(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Countée Cullen, well known as a black poet, wrote only one novel, One Way to Heaven. Given the fervor of the Harlem Renaissance, in which Cullen was an active participant, it is not surprising that he would turn his talents to writing a book that reflected elements of this movement.

One Way to Heaven has been called two novels in one, largely because it has a dual focus. On the one hand, it is concerned with Mattie Johnson and her love affair with Sam Lucas, a dark, handsome, one-armed confidence man from Texas who never stays long in one place. On the other hand, the novel is a satire on the social life of Harlem’s emerging middle-class black population.

The common thread in the two stories is that Mattie Johnson, a good-looking young black woman, works as a domestic servant for Constancia Brandon, wife of Dr. George Brandon, a physician from Oklahoma who has made considerable money in oil. Constancia, light enough to pass for white, is exhilarated by life in Harlem, where she is a well-established hostess and organizer of social events.

The Mattie-Sam story begins when Sam goes to the Mt. Hebron Episcopal Church in Harlem and there undergoes a conversion to the faith. Unknown to Mattie, it is part of Sam’s habitual pattern when he goes to a new place to undergo a public conversion in order to make the congregation have confidence in him.

Sam’s performance at the Mt. Hebron Episcopal Church is superb. He goes to the altar with tears welling up in his eyes, but not before he has taken from his pocket and dashed to the floor a deck of playing cards and an “evil looking razor,” which are devices of the Devil. So impressed is the congregation that nine other people, including Mattie, who up until this time has been reluctant to be converted, follow Sam to the altar. After Sam has been converted, members of the congregation flock around him, some forcing money upon him.

The Reverend Clarence Johnson, who is present for Sam’s conversion, recognizes Sam as a drifter who has undergone a similar conversion in his presence in Memphis some time before. He does not make much of this fact, however, and instead ruminates on Sam’s success in bringing nine other souls to God, a record that the Reverend Johnson himself could not have equaled that day.

Mattie falls in love with Sam instantly, and before long they are married. Constancia Brandon insists on...

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One Way to Heaven Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Draper, James P., ed. Black Literature Criticism. 3 vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Includes an extensive biographical profile of Cullen and excerpts from criticism on his works.

Ferguson, Blanche. Countée Cullen and the Negro Renaissance. New York: Dodd, Mead: 1966. A profile of Cullen in context of the Harlem Renaissance.

Perry, Margaret. A Bio-Bibliography of Countée P. Cullen, 1903-1946. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. A comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary writings by and about Cullen.

Shucard, Alan R. Countée Cullen. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Shucard provides a critical and interpretive study of Cullen with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.