Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

The protagonist and his father are named for the nineteenth century American historian and his great-great-grandfather, the second American president, men with the power and influence Beckham’s Henry and John Adams lack. The former’s most famous work, The Education of Henry Adams (1907), deals with theories of history and examines chaos, just as Beckham looks at the chaos inherent in the history of African Americans. The views of both Adams and Beckham are tinged by cynicism and skepticism.

The major influence on Runner Mack, however, is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), the protagonist of which comes north to encounter the impersonality, violence, and racism of life in a crowded metropolis, where he works for an oppressive corporation. Runner Mack is a nightmare vision of the African American experience clearly influenced by Ellison and Richard Wright. Henry resembles the naïve Bigger Thomas, who gets caught up in events he cannot control in Wright’s Native Son (1940), a novel to which Mack refers.

One of the few African American novels to deal directly or indirectly with the Vietnam conflict, Runner Mack was the first African American sports novel, an interesting phenomenon given the historical importance of athletics in black culture. Beckham’s main concern is to use baseball to argue that sports may be, for African Americans, a false avenue of escape from the daily ordeal of life in an inescapably racist society. The novel also stands out for its skepticism about the value of revolutionary rhetoric and violence at a time when such attitudes were influential among African Americans.