Arna Bontemps Bontemps, Arna (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bontemps, Arna 1902–1973

Bontemps was an American novelist, poet, children's writer, biographer, editor, and playwright. He wrote optimistically, striving to preserve the cultural heritage of the black in American history and to relate the changes he had seen in his own lifetime. Bontemps collaborated with Langston Hughes, Jack Conroy, W. C. Handy, and Countee Cullen. Black Thunder is generally regarded as his best novel. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arna Bontemps' first venture in fiction ["God Sends Sunday"] is to me a profound disappointment. It is of the school of "Nigger Heaven" and "Home to Harlem." There is a certain pathetic touch to the painting of his poor little jockey hero, but nearly all else is sordid crime, drinking, gambling, whore-mongering, and murder. There is not a decent intelligent woman; not a single man with the slightest ambition or real education, scarcely more than one human child in the whole book. Even the horses are drab. In the "Blues" alone Bontemps sees beauty. But in brown skins, frizzled hair and full contoured faces, there are to him nothing but ugly, tawdry, hateful things, which he describes with evident caricature.

One reads hurriedly on, waiting for a gleam of light, waiting for the Sunday that some poor ugly black God may send; but somehow it never comes; and if God appears at all it is in the form of a little drunken murderer riding South to Tia Juana on his back.

W.E.B. DuBois, "The Browsing Reader: 'God Sends Sunday'," in The Crisis (copyright 1931 by The Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. 40, No. 9, September, 1931, p. 304.

Richard Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In that limited and almost barren field known as the Negro novel, Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder fills a yawning gap and fills it competently. Covering all those skimpy reaches of Negro letters I know, this is the only novel dealing forth-rightly with the historical and revolutionary traditions of the Negro people.

Black Thunder is the true story of a slave insurrection that failed. But in his telling of the story of that failure Bontemps manages to reveal and dramatize through the character of his protagonist, Gabriel, a quality of folk courage unparalleled in the proletarian literature of this country….

Black Thunder is mainly the story of Gabriel, who believes in the eventual triumph of his destiny in spite of all the forces which conspire against it. He is convinced that God and the universe are on his side. He believes he must and will lead the Negro people to freedom. He seems to have no personal fear and no personal courage. He thinks, dreams, and feels wholly in terms of Negro liberation…. When considering Gabriel solely as an isolated individual, he seems sustained by an extremely foolish belief in himself; but when one remembers his slave state, when one realizes the extent to which he has made the wrongs of his people his wrongs, and the degree in which he has submerged his hopes in their hopes—when one remembers this, he appears logically and gloriously invincible….


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Hugh M. Gloster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

God Sends Sunday follows Nigger Heaven in its emphasis upon sex and fast living, but differs in its introduction of a main character who is a celebrated jockey and a prodigal libertine in the racing centers of the Mississippi Valley. (p. 172)

In its abandonment of the Harlem background, God Sends Sunday exemplifies a new trend in fiction showing the influence of Nigger Heaven. Besides, more than any other novel in the Van Vechten tradition, it avoids race consciousness. (p. 173)

[Another novel by Bontemps, Black Thunder,] treats the abortive slave insurrection under Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800…. (p. 213)

The underlying thesis of Black Thunder … is that Negro slaves, with the exception of a small number bound in mind as well as in body, had an obsessive love of freedom. (p. 214)

Black Thunder is written with restraint and detachment. Bontemps portrays slaves, freedmen, planters, and French radicals with impartiality, showing no disposition to glorify pro-Negro nor to traduce anti-Negro characters in the book. Miscegenation on the Southern scene is not blinked. Furthermore, Bontemps succeeds in weaving Gabriel's uprising into the web of state and national life…. Although Black Thunder is not without blemish, A. B. Spingarn is quite correct in his observation that the book is "the best historical novel written by an American Negro."

Also a record of the Negro's quest for freedom is Bontemps' second historical novel, Drums at Dusk, an account of the black insurrection which resulted in the independence of Haiti and the emergence of Toussaint L'Ouverture. (pp. 214-15)

Bontemps paints a vivid picture of social upheaval and class prejudice in tropical San Domingo. Struggling for control are the wealthy elite, the low-class whites, and the free mulattoes. The aristocrats, dominating slaves who outnumber all other inhabitants by nearly ten to one, keep their positions secure by intimidating the blacks and playing them against the mulattoes…. Miscegenation is rampant, as lecherous aristocrats frequently manifest a preference for "chocolate" and openly flaunt their yellow mistresses…. In brief, Drums at Dusk, a worthy successor to Black Thunder, is another vivid illustration of the richness of the Negro's past as a source for historical fiction. (p. 216)

Hugh M. Gloster, in his Negro Voices in American Fiction (copyright 1948 by The University of North Carolina Press), University of North Carolina Press, 1948 (and reprinted by Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965), 295 p.∗

Dorothy Weil

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Black Thunder] is a superior piece of work. Interest in the action is sustained; the minds and feelings of the blacks are made lucid and believable; and the atmosphere is unique. Bontemps accomplished these ends partly through the skillful use of various motifs from Negro folklore. Several episodes of the novel are pervaded by beliefs and customs that appear in this folklore—beliefs and customs concerning death and the spirit, the importance of 'signs' or portents, and the use of Magic and Conjure.

