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Ezekiel Mphahlele 1919-

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(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

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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)

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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 Bottles” the Afrikaner alcoholic, and the formidable mother-in-law “Ma Lebona”. We shudder at the tension of the police raid, feel guilty sympathy for the murderer of the policeman, the gangs, and the drunks.

We follow the writer's career until he achieves his teaching post and his happy marriage. Then comes disaster as the seething politics sweep him into disfavour. He is helped by Father Huddleston and his kind, and by Nadine Gordimer and other liberals. Finally he achieves the impossible, and sails into the quiet harbour of a teaching post in the C. M. S. Grammar School, in Lagos, even joined eventually by his wife and children.

“I am sitting in the spacious garden of a Lagos house … Yes, basking in this Nigerian heat I feel cool inside me. I stretch myself like the lizards there on the warm concrete wall. I have brought with me prejudices and anger to a country where they are almost altogether alien now. I am breathing the new air of freedom, and now the barrel of gall has no bottom any more. I shall soon know what to do with this freedom.”

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.

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

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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, disproportioned and untidy parcel of interesting reflections. I think he wanted to write three books: one on the social and political phenomenon of African nationalism; one on literature in Africa; and an autobiography of his own adventures in what he calls ‘living with freedom’ in Nigeria and Britain in the five years since he left South Africa. But the phrase ‘the African image’ seems to have fascinated him into trying unsuccessfully to make an abstract thesis out of all three.

Mr. Mphahlele writes first about the conception of négritude and African personality (perceptively and on the whole, as a declared ‘non-nationalist’—an African citizen of the world—negatively); then, with justified indignation, about the position of Africans in South Africa, and the mendacious inflated attempts of the white rulers of the Federation to disguise white supremacy behind the façade of partnership; and, in a very generally critical way, about ‘the nationalist’ in politics and society. In the second section he gives synopses of the plots of large numbers of books by black and white Africans about each other and their environment, and by Africans about themselves; but there are too many unrevealing quotations and a disappointing absence of critical judgments. The book ends with some tantalising snatches of autobiography, suggesting a continuation of Down Second Avenue. But the string that should tie this untidy parcel together—any coherent definition of what is meant by the African image—is simply not there. His observation of himself, of Nigeria and Britain is precise, fastidious, idiosyncratic, and very well described; I want more of it. But the book as a whole is out of focus and lacks a central figure, like the background to a studio photograph taken without the sitter.

In the literary section it is valuable to be reminded that South Africans were writing in English and African languages well before there was much written African literature in the rest of the continent. The quotations from the pseudonymous ‘Hadi Wasuluhangeni’, Mqhayi, Dhlomo, Thomas Mofolo, Sol Plaatje and others suggest that their works are highly relevant to the incipient study of African literature. But of the contemporary scene Mr. Mphahlele has little enlightening to say, except that ‘there is no cross play of impacts between the literature of South and West Africa’ chiefly because one is free and the other under a tyranny.

The crucial questions for African literature today are those of language, form, and subject matter. Can modern African writers find the literary forms and means, in African or European languages, to express a new flowering of the imagination? Or must they go along with the rather depressing European decline which has replaced Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Gide or Proust by the modest talents of Messrs Wain, Amis, Wesker, Pinter, of Sartre, Camus, or M Robbe-Grillet? This decline is not, after all, part of their spiritual heritage and tradition, any more than the formal conventions of ‘the novel’, ‘the drama’, ‘the lyric’, or ‘the ode’, except in so far as they choose to adopt them. But their beginning is caught up in Europe's perhaps transient recession. Can they graft new living growth on to the old stock or will African literature remain a branch of the European tradition?

So far the work of African writers, some of it excellent, has been very derivative and, for wholly comprehensive reasons, too much preoccupied with the narrow theme of the meeting of black and white. They will have to get beyond this if Africa or any part of it is to establish a world literature in its own right in the next half century—and to begin with it may be easier for this to happen in free Africa than in the still enslaved South. But there is no precedent for a situation in which gifted writers all over a continent, with a strong oral tradition in their background, are using the forms and languages of an outside culture for their own purposes. I have no idea what will develop. But I should like to know what Mr. Mphahlele thinks. He himself seems to accept European literary forms as the vehicle for African expression.

