Critics often fix on the interrelatedness of William Melvin Kelley’s four novels (and his short stories), and, indeed, though each novel is different in style, setting, characters, and even language, the ideas that spawned them are related and grow from each other. Critic Jill Weyant sees Kelley’s work as a saga, in that the purpose of writing a serious sagais to depict impressionistically a large, crowded portrait, each individual novel presenting enlarged details of the whole, each complete in itself, yet evoking a more universal picture than is possible in a single volume.
Kelley admits to the possible influence of other great writers of sagas, telling Roy Newquist in an interview, Perhaps I’m trying to follow the Faulknerian pattern—although I guess it’s really Balzacian when you connect everything. I’d like to be eighty years old and look up at the shelf and see that all of my books are really one big book.
A Different Drummer
A Different Drummer is Kelley’s first and finest work, an enduring classic of African American literature. Kelley took his literary inspiration from American writer Henry David Thoreau’s resounding celebration of individuality: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Kelley then adapted this idea to the plight of African Americans in a...
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