Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

The Chaneysville Incident, which David Bradley notes in his acknowledgments was “ten years in the making,” received the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award as the finest novel of 1981. The initial response of most reviewers was unusually enthusiastic, and the novel has been discussed in many serious scholarly studies of African American fiction. The book has been criticized for its portrayal of women and especially for Old Jack’s apparent misogyny, but Old Jack is hardly a spokesman for the author, and the point of the novel is John Washington’s attempt to go beyond the protective stance of his mentors. In a sense, Bradley’s work is a kind of complement to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), which focuses on the experiences of African American women.

Bradley has stated that “I certainly wouldn’t want white people judging black people by my behavior, or my writing.” Nevertheless, the African and African American elements that inform the mythic nature of John Washington’s quest—especially the idea of death as a passage, a type of shape-changing—distinguish Bradley’s work and make it central to black experience.