(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Young, Al 1939–

Young is a black American poet, novelist, editor, dramatist, and filmwriter. In an eloquent Afro-American vernacular, he portrays the black dilemma sympathetically and without polemic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Louis L. Martz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The poems in Dancing show how] the modern idiom may be adapted powerfully to express and convey the black experience in this country…. Wherever he is, Young keeps a sharp eye on the life of the rootless populations now stirring in their discontents…. The power of Young's poetry comes from his refusal to allow himself in any way to be segregated from this world. He is bold, he is blunt, but above all he is full of affection for the past and hope for the future…. [Silence] lies in the depth of his own memory and imagination, from which he draws some moments of rage against injustice, but very few of them compared with the depth of his affection for life and his sense of an individual role within a larger human drama…. "Birthday Poem" will make plainer than any other in the book his use of the everyday past, his ear for colloquial language, his talent for personal introspection, and his outward glance toward his fellowship in the human race…. (pp. 558-60)

Louis L. Martz, "Recent Poetry: Established Idiom," in The Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LIX, No. 4, June, 1970, pp. 551-69.∗

L. E. Sissman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Al Young's "Snakes" offers some alternative to hopelessness…. MC is a young man on the verge of a vocation. This gives his life purpose; it palliates the terrors and disjunctures of the ghetto; it restores his adolescence to a semblance of normal adolescent joy and hope…. [It] is clear from the beginning that MC's escape from the ghetto, if he makes it, will be made against tremendous odds, and that for every MC who surfaces there are dozens of talents that never do. For most of its inhabitants, MC's Detroit is as secure a prison as Francie's Harlem [depicted in Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn].

Though very brief—it's really less a novel than a novella—"Snakes" should make Al Young's reputation as a writer. It is well written. Its characters … are vividly realized and individuated; their speech rhythms are authentic and distinct from one another. Its descriptions of music and musicmaking are apt and moving—a vernacular excursion into aesthetics and art. Finally, it captures both the appetite of adolescence for the world and its wry valuation of the things of the world…. (pp. 77-8)

["Snakes" is not] in any sense a polemic…. [Al Young is] as cool and objective as it is possible for a survivor to be. This is a considerable achievement—a miracle of a sort in a country where cries of anger at injustice are rising day by day. The restraint of [Young] … makes it all the more necessary for us to read [him] … seriously; [his] indictment is the stronger for having to be read between the lines. If the ghetto of yesterday and today is not to be with us tomorrow, if we are to have an America we can accept on any terms, we must listen to [his voice] … now. (p. 79)

L. E. Sissman, "Growing Up Black," in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 21, July 11, 1970, pp. 77-9.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In synopsis, Snakes might sound a pretty insubstantial book; what makes it special is the way in which Al Young has synthesized three special worlds, three types of insularity—adolescence, blackness and the love of jazz music. MC's devotion to jazz is revealed not as some passing fancy, nor, of course, as some inherited instinct like enjoying collard greens or making for the back of the bus, but as a real enthusiasm strengthened by the novice's desire to participate and to know all there is to be known; and his beginnings in jazz are paralleled by his introduction to the tougher aspects of life on the city's streets. As much as anything, though, the novel is about being black, though it's necessary to add that the novel's polemic, in so far as it exists, is confined to demonstrating blackness as a form of cool insularity rather than a kind of social incarceration. Al Young would probably be among the first to suggest—and no one would deny—that they are both facets of a single condition, but it is not his purpose, in Snakes, to beat us over the head with slogans; nor is it necessary. MC and Shakes share a knowing sardonic line in blackface patter which not only provides some fast, funny dialogue, but which speaks volumes, by implication, about their black status in a white world.

"Jazzed Up," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3622, July 30, 1971, p. 881.

Neil Schmitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snakes is confined to the limits of … the language of a young musician [MC] coming of age in the black precincts of Detroit, and within that perspective the presence of cruising police cars, hustling whores and dealers of various goods, the grime and carbon monoxide of the cityscape—are as naturally given as the green lawns and tennis courts in John Cheever's fiction…. [MC instinctively knows] that hung-up, hard-pressed whites have little to offer in the way of cultural and human values, that one's blackness is sufficient. Snakes thus begins … far from the extensively mapped terrain of Richard Wright's and James Baldwin's fiction…. Young's novel takes for granted, does not proclaim, the virtues of being black, virtues that are, after all, human virtues. And it is there that his fiction becomes simply what it is: fiction, fiction without the clanking prefix, black.

