Critical Context

The period that Cullen depicts in One Way to Heaven, the 1920’s, was one of immense social and artistic activity in Harlem. Black journals such as Quill, Stylus, and Black Opals sprang up, although, as is often the case with small literary magazines, few lasted for long. Such major black publications as Opportunity, Messenger, and The Crisis published the best black writers of the period.

As noted above, Langston Hughes chronicled the social life of this period in the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea. Earlier, Hughes—like Cullen, essentially a poet—wrote his only novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), as a means of capturing some of the excitement and electricity of the Harlem Renaissance. In his character Tempy, Hughes satirizes the black social climber of the period who forsakes the Baptist Church and becomes an Episcopalian in order to gain a social advantage.

Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933) also focused on the social changes occurring in Harlem during its renaissance, and Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928) provided readers with uproariously comic satire about the social climbers of the period. George S. Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) and Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia (1931) were also important social satires of the period.

The main distinguishing characteristics of Cullen’s only novel are that its author was writing more for a black audience than his contemporaries were and that in it he dwelt less on the social and economic indignities of black people than he did on some of their social institutions, such as the Church. Cullen is never bitter in his depictions. He treats his raw material with curiosity and love more than with antagonism and anger.