dem’s unusual title and its lower-case format are a revealing indication of the author’s intentions and orientation. The connotations of a certain vocal tonality and a certain grade of education that the title word conveys are far removed from the white, middle-class milieu in which most of the action takes place. The combination of lexical and auditory element in “dem” also indicates an attitude that, if not necessarily disrespectful, reduces to the status of a common noun material that is generally accorded the distinctiveness of a proper noun. This attitude not only embraces the realm of manners, which occupies the foreground of the novel; it also is the basis for the larger social, cultural, and political perspectives that the story entails, creating them initially by inference but ultimately in fully realized terms, an “us” that exists as an equal and opposite human entity to “dem.”
The provocative undertones of dem’s title are developed in a number of ways in the course of the story. The very setting of the main narrative interest, a well-appointed apartment in Manhattan, is one that does not occur frequently in African American fiction, and the family that lives in the apartment is equally unusual, simply by belonging to the white, professional, upper middle class. Despite the deftness with which personal milieu and general social context are established, the author is more interested in what lies underneath the plausible surfaces of the Pierce household than in reproducing whatever interest and quality those surfaces may have in themselves. The various references to middle-class culture are to its conspicuous consumption in such areas as smoking, drinking, and fashion.
For that reason, and as a means of informing readers that perspective is critical to what the novel intends to express, the Pierces are first seen from the outside. The first scene in the work concerns a mistaken perspective on Mitchell’s part when he is unable to recognize the human inhabitant of a curbside bundle of rags. This mistake anticipates a tissue of ineptitude in the workplace, emotional bankruptcy in the home, and, ultimately, a state of moral nullity. The assemblage of this tissue constitutes the action of the novel.
The action takes place in four sequences. There is an ostensible lack of relationship between each of these...
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