Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Kelley has borrowed his title and epigraph from philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854): “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” The role of the individual in society and the importance of self-reliance are central themes of this novel. As Tucker tells David, “You tried to free us once, but we didn’t go and now we got to free ourselves.”

The strongest individual, who steps to no music but his own, is the African, and that trait emerges again in Tucker, the true revolutionary who refuses to join the National Society for Colored Affairs or any other group. He does not wish to destroy his society but only to change it, and he does that by renouncing or obliterating all connections with his family’s slave past, except for the small white stone that formed part of the African’s makeshift altar more than a century ago. He and the African Americans who leave the state are the real marchers.

Others try to march, but fail. The young Bennett Bradshaw, fired with enthusiasm, “walked as if to some music, a march, his arms swinging at his sides.” Later, though, he is sidetracked by greed and a desire for power, and sells out by creating his own fanatical group of followers. Young David Willson, fired from the newspaper for which he works, regrets that he lacks the courage to continue...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The quest for freedom—the main theme of A Different Drummer—has to be the individual’s responsibility. This is why the spirit of Henry David Thoreau’s insistence on self-reliance in Walden (1854) pervades the novel. It is his argument that only individuals change history, and that the powerful actions of a single person can mean more than any collective force or government.

Tucker Caliban says remarkably little in this novel and does not, like the other principal characters, have a chapter that expresses his point of view. Much of what he thinks is embodied in his actions, in his brief conversation with David Willson, and in “The African.” He is meant to be a somewhat mysterious character and to have mythic properties. In a sense, the novel’s separate chapters—each expressing a point of view—all go to sum up what Caliban knows intuitively: His strength is self-generated and stems from relying on his own counsel and not on the forming of alliances and on the politicking that distinguishes the Willsons and educated blacks who have participated in civil rights organizations.

A Different Drummer’s ending, which contrasts the lynch-mob psychology of the men on the porch with the indelible impression that Tucker Caliban has made on the mind of Mister Leland, the poor white boy, preserves the tensions between individual and collective psychology that make up the dynamic of the novel.