The Man Who Cried I Am Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

John A. Williams

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

The Man Who Cried I Am, Williams’s most celebrated and influential novel, signaled a sharp departure from his earlier work. Williams’s early fiction, The Angry Ones (1960), Night Song (1961), and Sissie (1963), fit within the framework of traditional racial protest writing, a framework which called for moral outcry and reformist solutions. During the period in which The Man Who Cried I Am evolved in Williams’s mind, historical, social, and political events informed American society of impending tumult and confusion, of a burgeoning black pride and sense of nationalism, and of a questioning of once revered institutions. Williams’s novel, consequently, emerged as the most explosive and unsettling political novel of the 1960’s. It offers awesome and frightening possibilities for the future of the United States. Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) offers one disturbing possibility of cataclysmic proportions in the aftermath of The Man Who Cried I Am. Other examples of nonfiction fiction or historical fiction from the 1960’s which share many elements with Williams’s novel are Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). These books, together, are pivotal in an understanding of America, in the words of a disconsolate Margrit Westoever, as the “land where everyone speaks in superlatives but exists in diminutives.”

In subsequent novels, namely the two immediately following The Man Who Cried I Am, the apocalyptic Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969) and Captain Blackman (1972), Williams asks American society “to recognize the haunting historical continuity of past, present, and future.” Yet ultimately, what Wiiliams earnestly seeks, beginning with the prophecies in The Man Who Cried I Am, is that which is essential, plausible, and good in the American experiment.