David Bradley Essay - Critical Essays

Bradley, David (Henry), Jr.


David (Henry) Bradley, Jr. 1950–

Black American novelist.

In his first novel, South Street, Bradley employs a Zola-like naturalism to depict street life in Philadelphia. His second novel, The Chaneysville Incident, is based on a mysterious historical legend involving the underground railroad for slaves. Many critics praised Bradley for the risks he took to produce a work which is more than a standard historical novel.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104.)

Jerome Charyn

"South Street" is an ambitious, scraggly novel with deep pockets and vast, bumping corners that reach into the "limbo between the Schuylkill and the Delaware," for a long, bitter look at the corrugated country of black Philadelphia. Its gifted young author, David Bradley, doesn't take us into the heartlands. South Street, with its "elephantine cockroaches and rats the size of cannon shells," exists at the border of the ghetto…. Rubbing against Lombard Street and white Philadelphia, South Street in Mr. Bradley's book becomes a kind of haunted wasteland with "softening tar," gap-tooth buildings, and its own disturbing life.

The locus of the novel seems to be Lightnin' Ed's bar, where Mr. Bradley's characters leak out their existence. (pp. 30, 32)

The tension of the novel is generated by Adlai Stevenson Brown, a mystery figure from outside the ghetto who enters Lightnin' Ed's and shames [numbers king] Leroy Briggs in front of the bar's steady customers. Leroy, whose hold on South Street is beginning to slip, has to avenge himself, but he's afraid that Brown might be tied to the Mafia of white Philadelphia…. Brown, we discover, is a young black poet who came to South Street to shuck off his middle-class baggage and feed on ghetto life.

It's Adlai Stevenson Brown who gets the author into trouble; a thin creation, predictable in his language and his suffering, Brown can't carry the structure of the novel on his back. "South Street" collapses the more Brown is revealed to us. Still, he doesn't destroy the legitimacy of Lightnin' Ed's; the preachers, whores and hoodlums claw at us with their vitality and the harsh power of their voices. Despite Brown, "South Street" remains a deeply felt book with an unfortunate amount of flab. (p. 32)

Jerome Charyn, "Black Philly," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1975, pp. 30, 32.

Mel Watkins

[Philadelphia's "South Street"] is one of the gutted bastions of the down-and-out, the hopeless, the poor, and of the predators who feed on them. In this exceptional first novel ["South Street"], David Bradley takes us on a guided tour. We are ushered behind the dingy facade of "burned-out boarded-up bashed-in storefronts" dotted with bars, liquor stores and transient hotels; a facade that we've all hurried past, probably with a twinge of disgust and a small dose of cold fear. More important, Mr. Bradley introduces us to the street people who thrive in these cramped spaces, and brings them vividly to life….

"South Street" is not simply another grim, naturalistic litany of the anguish of the downtrodden. Without blunting the pathos of this tale, Mr. Bradley has infused what could have been a standard story and stock characters with new vigor. Probing beneath the sociological stereotypes, he portrays his characters with a fullness that amplifies much of the lusty irony of ghetto life. His characters are trapped in their vermin-infested tenements but they are not overwhelmed…. It is Bradley's unerring depiction of the vitality that rears itself even within this despairing setting that distinguishes this novel.

Still, "South Street" has its flaws. Mr. Bradley's narratives on South Street and the surrounding geography are sometimes overextended and tiresome—like the loquacious drone of a facile tour guide delivering...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Mary Helen Washington

[The major theme of The Chaneysville Incident], the reconstruction of black history, is large and powerful. Its scope is equally ambitious—it covers five generations in the lives of one family and that family's historical trajectory encompasses slavery, the Underground Railroad, slave rebellions, lynchings, the Negro convention movement, the political activity of free blacks and several wars. The implications and conclusions of the novel have the potential for such authority that one cannot ignore or minimize its treatment of women: for if black history reconstructs itself, and in the process re-enslaves black women—or any women—then none of its other virtues can matter very much. This problematic treatment of women is the dilemma at the heart of The Chaneysville Incident. (p. 3)

[Narrator John Washington] treats all the women of his past as wives and mothers and mistresses of his male ancestors, their main function being to bear these men's sons. Can we tolerate a history of black people in which the major event of each generation is the begetting of a first-born son, in which the women are only the hinges connecting one man to his male descendants, where we only know the women's lives as they contribute to the making of another man, in which all the proud, defiant, heroic gestures are accomplished by men?

