The Sweet Hereafter Essay - Critical Essays

Russell Banks

Critical Context

Russell Banks’s early postmodern novels—Family Life (1975) and Hamilton Stark (1978)—were followed by somewhat more conventional realistic ones, although The Book of Jamaica (1980) and The Relation of My Imprisonment (1983) continued to experiment with point of view and open endings. Although these early works received respectful critical reviews, they failed to attract the general readership. Continental Drift (1985), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, marked a turning point in Banks’s writing career. With this realistic work, he created the ordinary characters struggling to make something of their lives who have since then constituted his literary signature.

Although Russell Banks initially read about an actual accident involving a school bus in the newspapers, these articles only provided a framework on which he could pursue some lifelong interests and themes. The child of a blue-collar family, the author personally experienced the difficult personal and economic challenges of the ordinary characters depicted in this work.

In an interview, Banks admitted to being “really interested in reinventing the narrator” because he believes the convention affords the writer a closeness to the characters and their stories that he does not otherwise have. This interest in experimenting with a narrator follows in the tradition initiated by Henry James, who believed the dramatic mode created by using a character’s changing thoughts and feelings to be the most effective way of holding the reader’s interest and providing psychological insights.

However, the central influence on Banks’s theme that fate can be cruel regardless of a person’s merits seems to be naturalism and its proto-authors—Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Stephen Crane.

Because these universal themes continue to challenge the human race, the artist in every generation must address them and express them in a style that will speak to the contemporary reader’s sensibility. Both the critical and the general reader praise Russell Banks for fulfilling this need.