Ezekiel Mphahlele Mphahlele, Ezekiel (Vol. 133) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ezekiel Mphahlele 1919-

(Also writes as Es'kia Mphahlele) South African novelist, autobiographer, essayist, short story writer, and editor, poet, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Mphahlele's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.

Mphahlele is noted as a major African author and a provocative social critic. He is especially known for his autobiography Down Second Avenue (1959) and the novel The Wanderers (1971). His writing has been marked by the alienation and pain he experienced during three distinct periods of his life: living in South Africa from birth through early middle age; a self-imposed twenty year exile from South Africa; and his ultimate return to that nation in 1977.

Biographical Information

Mphahlele was born in the slums outside Pretoria, South Africa, in 1919. He grew up amidst abject poverty and racism. Early on, Mphahlele discovered a love of reading and actively pursued an education. He obtained his teaching certificate and began teaching in a government-run school. In 1952, Mphahlele was jailed for his vocal opposition to the Bantu Education Act, which established academic apartheid. After a prison term, Mphahlele lost his teaching post. He worked in journalism for a few years before leaving South Africa in 1957, in self-imposed exile. He and his family relocated to Nigeria, where he taught in Lagos, then in Ibadan. Mphahlele then went to Paris as the director of the African program of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. In the 1960s, Mphahlele attended the University of Denver and received his Ph.D. there, his dissertation becoming his first novel, The Wanderers (1971). He then taught at the University of Denver and the University of Pennsylvania. Mphahlele decided to return to South Africa in 1977, where he became a professor of literature at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In addition to his fiction, Mphahlele has written critical essays, autobiographies, and has edited several anthologies. He retired from teaching in 1987. Mphahlele was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature while teaching at the University of Denver.

Major Works

Down Second Avenue (1959) is Mphahlele's initial attempt at autobiography. The book describes the adversities he overcame in order to acquire an education while living in the slums of Pretoria, and then outlines the setbacks he experienced in his teaching career when he took a political stand against academic apartheid. The book concludes with Mphahlele and his family moving to Nigeria to begin anew. In The African Image (1962) Mphahlele traces what he terms “the African personality” through art, literature, and politics. In African Writing Today (1967) Mphahlele compiles a selection of writing in varied European languages representing what he felt was African literature at the time. The book contains poetry, short stories, and excerpts from novels, all of them serving as introductions to the work of disparate authors. Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays (1972) contains essays discussing literature. The title essay analyzes poetry written by black writers that arises out of political conflict. Chirundu (1981) is the story of a government minister who struggles for power in a modern, post-independent state. He eventually meets his downfall when his traditional African beliefs intrude upon his pursuit of modern comforts. His first wife charges him with bigamy, and his nephew plagues his Ministry of Transport and Public Works with a transport strike. The novel is unique in its use of three different voices to tell Chirundu's story: the title character, his nephew, and his first wife, whose first-person narrations are interspersed with dialogue from secondary characters.

Critical Reception

Critics clearly favor Mphahlele's autobiographical work over his other writings. Reviewers praise Mphahlele for his skillful evocation of the black experience in South Africa in Down Second Avenue. In her review of the book, Mercedes Mackay states, “Everyone reading this book will hope that this writer will take the best advantage of his new freedom by going on writing, for he looks like finding a place for himself as one of Africa's great writers of this century.” Critics also laud Mphahlele's more personal fiction. In Chirundu, one shortcoming that several critics note is Mphahlele's use of python symbolism which is interpreted as heavy-handed and unnecessary. Most reviewers find, however, that this flaw does not seriously mar the novel. Katherine Frank concludes, “Mphahlele is a mature as well as gifted writer, and Chirundu is the sort of powerful, ambitious novel one hopes for from an established writer.” Reaction to Mphahlele's essay collections and anthologies is more tempered. Reviewers find his anthologies to be competent and provocative introductions to his subjects, but complain that the works lack coherence and unity and occasionally fail to meet the stated objective. Ntongela Masilela asserts, “Mphahlele's recent booklet, Poetry and Humanism, exemplifies all the weaknesses that have wrought havoc in many of his writings: the absence of the sociological imagination and the presence of a skewed historical sensibility.” Many critics accuse Mphahlele of cynicism and profess a lack of understanding of Mphahlele's belief in African humanism. Despite disagreements with some of the philosophical underpinnings of Mphahlele's work, most critics argue that Mphahlele's fiction, autobiographical work, essays, and anthologies represent an important contribution to the canon of African literature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Man Must Live and Other Stories (short stories) 1947