He is, unavoidably, much concerned with race relations. No South African, black or white, who retains, as Mr. Mphahlele triumphantly does, a humane sense of balance, can be otherwise. But he hates race-consciousness, black or white, with a noble passion and this, it seems, is why he says he is a non-nationalist. He is not very easy to construe about this, but appears to feel uneasily that current African nationalism is in danger of neglecting the highest cultural values just as the white chauvinism it is superseding has done.

I hope Mr. Mphahlele will write all the books he has adumbrated here. And I hope he will begin with some more autobiography.

Lyndon Harries (review date October 1967)

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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.”

This is something of a cliché that does not have to be examined too closely, but it is a way of saying that in the modern world Africans are becoming increasingly aware of their common identity as black Africans and that the writings in this anthology are intended to prove it.

Such a self-conscious aim is not perhaps the best introduction to what is meant to be a representative collection of the best modern African writing. Most readers would prefer to let the writings speak for themselves. Happily it is not necessary to presume that the individual writers were concerned primarily with stating a case for “Black Africa,” except perhaps for the editor's own speech on négritude at a Conference in Dakar. Even in Sylvain Bemba's story, the leading character's purposeful meanderings which range from the starving bellies of African children through—and in the same speech—the rehabilitation of Negro music in the churches, receive the right kind of comment from his lady-friend, when she says, “You talk too much, darling.”

The editor is anxious to show from his anthology that blacks and whites do not belong to the same literary culture, but an anthology of this kind in which the writers have consciously adopted a literary medium of the whites is not a satisfactory basis for establishing such a thesis. Insofar as Africans are choosing to adopt a literary culture in a foreign language they are attempting what is for Black Africa something new. If the editor wants to show simply that some Africans write very well indeed, the contributions by Ekwensi, Soyinka, Abioseh Nicol, Camara Laye, La Guma, Matshikza and Nkosi are proof enough. But the best writing on the technical level is that which best observes the accepted canons of the literary culture of the whites, like the clever use of dialogue by the Ghanaian writer, Christina Ama Ata Aido. The work is no less African for being in a foreign medium.

The idea that African writers are expressing self-awareness only when they are describing themes or moods that are recognizably African in the geographical sense is hardly acceptable, for there are values which transcend even national identity. We are individuals first. The reader, whether black or white, seeks to identify himself through the written word with other individuals. The fact that they may be Africans in an African setting is relevant, of course, but how does one identify oneself with “Black Africa”? It is impossible to make any direct identification with a continent. Only through individuals can this be done. The concept of, say, Mother Russia is understood only through the lives of individual Russians like Dr. Zhivago. The concept of Black Africa becomes meaningful only through the interpretation of black African lives. When African writers have given us characters from their own society whose lives evoke in the reader feelings of sympathy, admiration, respect, or even complete and utter loathing, that will be the day of their achievement, the day of real awareness.

Meanwhile in the short story and especially in poetry, African writers achieve the most success. As Lewis Nkosi remarks, “Africans have a great admiration for language,” but not all that they write springs, as he suggests, from a love of flowery language. Nkosi himself knows well how to write concisely. The poets exercise the same economy of expression that can be found in African oral tradition. Joseph Kariuki's poem “New Life” and George Awoonor-Williams' “Rediscovery” are particularly effective verses, whereas the French poets, even Senghor himself, are more inclined to less economy of words and, for this reason, are in my opinion less successful.

This anthology exemplifies different styles and themes. It is an excellent introduction to modern African literature in a foreign language. The extracts from larger works are well-chosen, and will surely lead readers to seek out the complete works for a better appreciation of the authors' achievement.

