Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Perhaps, the best way to see Beetlecreek is in the context of the literary “mainstreaming” which was popular among some black writers and scholars during the time that Demby wrote the novel. Black literary mainstreamers believed, in part at least, that black writing would mature when it lost its distinctive identity, as manifested in a focus on concerns that were specifically black, and merged thematically with the general body of American and world literature. In Beetlecreek, some readers may find that Demby is too easily and too summarily rising above racial concerns in his attempt to produce the mainstream, universal novel that depicts broadly the problems of human existence. Perhaps Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), another work by a black author that aims to enter the mainstream, is more successful in the manner in which it works through to the universal by concerning itself first with specifically racial themes. Yet one must remember that Beetlecreek preceded Invisible Man by two years and, at least in the context of literary history, achieved very early something that a number of black writers and intellectuals were trying to achieve.
It is also important to note that Demby’s approach to his existential theme (the idea that man is cast alone into a meaningless universe in which he has to determine his own meaning) is more like the approach of Ellison, who followed him, and less like that of the French existentialist Albert Camus, for example. Camus not only assumed that man’s search for meaning was doomed to failure, but he also failed to stress that the values of sensitivity and humanity were important in the search. For Demby and Ellison, the values of humanity and sensitivity are important in this quest. Demby’s fiction is thus an example of one important direction that literary existentialism took in the mid-twentieth century.