Down Second Avenue (autobiography) 1959; reprinted, 1985

The Living and the Dead and Other Stories (short stories) 1961

The African Image (essays) 1962; revised edition, 1974

Modern African Stories [editor; with Ellis Ayitey Komey] (short stories) 1964

The Role of Education and Culture in Developing African Countries (essays) 1965

African Writing Today [editor and contributor] (anthology) 1967

In Corner B and Other Stories (short stories) 1967

The Wanderers (novel) 1971

Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays (essays) 1972

Chirundu [as Es'kia Mphahlele] (novel) 1981

Afrika My Music: An Autobiography, 1957-83 [as Es'kia Mphahlele] (autobiography) 1984

Bury Me at the Marketplace: Selected Letters of Es'kia Mphahlele, 1943–1980 [edited by N. Chabani Manganyi] (letters) 1986

Father Come Home (juvenilia) 1984

Let's Talk Writing: Poetry (essays) 1985

Let's Talk Writing: Prose (essays) 1985

Poetry and Humanism (nonfiction) 1986

Renewal Time (short stories and essays) 1988

Mercedes Mackay (review date April 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Down Second Avenue, in African Affairs, Vol. 59, No. 235, April, 1960, p. 167.

[In the following review, Mackay praises Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue for its powerful story and characterizations.]

[Down Second Avenue] is a powerful and pathetic book, explaining the degradation of Apartheid as only an African writer could do. I had always comfortably thought that the lot of a herd boy in a South African village must be preferable to that of a schoolboy in the terrible slums near Pretoria. This living description of both shows me that I am wrong. There is less cynicism in the village, but more superstition, fewer bedbugs but more lice, more milk but less medicine. Both are terrible pictures, described almost aloofly, without self pity or reproach, and with deadly truth.

Shining out of the horror are the magnificent characterisations of this gifted writer. There is Aunt Dora the indomitable brewer of illicit beer. “Her hips were large, her arms worked like pistons … her apron became her, lending her bosom a fierce and bold definition. She had a beautiful head like mother's.” Then there is the writer's grandmother, “as big as fate, as forbidding as a mountain” with her fetish for cleanliness and her religion. There is the tender portrait of the author's mother, and the terrible one of his sadistic schoolteacher. We smile at “Ma...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

T. R. M. Creighton (review date March 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The African Image, in Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. I, No. 1, March, 1963, pp. 117-18.

[In the following review, Creighton complains that Mphahlele's The African Image is a “rather foggy, disproportioned and untidy parcel of interesting reflections.”]

I know the most hideous crime in a reviewer is to review a book his author did not write instead of the one he did. But I honestly do not believe, after much thought, that [The African Image] is the book Ezekiel Mphahlele meant to write. No one of his insight, sensibility, literary distinction, and critical penetration can have meant to give us this rather foggy,...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Lyndon Harries (review date October 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of African Writing Today, in Modern Language Journal, Vol. LI, No. 6, October, 1967, pp. 366-67.

[In the following review, Harries questions the stated purpose of Mphahlele's African Writing Today,but praises the anthology as a good introduction to African writing.]

This anthology of writings [African Writing Today,] from English, French and Portuguese, all in English, by Africans excludes the work of white African writers like Paton and Gordimer. This limitation is expressly intended to reflect the fact that, according to the editor, himself an established author, “Black Africa is becoming more and more aware of itself.”...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

J. Povey (review date October 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of African Writing Today, in Africa Today, Vol. 14, No. 5, October, 1967, pp. 34-5.

[In the following review, Povey praises Mphahlele's African Writing Today, asserting, “Certainly no editor has managed through the inevitable compromises of selection, to survey African writing more fully than this humane writer and distinguished critic.”]

Several editors have tried to encompass within a short anthology the range of contemporary writing from the African continent. Ezekiel Mphahlele, himself a well-known South African author, has managed, as well as anyone, to suggest within the narrow confines of a single volume, the variety and...

(The entire section is 357 words.)

Victor J. Ramraj (review date January 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The African Image, in Ariel, Vol. VI, No. 1, January, 1975, pp. 98-9.

[In the following review, Ramraj lauds Mphahlele's study of the African image in politics, culture, and literature in The African Image.]

[The African Image] is both a socio-political and literary exploration of the African image. In adopting this dual approach, Ezekiel Mphahlele (himself a novelist and professor of English) is evidently affirming what he describes as the “urgent dual responsibility” of the African creative writer, who, caught up in his continent's inescapable racial, political and cultural conflicts, must both interpret his world imaginatively...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Richard Rive (review date August 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays, in Notes and Queries, Vol. 22, No. 8, August, 1975, pp. 383-84.

[In the following review, Rive offers qualified praise for Mphahlele's Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays.]

The main essay in this collection, [Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays,] by the South African writer and academic in exile, Dr. Ezekiel Mphahlele, is “Voices in the Whirlwind”, which stretches over more than half the book and is concerned with the meaning and function of poetry born out of a situation of political controversy and conflict found in the world of the black poet today. The author is at present...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Jacqueline Kaye (review date April 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Chirundu, in African Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 319, April, 1981, pp. 292-94.

