the author's somewhat involved symbolism—trains, angels, cantaloupes—means something to him, but what it is supposed to mean to the reader remains a moot and unanswered question to the very last page. Characters flit in and out. Sometimes they speak loud, but not in voices that were ever heard on this earth. They appear to be up to something. It's impossible to discover what. One might as well be holding a board up to one's face.

L. J. Davis, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1973, pp. 48-9.

In many ways [There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden] represents simply one act in a Black drama. It falls on that side of the bifurcation labelled complexity, wit, ambiguity, mythopoeia—the Black writer's attempt to come to terms with a multifaceted experience in a rich, poetical style. Intelligence is the norm here, an acuity laden with college bells and polysyllable cadences dense in signification. Ishmael Reed, George Cain, and N. J. Loftis all fall into this camp and look backward to Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and the later Melvin Tolson, their spiritual ancestors. This is what some have glibly called the assimilationist side of our culture. Against it they have juxtaposed no-nonsense, quick punching, monosyllabic literary nationalism. Of course, the dichotomy—like all broad divisions—is much too neat…. Suffice it to say, Forrest is not an existential artist crying in a barren wilderness. The ground has been covered before, and there are echoes of his forerunners….

The criterion of stainless originality, however, goes along with inspirational aesthetics: the afflatus descends or the windy muse whispers dawn-fresh words into the creator's ear. There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden is first of all a studied book that shows the careful labor of the file and more than a modicum of self-consciousness. Only the naïve reader will assume the author trudged home from work each evening and allowed the words to flow in random order. There are five major divisions of the work that carry us back and forth in time with great deftness. We never get beyond one chronological sequence—the movement of the funeral procession of young Nathan Witherspoon's mother. Psychologically, or in terms of what Melville called horological time, however, we move through the childhood of the narrator, his New Orleans' ancestry, one of his fractious relative's escape from bondage, his junior high school days at Robert E. Lee, and ceaselessly through "a landscape of the tossed and driven mind and the bruised blood erupting brain."…

The book finally represents an awe-inspiring fusion of American cultural myth, Black American history, Black fundamentalist religion, the doctrine and dogma of Catholicism (stations of the Cross and the Precious Blood Cathedral), and an autobiographical recall of days of anxiety and confusion in the city….

If it is not the ideal volume to take to a political rally, or to lay on the nightstand for pre-bed comfort, it is certainly an effort that contains insight, streaks of brilliance, and a finely-informed intelligence that promises further revelations.

Houston A. Baker, Jr., in Black World (copyright © January, 1974 by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Houston A. Baker, Jr.), January, 1974, pp. 66-9.

[In There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden,] Forrest has woven an hypnotic fabric with words that are part jazz, part blues, part gospel. It is a music that moves with a mystic reality that, at times, accurately records the multi-faceted Black experience in America.

There is little of the usual story line or dialogue here, but Forrest does wonders in acquainting you with this mulatto family through the stream-of-consciousness approach to his youthful protagonist, Nathaniel (Turner) Witherspoon. Not since Ellison's Invisible Man has this reviewer read anything as moving and forceful in its poetic flow. However, in spite of this magnificent ambivalence with words I was left with an uneasy feeling….

[One] may conclude that, in spite of the need of a Black awareness direction, this author has chosen to go the route of the "art for art's sake" advocates.

This last statement, perhaps, is a little too harsh because if one lends an attentive ear, deciphers the sounds and counter-sounds and searches deeply into the symphony of his music, one may emerge with a tune that is not only healthy and Black, but also understood.

After reading and re-reading There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, to me, it all boils down to this rather pertinent question: Is Forrest only a verbal manipulator doing excessive gymnastics with words, or is he a deep and serious writer probing and exploring new areas in the human psyche?

Zack Gilbert, in Black World (copyright © January, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Zack Gilbert), January, 1974, p. 70.

For those of us who struggle to grow as individuals—tied to history yet constantly peering into the future, self-impressed but ashamed, self-centered though socially committed, finished with church-going and yet always seeking faith, There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden is a welcome companion. To read it is to travel with the author on his spiritual, historical and personal odyssey—moving through a series of intense descriptions and responses, drawn from life in the streets, in the home and in black history. Using dialogue, testimony (the personal and religious kind), stream of consciousness and brief narratives, Forrest has produced a powerful work of literature. The book is written like a jazz composition: it begins with a core theme and then moves on to elaborations and explorations of the theme's possible variations. All the tensions of personal growth, race and religion which Forrest later treats are presented in a six-page self-portrait at the beginning of the book. The resolution, the book's conclusion, is one of themes rather than plot….

Forrest's descriptions of people and places present a wealth of details from the black and the American experiences. The "lives" which follow the first self-portrait are brief but amazingly comprehensive portraits of people who have influenced Forrest's life. Each portrait has a completeness which is characteristic of other parts of the book; they can be read and appreciated separately. The book is held together, however, by Forrest's spirit which searched on all the levels of his experience and imagination for a place, a coherence, on this "faithstripping, long journey road that life is…." The artistic achievement of this book lies in Forrest's mastery of a wide variety of forms which accompany his many changes of subject and mood. The language and rhythm of each section are beautifully suited to its subject.

Forrest's expression of spiritual searchings is particularly fine. The sense of a black man's spiritual odyssey—an odyssey with historical causes and deeply personal effects—is communicated in several moving passages….

The mixture of contemporary and historical vision, the transcending symbols and images all combine to produce a new form of expressing the black, and indeed the human, experience. Faulkner mastered a writing style which used long, expansive sentences to convey the weight of history on his characters. Forrest borrows heavily from Faulkner, but he builds on Faulkner's mode. By infusing it with new rhythms and subjects he expands that writing style into a new medium for conveying the black, and particularly the urban-black, experience.

Joel Motley, in The Harvard Advocate (© 1974 by The Harvard Advocate; reprinted by permission), Vol. CVII, No. 4, special issue, 1974, pp. 59-60.