(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Different Drummer charts the uneasy relationship between two families, the white Willsons and black Calibans. Specifically, the book examines Tucker Caliban’s symbolic destruction of his slave past and the effects of his acts upon the townspeople of Sutton, a fictional small town in the South. Much of the novel is told in flashbacks. The present action of the novel, told from the point of view of several characters and out of chronological sequence, spans a three-day period from Thursday, May 30, when a salt truck arrives in town, through Saturday, June 1, the day of the lynching of Bennett Bradshaw.

On Thursday, the arrival of a truck loaded with rock salt creates a commotion at Sutton’s general store. The driver asks directions to the Caliban farm, part of the former Willson plantation where the first slave Caliban worked; Tucker has bought the property from David Willson. The news soon arrives that Tucker is spreading salt on his land to kill it, and the loungers at the store adjourn to watch Tucker slaughter his livestock, smash a grandfather clock that arrived on the same slave ship as his African ancestor, and burn his house to the ground. Mister Leland is there with his father, trying to understand what is happening, and Tucker tells him, “You young, ain’t you. . . . And you ain’t lost nothing, has you.” Later, the boy begins to understand that Tucker “had been robbed of something but . . . never even knew he owned what had been taken from him.”

Tucker has recognized that his family has had the chance to be truly free but has not taken it. Earlier, when he refused to give his wife a dollar to renew her membership in the National Society for Colored Affairs, he declared, “They ain’t working for my rights. . . . I’m fighting all my battles myself.” Methodically, he has set about destroying all remnants of slavery in his own life.

By Friday, the African Americans...

(The entire section is 792 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Different Drummer begins with “an excerpt from THE THUMBNAIL ALMANAC, 1961 . . . page 643” describing a fictitious Southern state, admitted to the Union in 1818, the home of Confederate General Dewey Willson, who was born in Sutton, a small town twenty-seven miles north of the Gulfport city of New Marsails. Willson was a brilliant military commander and the dominant figure in state politics after the war, and his descendants have controlled the government and the economy for generations. Yet a brief notation in the Almanac under the heading “Recent History” refers to the mysterious departure in June, 1957, of “all the state’s Negro inhabitants.” This dramatic juxtaposition of whites and blacks, of the governors and the subjects of society, provides the central focus for A Different Drummer. Somehow a whole people has heeded Henry David Thoreau’s powerful words of dissent which serve as an epigraph to the novel. Blacks have left the state hearing a “different drummer” and stepping to the “music” created by Tucker Caliban’s destruction of his farm and abandonment of the state.

In the first chapter, “The African,” men gather on the porch of Thomason’s Grocery Company to hear Mister Harper tell the story of Tucker Caliban’s ancestor, the giant African chief brought in a slave ship to New Marsails, where he was bought by the general’s father, Dewitt Willson. Only Mister Harper understands that his tall...

(The entire section is 459 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Faulkner, Howard. “The Uses of Tradition: William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer.” Modern Fiction Studies 21, no. 4 (Winter, 1975-1976): 535-542. Affirms that Kelley incorporates many of the traditions of European American literature, often ironically, including the tall tale (the African), the Transcendental notion of self-reliance (Tucker), and biblical symbolism. Also examines the influence on Kelley of southern novelist William Faulkner, as evidenced by the use of child narrators and multiple points of view and by stylistic parallels in sentence structure and the use of italics.

Harris-Lopez, Trudier. “Salting the Land but Not the Imagination: William Melvin Kelley’s A Dfferent Drummer.” In South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Extended analysis of Tucker and his relationship to Kelley’s fictional landscape.

Klotman, Phyllis Rauch. Another Man Gone: The Black Runner in Contemporary Afro-American Literature. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Examines the figure of the black runner within the larger framework of the “Running Man”—one who ultimately rejects the values of his culture or society by leaving it—in Western literature. Tucker, like his rebel ancestor the African, is able to act and has the courage to do...

(The entire section is 536 words.)