[In the following excerpt, Kaye complains that Mphahlele had too many purposes in mind in Chirundu. She states, “The shifting tone which results from these many purposes is at times perplexing and detracts from the overall impact.”]

In Chirundu, first published in 1969 in Johannesburg, Mphalele as a South African outsider has also attempted a satire on an independent African state, Malawi. The basic plot is of the down-fall of a government minister, Chirundu, because of bigamy charges brought by his first wife under a law which makes a second marriage...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Katherine Frank (review date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Chirundu, in African Literature Today, Heinemann, 1983, pp. 233-37.

[In the following review, Frank compares Mphahlele's Chirundu to Stephen Gray’s Caltrop’s Desire, asserting that Chirundu“is a compelling, if slightly uneven, success.”]

Both Caltrop's Desire and Chirundu are by South African writers, but with that said, we exhaust all points of similarity between the two novels. In fact, despite their shared origin and contemporaneity, the two books could scarcely be less alike. Caltrop's Desire is by a white South African[, Stephen Gray,] while Chirundu is by a black; Caltrop's...

(The entire section is 1541 words.)

Martin Jarrett-Kerr (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Exile, Alienation and Literature: The Case of Es'kia Mphahlele,” in Africa Today, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1986, pp. 27-35.

[In the following essay, Jarrett-Kerr discusses how much of Mphahlele's writing derives from his sense of exile and alienation.]

Exile is a prime cause of alienation, and alienation is (surely) something to be deplored. The nineteenth-century psychotherapist was often called an “alienist.” “Alienation of the affections” seems at one time to have been an indictable offence within family case-law. And everywhere the song of the exile has been poignant:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of...

(The entire section is 3775 words.)

Gerald Chapman (essay date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Exile in Denver,” in Denver Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall, 1986, pp. 120-54.

[In the following essay, Chapman, Mphahlele's former colleague at the University of Denver, discusses the intellectual atmosphere at the University during the author's time there.]

As a young South African teacher, Es'kia Mphahlele (pronounced Emfak-KLAY-leh) was jailed briefly, in 1952, for leading opposition to the Bantu Education Act that established academic apartheid. Dismissed from teaching in government schools, he worked as a reporter and editor, then in 1957 began a twenty-year exile that stationed him and his family in various African countries such as Nigeria,...

(The entire section is 12524 words.)

Brian Worsfold (review date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bury Me at the Marketplace: Selected Letters of Es'kia Mphahlele, 1943-1980, in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 17, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 395-98.

[In the following review, Worsfold asserts that Bury Me at the Marketplace, a collection of Mphahlele's letters edited by N. Chabani Manganyi, “Read[s] at a continuous piece and not randomly, … provide[s] a vivid picture of Mphahlele, husband, father, teacher, writer, and academic, and, in the more recent pieces, as a man torn between family and friends in South Africa and family and friends in the outside world, the outcome of years spent in self-imposed exile.”]

This “Second...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)

Ntongela Masilela (review date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Poetry and Humanism: Oral Beginnings, in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 117-21.

[In the following review, Masilela discusses Mphahlele's controversial return to South Africa and concludes that the problem with the author's Poetry and Humanism “is its blissful happiness in the sunshine of bourgeois liberal humanism, when that ideology has decayed at the dawn of a new ideological age in South Africa.”]

It has been difficult for any South African for the past ten years to write dispassionately and nonpartisanly on the creative and critical works of Ezekiel Mphahlele or Es'kia Mphahlele. Both these...

(The entire section is 2083 words.)

Es'kia Mphahlele with Richard Samin (interview date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Interview: Richard Samin with Es'kia Mphahlele,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 182-200.

[In the following interview, Mphahlele discusses African humanism, his writing, and life in Africa.]

The following interview was part of a one-month research project on new developments in Black South African literature financed by the French Institute of South Africa (Johannesburg) in August 1995. It was conducted on 16 August 1995 at Professor Mphahlele's home in Lebowakgomo, near Pietersburg (Northern Province) where he has been living with his wife Rebecca since he took his retirement as Professor and Head of the Division of...

(The entire section is 10454 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Jacobson, Dan. “Barking White.” Spectator 202, No. 6828 (8 May 1959): 668.

Asserts that the best passages in Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue are those of straightforward description.

Sheckels, Jr., Theodore F. Review of Down Second Avenue. In his The Lion on the Freeway, pp. 65-80. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Discusses the restlessness in Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue.

Stein, Sylvester. Review of Down Second Avenue. Twentieth Century 165, No. 988 (June 1959): 626-27.

Praises Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue for giving “the...

(The entire section is 192 words.)