Study Guide

A Visitation of Spirits

by Randall Kenan

A Visitation of Spirits Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Visitation of Spirits is essentially a novel about homosexuality. Young Horace Cross finds himself irresistibly attracted to men and has been having one affair after another. He finds that his attraction to males does not recognize racial barriers; he has love affairs with virile white actors who are playing in summer stock in his rural area, and he prefers to associate with a group of rowdy young white males who are considered renegades and dropouts at his high school. Horace is exceptionally bright and has been getting top grades up until the time of this adolescent crisis. Now his grades have plummeted, and all of his relatives, including his doting grandfather, are pressuring him to change back into the polite, ambitious, well-behaved boy he had been.

Horace goes to his cousin, the Reverend Jimmy Greene, with his problem, asking him in confidence what he can do, if anything, to renounce his homosexual tendencies. Jimmy has been through the same crisis himself and is ashamed to discuss it openly. He simply tells Horace he will outgrow it. It becomes evident, however, that Jimmy himself has never outgrown his own homosexual proclivities and that denying them has turned him into a sort of spiritual and sexual eunuch. His failure to help Horace causes him to begin to reevaluate his entire life.

Jimmy serves as a foil to Horace, more or less the way Leopold Bloom served as a foil to Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses (1922). While Horace is wandering around town nearly naked, struggling with his repressed sexual desires, Jimmy is going through the motions of being a small-town preacher and interacting mainly with the older African Americans of the community. Through Jimmy’s eyes, the reader gets a thorough picture of the small-mindedness, the provinciality, and the xenophobia of the older...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

A Visitation of Spirits Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alternating between April, 1984, narratives of Horace’s experience with magic and December, 1985, narratives of a family visit to a dying cousin, A Visitation of Spirits tells the story of a sixteen-year-old African American boy who cannot transform himself away from homosexuality and so cannot continue to face his family and his community.

A Visitation of Spirits is divided into five major sections, each including April, 1984, and December, 1985, narratives. The story is told predominantly from a limited-omniscient perspective; the center of consciousness shifts within these sections among Horace, Jimmy, Zeke, and Ruth. Three segments entitled “Confession” (two from Jimmy, one from Horace) break the pattern of alternation, with each of the confessions showing the two figures wrestling with their own memories.

The 1985 narratives center on Jimmy, Aunt Ruth, and Uncle Zeke driving to see their cousin Asa, seriously ill in the hospital. These scenes reveal the family at work. Aunt Ruth and Uncle Zeke argue and accuse each other, with Jimmy trying to act the peacemaker; he is playing the role of clergyman rather awkwardly because he is first and foremost a nephew. Their journey takes them to a hospital; once there, Ruth cannot abide the falseness of those who would pray for Asa to live. Their journey home from the hospital finds them in a restaurant, where a white waitress and Ruth argue. The struggle between generations as well as between black and white energizes the scene. No peace within the family results from the meal they share, but a truce of sorts is implicitly declared after their car has broken down and then been fixed.

During the...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

A Visitation of Spirits Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Gingher, Robert, ed. The Rough Road Home: Stories by North Carolina Writers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. A large collection of stories by contemporary North Carolina writers that shows the impact of this relatively small state in the revival of the American short story. Contains Kenan’s “The Virtue Called Vanity,” which was not included in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead.

Harris, Trudier. “Fear of Family, Fear of Self: Black Southern ’Othering’ in Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits. ” In Women and Others: Perspectives on Race, Gender and Empire, edited by Celia R. Daileader, Rhoda E. Johnson, and Amilcar Shabazz. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Discusses the construction of the other by Kenan’s characters as rooted in their anxieties about themselves and their families.

Kenan, Randall. Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and Other Stories. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. A collection of twelve short stories by Kenan all dealing with life in rural North Carolina. These stories are all set in the fictional village of Tims Creek, the same setting that was used in A Visitation of Spirits, and deal with some of the same characters. The stories suggest that Kenan is trying to create an imaginary world not unlike William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

Kirkus Reviews. Review of A Visitation of Spirits, by Randall Kenan. 57 (May 1, 1989): 650. Calls attention to Kenan’s stylistic daring, which is judged extraordinary for a young writer in his first novel. Highlights the dramatic changes in the New South as a result of the cultural implosion taking place in contemporary America.

Mosher, Howard Frank. “The Ghosts on Main Street.” The New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1992, 12. An enthusiastic review of Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Mosher points out that “inexorable sexual entanglements and the preternatural” are two of Kenan’s favorite subjects.

Virginia Quarterly Review. Review of A Visitation of Spirits, by Randall Kenan. 66 (Winter, 1990): 22. An entirely favorable review. Points out the paradoxical truth that the only bigotry in Kenan’s depiction of the New South seems to be demonstrated by older blacks, who cling to their old grievances because they provide a sense of security.