If Washington's past is filled with shadowy women, his present is worse. The main women in the frame story, his mother Yvette and his white lover Judith, are two more exercises in depreciating women. His mother is a total despot; she manages to kill one son, John's brother Bill, by sending him off to the Vietnam War, and she tries...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Vance Bourjaily

Whatever else may be said, and there's apt to be a lot said about David Bradley and his second novel, "The Chaneysville Incident," the man's a writer.

What he can do, at a pretty high level of energy, is synchronize five different kinds of rhetoric, control a complicated plot, manage a good-sized cast of characters, convey a lot of information, handle an intricate time scheme, pull off a couple of final tricks that dramatize provocative ideas, and generally keep things going for 200,000 words. That's about two and a half books for most of us….

John Washington [is] the book's narrator, and, like the book's author, he is young, black and a college professor. John Washington teaches history and lives in Philadelphia with a white psychiatrist named Judith….

[John is summoned by a] disreputable old man named Jack Crawley [who] is dying and has asked for him. It's the second such summons. When John was 12 and his father, Moses Washington, had just been buried, "old Jack" first asked for the boy….

Young John becomes old Jack's pupil in woodsmanship, hunting and whisky-drinking; he also becomes the chief listener to Jack's stories, and from them learns a great deal, much of it about trouble between the races. The principal character in Jack's stories is Moses Washington. John's father was a legendary moonshiner and eccentric; feared by many for his violence and cunning, he accumulated wealth and influence during his lifetime and died a mysterious death. (p. 7)

[As] John sits with the old man in his shack on the wrong side of the hill, he becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of his own father's death. This solution, though, depends on the solution of a far older mystery, that of "the Chaneysville incident" from which the novel takes its name. The incident took place in the time of the underground railroad, when 13 runaway slaves, about to be recaptured, were shot instead—at, so the tale goes, their own urgent request—and buried in 13 tenderly laid-out graves.

By this point in the book, John Washington has taken over old Jack's role as storyteller, and the listener now, tensely enough, is the white woman, Judith. (pp. 7, 20)

[Mr. Bradley's more favored characters display an anti-Christian bias.] It...

(The entire section is 958 words.)

Phoebe-Lou Adams

[The hero of "The Chaneysville Incident"] is a cross-grained professor of history living with a woman psychiatrist who keeps asking, "Do you want to talk about it?" He is black and she is white, which gives them plenty to argue about but does not necessarily endear them to the reader. Their partnership is the defect in a novel that is admirable in other respects, for Mr. Bradley portrays believable people from several levels of black society in a small Pennsylvania town, shows how that society interacts with white society, and reconstructs a ferocious episode on the local branch of the Underground Railroad. He writes well of hunting and woodsmanship and makes skillful use of detail that has the ring of authentic regional tradition. He also explains the persistence of racial resentment in a black whose professional success is solidly established. For this last and important point, the psychiatrist was no doubt necessary to the action—but Lord, she is a bore.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Short Reviews: 'The Chaneysville Incident'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 247, No. 5, May, 1981, p. 84.

Bruce Allen

[Truculence and passion are integral to "The Chaneysville Incident."] Bradley employs a sophisticated past-present structure, built on a sequence of sometimes interlocking flashbacks. The pace is slow, the digressions frequent, and John Washington's professorial sedulousness and hauteur are often grating.

All the material in the book is exposition, really—discovered, then painstakingly communicated: it represents nothing less than a triumph that this basically undramatic material is almost always suspenseful and fascinating.

This is a book that knows exactly what it's doing. Even the literary echoes (of Faulkner, Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Warren's "All the King's Men," among others)...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Thomas M. Gannon

David Bradley gambled that he could work the historical experience of black people in this country into a successful novel without writing a conventional historical novel. As it turns out, Bradley lost his gamble, for The Chaneysville Incident is not successful, at least not as a novel. Too much of it is thinly disguised history, rather than deeply felt, imaginatively transformed experience….

Bradley filters his historical material through the consciousness of the novel's narrator, a 30-ish black historian named John Washington…. The novel's principal action is Washington's … immersion in his family's history in an attempt to solve the mystery of his father's suicide and complete the...

(The entire section is 443 words.)