A Visitation of Spirits Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

Randall Kenan

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

A Visitation of Spirits was published toward the beginning of a period in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s which saw a substantial number of books by gay writers and about gay life. Publishers by the end of the 1980’s had recognized the intense public interest in the gay community as well as the gay community’s book-buying habits. At one level, the novel was guaranteed an audience because of its powerful treatment of a young man’s homosexual experience. Once published, the novel earned consistently good reviews, not only for its innovatively structured accounts but also for its strong portrayal of character and rural life.

The novel explores the landscape of Randall Kenan’s own childhood in eastern North Carolina, fleshing out the history of a community whose characters he continued to explore in his collection of short stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992). In the title story, Kenan tells the history of Tims Creek, founded by runaway and freed slaves, some of whom had been called from their graves by a necromancer who had murdered the oldest son of a white master. Black magic, botany, and homosexuality (all strongly present in the novel) also recur in the collected stories. As compellingly magical as many of Zora Neale Hurston’s accounts of Florida, Kenan’s works operate within the tradition of African American authors, recalling a slave past and incorporating magic that enables black people to transcend their boundaries, whether those boundaries are imposed by slave owners or by loving grandfathers.