(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Beetlecreek is divided into four sections, all told by an omniscient third-person narrator whose focus shifts from one main character to another. The short first section opens with Bill Trapp, the old white man, scaring four black teenaged boys out of his apple tree. Actually, he means to welcome them more than frighten them, for he has lived a lonely life since coming to Beetlecreek, a white man on the margin of a black neighborhood with no ties to anyone of either race. Johnny does not get out of the apple tree in time to run, and he accepts Bill’s unexpected invitation to sit and drink a glass of the old man’s homemade cider. When David Diggs, Johnny’s uncle, comes looking for the boy, he joins in their conviviality, and the result is that David invites Bill to join him and Johnny that night at Telrico’s, the local tavern.

For Bill, the boozy evening at Telrico’s is a breakthrough to the human companionship he has had to do without for most of his life. His joy is painful, because it clearly presages disappointment to come. Indeed, when David and Johnny leave Bill following their beer-drinking fellowship, David warns Johnny, “Don’t bother saying anything to your Aunt Mary about Bill Trapp being there tonight.” Whereas the novel does not stress racial discrimination, David’s caution to Johnny betrays his uneasiness about his own hospitality at the same time that his kindness to a lonely old man reveals that he is above racial barriers to human kindness.

Meanwhile, Mary Diggs is daydreaming about the Missionary Guild’s soon-to-be-staged Fall Festival and the acclaim she hopes it will bring “Mary’s Bestest Ginger-cake.” The topic obsesses her....

(The entire section is 695 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The plot of Beetlecreek develops chronologically, in four parts focusing on three different sets of human circumstances, actions, and events that converge at the end. Part 1 introduces four of the five main characters. In chapter 1, Bill Trapp, a white hermit feared by a large number of the black people who live nearby, chases four young black boys from under a fruit tree in his yard and discovers that there is one young black boy up in the tree. Bill, whose reputation is unjustified, invites young Johnny Johnson to come down out of the tree and into his house. After Johnny and Bill talk and drink cider together, Johnny’s uncle, David Diggs, arrives looking for him, the other boys having reported that the strange white man has caught Johnny up in the tree. Trapp also invites David to have some wine, and the two men become acquainted and later go to Telrico’s Bar and get drunk together. The budding relationship carries a sense of heightened expectancy for Johnny and David, because they are stepping across racial lines, violating black and white community conventions by associating with the ostracized white recluse. For Bill, the potential relationship is exciting because it represents his coming out of seclusion, the end of his isolation from both blacks and whites.

The last chapter of part 1 focuses on David’s wife, Mary Diggs, as she immerses herself in the trivial social activities and church events that define her life. Throughout the novel, Mary’s actions and activities remain on the level of the petty. The events of Mary’s life are one of the three sets of events that are important in the novel; her actions suggest all the negative possibilities in life.

Part 2 centers on the attempts of Bill and Johnny to develop the sense of rich possibility which they had when they first met. Bill comes out of seclusion, associates with both black and white people, and actively tries to win community favor by doing kind deeds....

(The entire section is 804 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bayliss, John F. “Beetlecreek: Existentialist or Human Document?” Negro Digest 19 (November, 1969): 70-74. Bayliss disputes Robert Bone’s argument for a dominating theme of existentialist choice as central to Beetlecreek. For Bayliss, the novel dramatizes human dilemmas that can be easily understood without resort to the grim visions of modern philosophies of despair.

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Bone discusses Beetlecreek in a chapter on “The Contemporary Negro Novel,” finding in it a parable on existential freedom. David Diggs is caught between Bill Trapp and Edith, and chooses the course that leads away from the good. Similarly, Johnny is destroyed by the forces that draw him into the gang.

Christensen, Peter G. “William Demby.” In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Provides a critical biography of Demby, as well as a bibliography of works by and about him.

Fabre, Geneviève, and Klaus Benesch, eds. African Diasporas in the New and Old Worlds: Consciousness and Imagination. New York: Rodopi, 2004. Includes an essay by Benesch on Demby and African American modernism.

Hall, James C. Afterword to Beetlecreek, by William Demby. Jackson, Miss.: Banner Books, 1998. Reevaluation of and commentary upon Beetlecreek by a Demby scholar at the University of Alabama.

Margolies, Edward. Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro Authors. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1968. Stresses Demby’s realistic style and the existential themes of Beetlecreek, which are especially suitable in a treatment of black life in America. Margolies observes of the persecution of Bill Trapp: “Thus Negro life in all its deathly aspects is the mirror image of white society.”

Marowski, Daniel G., and Roger Matuz, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 53. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. The entry on Demby includes a good biographical sketch and excellent excerpts from the sparse commentary on his novels.

O’Brien, John. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. Interesting comments by Demby on the genesis of Beetlecreek: He recalls that he had fallen in love with a woman in Salzburg, Austria; when she went out with someone else, he got angry and wrote the novel’s closing scene.