The subject of Snakes is music: the blues MC hears played in Mississippi as a child, the rhythm and blues that is popular in Detroit (a "sound" he finally manages to get into the tune, "Snakes,"… and beyond that, the esoteric scanning of modern jazz, a new and puzzling music toward which MC ultimately turns, leaving Detroit for New York.

But there is also another kind of music in Snakes. MC's maturing comprehension of his guitar and his compositions can only be described. The music heard in Snakes is the music of voices speaking. It is Young who works these changes, whose ear for the eloquence of black English enables him to move from risque comedy to tragic utterance without ever leaving the idiom. In his mastery of this language Young achieves the integration that MC strives for in his music.

Champ, an impassioned wreck of a junky, the...

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Douglass Bolling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Much of the power of Snakes derives from its felt authenticity, its evocations of life in the Detroit ghetto; scene, characterization, and action are rendered in a low-mimetic, "autobiographical" manner which persuades the reader of the truth of what he finds before him…. [Each] figure unobtrusively advances and expands the thematic line of the novel while possessing sufficient identity and interest to exist in his own right for the reader….

The novel traces the gradual emancipation of the central figure, MC, from the repressive and debilitating forces about him to the threshold of maturity and enlarged self-awareness; at the novel's end MC is ready to begin his symbolic journey from home and youth to the beckoning world of the new and unknown. That the journey is a relatively limited one, at least in terms of the physical distance involved, and that no unearned great expectations are granted either the protagonist or the reader is a reflection of Young's realism and restraint. MC's experiences during the year and more of the novel's action have given him insight into both himself and the world and he has developed a necessary inner toughness and self-confidence; but his future is left untouched….

A mark of Young's sensitivity and maturity is seen in the treatment of the "freedom" sought by MC. For one thing freedom is shown to be less something static, less a state to be pursued and at last possessed,...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unhappily, Mr. Young's skills tend to work against "Who is Angelina?". Ironically, the more deftly he distinguishes the character of Angelina from the skillfully articulated types that surround her and try to tempt her to take up their ways, the more "Who Is Angelina?" tends to resemble countless Bildungsromane that have come before it. For what can one say about Angelina in the end except that she's an intelligent, questing human being who's successfully cut loose from drugs, drink, drags, and dropouts, and is now into meditation?

Still, to say that Angelina is a three-dimension person surrounded by comically delineated cliches is saying something. And so one looks for Mr. Young in his future books to say a good deal more.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Fiction in the Melting Pot," in The New York Times (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 23, 1975, p. 31.∗

Jacqueline Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the outset ["Who Is Angelina?"] seems like another of those 1960-ish self-indulgent explorations into the head of a vapid intellectual—dressed up for the 1970's with a liberal dose of drugs and sex.

But "Who Is Angelina?" is more than that. It is a most compelling novel about a young woman's search for truth, for her identity, in a series of hostile environments….

We could ask why Al Young wrote about a contemporary woman who does not really question traditional female stereotypes, who does not fret over her and her friends' view of life as a series of male-dominated experiences.

The temptation is to ask why Al Young wrote about an intelligent, educated, nearly bourgeois black when the downtrodden, ignorant, poverty stricken, or coyly cynical stereotypes are so much more glamorous today.

But, in fact, Angelina need be neither a woman nor black. She represents that classical Everyman figure struggling against conformity, commercialized sentiments, crime, life's insanities and riddles to find peace, happiness, security, honesty, love, beauty, soul.

Jacqueline Adams, "One Woman's Search for Identity," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1975 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), March 6, 1975, p. 9.

Mel Watkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's a pleasure, occasionally, to get away from the mayhem, violence and mania that are so vividly depicted in much of today's fiction; and Al Young's "Sitting Pretty" provides just such an opportunity. In this novel, Young introduces Sidney J. Prettymon, a.k.a., Sitting Pretty or just Sit—one of the most charming and engaging characters I've encountered in some time….

There is almost no plot, to speak of, in this tale. Young's first-person narrative just rolls easily along, and the feeling is that the story could have begun or ended almost anywhere. What happens is that one simply listens and watches as Sit moves through the normal routine of his life….

