Arna Bontemps

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Arna Bontemps Short Fiction Analysis

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The Old South, Arna Bontemps’s collection of short stories, contains fourteen selections, the first of which is an important essay, “Why I Returned,” an account of his early life in Louisiana and California and his later life in Alabama and Tennessee. All of the selections are set in the South of the 1930’s (a time when this region was yet unchanged and thus “old”) or concern characters from the South. Some of the stories are also autobiographical—“The Cure,” “Three Pennies for Luck,” “Saturday Night”—and some are sharply satirical portraits of influential white women: a wealthy patron of young black musicians in “A Woman with a Mission” and a principal of a black boarding school in “Heathens at Home.” The titles of these latter stories are self-explanatory.

Bontemps was brought up in the Seventh-day Adventist church, for which his father had abandoned the Creoles’ traditional Catholicism. The boarding school and college Bontemps attended as well as the academy where he taught in Alabama were sponsored by the Adventists. Though Bontemps did not remain active in this church, he was deeply religious all his life. Several of his stories thus have religious settings and themes, including “Let the Church Roll On,” a study of a black congregation’s lively charismatic church service. Bontemps was early influenced by music since his father and other relatives had been blues and jazz musicians in Louisiana. “Talk to the Music,” “Lonesome Boy, Silver Trumpet,” and “A Woman with a Mission” all concern young black musicians.

Several selections concern black folk culture and folklore: “The Cure,” “Lonesome Boy, Silver Trumpet,” and “The Devil Is a Conjurer.” The latter story reflects the human desire to invest nature with a sense of the mysterious, which unimaginative men find foolish and unprofitable. In addition, at least seven of Bontemps’s stories, including the three named above, involve a young boy or man seeking or discovering meaning and worth in family and community, which some Bontemps scholars believe was a principal desire in the author’s own life.

Bontemps’s short stories treat sensitive political, economic, and social themes that are also employed in his two novels of slave revolts, Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939).

“Blue Boy” in The Old South concerns an escaped black murderer who is hunted down and killed after he commits a second homicide. The action in this story is seen from two perspectives, that of a young child and of the criminal himself. Robert Bone argues that the criminal named Blue is in fact “Bontemps’s apotheosis of the blues hero.” In his best stories Bontemps achieves an aesthetic distance, mastery of literary form, and a belief in transcendence in spite of his characters’ struggles in a world that often denies them human value. Though Bontemps’s stories have been compared with those of Richard Wright, Bontemps’s are less angry and acerbic.

“A Summer Tragedy”

“A Summer Tragedy,” first published in Opportunity in 1935, is Bontemps’s best-known, most frequently anthologized, and perhaps most successful short story because of its artistic interlacing of setting, symbolism, characterization, and folklore. As Bontemps’s biographer, Kirkland C. Jones, has observed, this story is “to the Bontemps canon what ‘Sonny’s Blues’ has become to Baldwin’s short fiction efforts—outstanding.”

An elderly black couple, Jennie and Jeff Patton, have for decades been tenant farmers on Greenbrier Plantation in an unnamed southern state. The Pattons are ill, frail, and barely ambulatory; Jennie is nearly blind. Their five adult children have all died in violent situations, none of which is specified, suggesting that life for blacks, particularly the young, was dangerous and uncertain in the South.

The opening...

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scene reveals the old couple dressing in their clean but threadbare black “Sunday-best.” Their actions are described, slowly and painfully, as they prepare for some great, momentous occasion. The story is set in the fullness of the green, fecund early summer fields; all of nature—plants, animals, and birds—seems to be celebrating life, youth, warmth, and procreation, as contrasted with the aging, pinched, wintry, weary, and deathlike lives of Jennie and Jeff. Nevertheless, they affirm their love for each other and resolve to persevere in their plans, which are not clear to the reader until late in the story. At first, Bontemps’s narrative seems almost naturalistic in the tradition of Theodore Dreiser as the Pattons reflect upon their lives of hard, monotonous, futile labor that has left them only more debt-ridden. Their existence seems to be a cruel trap, a vicious, meaningless struggle. They own an old, battered, hard-to-crank Model-T Ford that will later serve a vital but ominous purpose.

Yet the story is not merely documentary with dreary details. Jeff and Jennie are presented as three-dimensional characters through a psychological point of view which allows the reader to share their thoughts, feelings, and memories. Bontemps had also skillfully used folk motifs to provide both verisimilitude and foreshadowing. For example, the Pattons’ sickly “frizzly” chickens, which are supposed to protect the farm from evil spirits by devouring them, seem to be as death-doomed as their owners.

Jeff reflects on the many mules he has worn out in his years of plantation toil. His stingy employer has allowed him to have only one mule at a time; thus a long succession of mules has been killed by excessive and unremitting toil. Jeff is not aware that he is symbolically a mule for whom the callous old Major Stevenson has also had no sympathy. Moreover, Jeff himself has never felt pity for a man who is too weak to work.

Passing a neighbor’s house on the journey through the countryside, Jennie is silently amused to think that their neighbor, Delia, who sees the Pattons’ car drive past, is consumed with curiosity to know their destination. Delia, it seems, had once made passes at Jeff when he was a young married man. By refusing to supply Delia with any information, Jennie feels she is punishing her neighbor for her long-ago indiscretion. Such details as these help humanize and individualize Bontemps’s characters, making them psychologically credible. The reader gradually becomes aware that because of the couple’s love for one another and their fear that one may grow too weak to help the other, they are determined to perish together.

As the Pattons near the high banks of the river levee, they can hear the rushing water. They drive over the levee and into the dark, swirling water. (Some readers contend that the stream is Louisiana’s Red River, which flows near Bontemps’s birthplace.) In death, Jeff and Jennie have preserved their independence and dignity. As the car sinks, one wheel sticks up out of the mud in a shallow place—fate’s ironical monument to the lives and courageous deaths of Jeff and Jennie Patton. Free of histrionics and sentimentality, this well-handled story is, as critic Robert Bone contends, truly “compelling.”

“Talk to the Music”

In the years just prior to World War I, young Norman Taylor leaves his home in Rapides Parish (where Bontemps himself was born) and travels two hundred miles to attend college in New Orleans. However, instead of enrolling in college as his parents expect, Norman informally enrolls in a real-life course in blues music, which he studies in the notorious Storyville area, where the inimitable blues singer Mayme Dupree performs in a night club. Apparently Norman has not been able to “study” the blues in Rapides Parish, where it may have been considered “the Devil’s music” by good churchgoing folk. Norman pretends to be a waiter at the club and is finally able to hear the fabulous Mayme sing her own style of blues. Her singing moves the audience to look into their hearts and individual and collective pasts and thus both figuratively and literally “talk to” (communicate with) the music as it is performed. Later Norman confesses to Mayme that her blues touched him like Adam and Eve’s wail over their innocence lost in Eden, but Mayme comments that he is “crazy.” Nevertheless, “Talk to the Music” richly evokes scenes and senses in New Orleans and convincingly dramatizes the young man’s struggles to hear Mayme’s blues and to learn from her lips about her loves and losses—which are shared not only by African Americans but also by all humanity.


Arna Bontemps Long Fiction Analysis