Early in Black Thunder a tyrannical slave owner whips a slave, Bundy, to death, and thus hastens the rebellion that has been on the minds of the blacks of Henrico County for some time. Bontemps' treatment of the funeral of this slave and the subsequent haunting by Bundy's spirit of a fellow slave, are rooted in narratives found in folklore that have to do with death, ghosts and spirits. (p. 1)

Bontemps is faithful in detail to folklore versions of [the funeral] custom. (p. 2)

The importance of 'signs' or portents in Negro folklore underlies Bontemps' treatment of two episodes in Black Thunder, the extended argument among the rebels concerning "the stars," and the episode in which Drucilla predicts the death of another character. (p. 6)

The episode in Black Thunder in which the female house slaves compulsively chase a bird out of the house reflects the...

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Brian Neal Odell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Purporting to be a biography of [Frederick] Douglass, Free at Last reads more like a novel. Emphasized throughout are the protagonist's secret musings, the author's narrative omniscience and the mood of each scene. Nowhere is there probing analysis, historical perspective or sophisticated scholarship. We read much—real or imagined—in Free at Last of Frederick Douglass the man of anger, passion and resentment; but we see little of Frederick Douglass the thinker, the writer, the political strategist. Douglass was all of these things, and because Bontemps portrays only Douglass' more "salable" characteristics, his book must be judged at best incomplete, and at worst deceitful. (pp. 295-96)

Brian Neal Odell, "Book Reviews: 'Free at Last: The Life of Frederick Douglass'," in America (© America Press, 1971; all rights reserved), Vol. 125, No. 11, October 16, 1971, pp. 295-96.

Arthur P. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bontemps' poems [collected in Personals] make use of several recurring themes: the alien-and-exile allusions so often found in New Negro poetry; strong racial suggestiveness and applications; religious themes and imagery subtly used; and the theme of return to a former time, a former love, or a remembered place. On occasion he combines in a way common to lyrical writing the personal with the racial or the general. Many of these poems are protest poems; but the protest is oblique and suggestive rather than frontal. Over all of Bontemps' poetry there is a sad, brooding quality, a sombre "Il Penseroso" meditative cast. In Personals there are no obviously joyous or humorous pieces.

The most...

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Don David Guttenplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This collection of more than forty years of correspondence [Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters (1925–1967)] is a delight….

[There] is a wealth of observation, careerist plotting and warm personal exchange between two friends trying to make their way in the American literary scene (and succeeding). We learn that Hughes was fond of baseball, Bontemps hated the cold, and both men were vain about their weight. The fact that these sons-of-the-middle-class-turned-artists were black may have gotten the letters published; the fact that they both wrote so well is what makes them worth reading.

Don David Guttenplan, "Book Notes: 'Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters (1925–1967)'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 14, November 3, 1979, p. 441.∗

Nathan Irvin Huggins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The letters in "Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters 1925–1967"] were written without any awareness that they might be read by white readers. Thus they offer the general reader a rare glimpse into the candid communication between black friends. They are filled with wry comments on the ways of "white folks" and the "cullud race."…

Because Hughes and Bontemps were so close as friends, they left much unsaid. Their problems with white people on whom they depended—agents, editors, publishers, producers, directors—required only a word or two to evoke the knowing response. In the same way, the humiliation they both endured in the Jim Crow South is seldom made explicit….

Hughes and Bontemps were gentle men, inclined to amusement rather than anger; they were neither gossips, nor critics, nor mean….

The most telling revelation in these letters is how much easier it is for a black writer to make a living since the mid-1950's. It is still by no means easy, but there are vastly greater opportunities than when these men started out. They had much to do with creating an audience and an appreciation for black literature. They also wanted to make Afro-American literature—especially poetry—part of the American literary canon. On that score they were less successful, as a glance at most anthologies of American poetry will reveal.

Nathan Irvin Huggins, "Invisible Men," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1980, p. 11.∗

Mary Helen Washington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters 1925–1967 constitutes] a kind of collective authority. In surveying the American literary scene for a half a century, [Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes] selected the Big Questions for literary discussion; they helped decide what trends to notice, what influences to count; they announced the up and coming young writers. They always knew how important it is for the Afro-Americanist to claim this kind of control.

While their influential voices were used mostly to the good, in fairness to the women artists that get mentioned in these letters, it must be said that they also contributed to the climate which made it hard for women to participate as equals in that tradition. (p. 2)

The main thrust of these letters, however, is to talk about themselves, to show their determination to refine their craft and gain recognition in the world of letters. They are nearly always exuberantly optimistic about achieving their place in the sun, in spite of all the obstacles. One can almost feel the muscular effort they exerted. (pp. 2, 10)

There is almost [no gossip, scandal, or self-revelation] in these letters. Hughes and Bontemps wrote for posterity, so even the mutual love and trust they felt for each other is rarely shown here. I have the feeling that these figures we are looking at through the window saw us first and staged this show very carefully. Always the consummate theatrical producer, Hughes is entirely aware of his audience and has expertly arranged these literary remains for viewing.

Truly it is a loss and a disappointment. Literature is not, after all, unconnected with life, and we would be the richer for having shared their "felt life" as well as their "archival life." There is itinerary here and lists of projects but no illumination of their souls….

What I most perversely enjoyed in the letters was the sense of reverse double consciousness that Bontemps and Hughes maintain throughout. A two-man in-group, they pass judgment on their white counterparts with genial wit, acumen and sometimes withering accuracy…. (p. 10)

Mary Helen Washington, "The Scholar and the Troubadour," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post). March 23, 1980, pp. 1-2, 10.∗