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book. In Sitting Pretty, Al Young presents a character who in many ways reminds one of Jesse B. Semple, Langston Hughes's unforgettable creation, except that Sit is less a caricature and a more richly depicted human being. He is the natural man, with no pretenses, just trying to live with as little chaos as possible and to enjoy the simple pleasures of growing old. And his tale is told with grace and dignity. There are no literary fireworks, no gimmicks here, and "Sitting Pretty" is obviously not a novel that is going to rock the literary world in any way. But it is a novel that can be read and enjoyed by everyone (Sit's color, after you've begun this book, will be no more important than your mother's), for its humor, its warmth and its revelations about the commonplace aspects of living that are too often ignored in fiction.

Mel Watkins, "Lookin for That Something Else," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1976, p. 44.

Dean Flower

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a time when so much black fiction has collapsed into autobiography and rhetoric, and when every novel seems to be about some manchild or blueschild, it is wonderfully refreshing to read Al Young's third novel, Sitting Pretty. I don't know of any other black novel where the vernacular is used so well, unless it be in Young's own (Snakes, 1970, and Who Is Angelina?, 1975)…. (p. 275)

The beauty of Young's vernacular method is that it brings alive a thoroughly engaging human being. Maintaining the mask with perfect consistency, however, Young avoids all moral issues. In a sense that's a strength: there can be nothing pretentious about Sitting Pretty nor about what he learns at last, that he must take life "a little at a time and do the best [he] can." He understands from life what he read in Emerson, that "It's always another side to everything and everybody." But the weakness here is that we can take it or leave it; there is no moral sense implied by the whole novel other than the implicit celebration of one man's miraculous humanity. It has no political or social moral for blacks, other than the knowledge that "You can't win." Given those limitations, it's a delightful and for my ear a wholly convincing performance; but I could be deceived. (p. 277)

Dean Flower, "Fiction Chronicle: 'Sitting Pretty'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 270-82.∗

Sheldon Frank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Al Young's Geography of the Near Past contains] soft, often beautiful reveries—about his wife, his child, his friends. But there are also bleaker poems about dashed hopes, a vanished past, wasted friends. These darker poems have a welcome tension, a kind of toughness that is new to his work.

In the final section of Geography of the Near Past, Young displays yet another unfamiliar poetic style. He reveals his imaginary alter ego, the black-militant poet O. O. Gabugah…. Ever his own man, Young writing as Gabugah affectionately mocks the pretense and phoniness of some of his militant brothers.

Sitting Pretty is a comic novel, a kind of picaresque tale without the expected ending. Sidney J. Prettymon, known to all as Sitting Pretty or Sit, is a middle-aged black man with a lot on his mind…. Sitting Pretty tells his story in his own words, and he can talk like we all wish we could. The problems of tone that marred Young's two earlier novels are almost entirely absent. In both Snakes and Who is Angelina?, Young's writing would wobble between lively, musical prose and pedestrian exposition. But Sitting Pretty talks music all the time, and the tone quavers a bit only toward the end, when Young, in an unfortunate moment of coyness, brings O. O. Gabugah onto the pages of the novel. A minor lapse in the best prose Young has ever written.

Sheldon Frank, "Poetry and Prose from an Unprocessed Mind," in The National Observer (reprinted by permission of The National Observer; © Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 1976; all rights reserved), July 24, 1976, p. 19.

Robert Siegel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his third volume of poetry, Geography of the Near Past, Young is still in touch with the rhythmical luminosities of Dancing and The Song Turning Back Into Itself but the reach is broader: his wife's pregnancy, a visit to a friend in prison, a protest march, trips to exotic cities, a satire on other poets. The dance is deepening, not slowing, in the mind of this poet and novelist.

What most encourages—and sometimes stuns—the reader of Young's poetry is the imagery, which of itself colors out any number of nihilist platitudes scrawled on the walls of the modern soul…. What discourages this reader is the lack of discrimination on the poet's part. In many of the poems...

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James A. Steck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

How does Al Young make an exciting novel (which he does) [in Ask me Now] out of the stuff we put on appointment calendars? For one thing, the older daughter disappears. Mainly, though, it is Durwood Knight's painful ambivalence towards his bourgeois life that keeps us going. This is the same device that the best bourgeois novels—Buddenbrooks, for instance—employ….

Al Young … does a great job portraying Celia, the older daughter, and Moby, her boyfriend. As in a musical piece their silences are as important as their sounds, and in their silences we can feel the raging teenage hormones. They make believable the family romance syndrome, the adolescent reverie that one's parents are...

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