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,...
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