J. Povey (review date October 1967)

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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 quality of the African writers' achievement [in African Writing Today]. The editor draws solely upon writing in the European languages and along with the English work he includes French, and the lesser-known Portuguese authors in translation. Prose predominates over poetry and he decides to include examples of the work of the major novelists and dramatists such as Achebe, Nzekwu and Soyinka by extracts from their books. The material is organized by countries of the writers' birth, though this can only be a geographic convenience, as one would be hard pressed to assert national differences in, say, the literatures of the West African English-speaking countries. The balance is well maintained to survey broadly and yet represent with greater emphasis the obvious predominance of Nigeria and South Africa.

There are inevitable gaps, though they may represent nothing more than a personal judgment of the reviewer. No J. P. Clark. Nothing of James Ngugi. But these are minor quibbles. Certainly no editor has managed through the inevitable compromises of selection, to survey African writing more fully than this humane writer and distinguished critic. In his introduction Mr. Mphahlele determines “to give the intelligent reader a map of themes and styles of African writing in the metropolitan languages.” For many decades, the physical maps of Africa marked only the coastal fringes—the vast unexplored interior was mysteriously blank. In our present knowledge of the African arts we are similarly ignorant. No anthology so well explores, what for too many readers are the unknown hinterlands of literature. As a guide Mr. Mphahlele's collection is warmly recommended.

Victor J. Ramraj (review date January 1975)

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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 and “act as a political man.” The study is divided into two parts: the first explores the African image in terms of politics and the politics of culture; the second, in terms of the literature by both blacks and whites. There is no deliberate attempt to synthesize or assess comparatively the images discussed in these two parts; the author is content just to juxtapose them. His purpose is less to reconcile the different images (there will always be, he states, “stubborn and insoluble tensions between the workings of the imagination and the social forces and imperatives it ‘criticizes’”), than to attempt through them to comprehend his complex, vibrant continent. He emphasizes that no single image or truth is commodious enough for the African experience.

The first chapter of Part I, “Blackness on My Mind,” examines images of the black man's powerlessness and dependence even after colonialism. The independent countries are still economically and politically manipulated by the white powers, and the colonial state of mind persists because of the deeply entrenched alien religions, languages, and philosophies of education. In Southern Africa, the images are of the culturally and economically brutalized blacks. Mphahlele, a South African, draws on his own personal experience here, and his tone is charged with anger and hatred; but he never rants or raves; his intense feelings are evoked through a disciplined, controlled, taut prose, and are complemented by historical evidence and social insight. In the subsequent chapters, he explores the various images created by black nationalists, by analysts of the African personality, and by advocates of the ideology of negritude. Since the early 60s, Mphahlele has been a fierce critic of the restrictive concepts of negritude as advanced by Senghor and others. His main argument against Senghor's negritude is that as a social concept it tends to push indiscriminately all Africans into the same fold, and as a literary principle it seeks to regimentalize the writer and to dictate themes and aesthetics. He would accept negritude if it accommodated “any kind of black consciousness. … be it just a sense of importance of being black; or black independence; or the external trappings of black pride; or the expression of blackness as a state of mind. …” The final chapter of Part I examines the images of Africa created by the American and Caribbean blacks (a romanticized motherland, an Edenic innocence, a benighted and primitive continent, etc.). This chapter is largely concerned with images found in the works of creative writers, such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Aimé Césaire; perhaps it more appropriately belongs to the literary second part.

An important literary thesis emerges from the author's account of the white writer's images of the black man (a degenerate, a rebel, a noble savage, a child of nature, a compliant figure, etc). Mphahlele believes that dehumanized caricatures and stiff stereotypes—hence bad literature—are produced by oppression. Oppression denies one race knowledge of the other; it encourages sentimental portraits of the oppressed by liberal members of the ruling race; it forces the oppressor to justify himself and to vindicate his people, thus hatching dry pamphlets and tracts where characters are sacrificed for message. Mphahlele convinces us of the validity of this thesis by concise analyses of a number of novelists including William Plomer, Alan Paton, Olive Schreiner, and Doris Lessing; and its validity justifies his extracting and isolating characters from their novels in exploring the white writers' image of the black man. However, in certain novels by black writers where the black characters are evidently portrayed as human individuals, this approach is not wholly justified. One feels that by extracting these complex characters from their novels for consideration simply as images (the rebel, the victim, the despairing and disillusioned, etc) Mphahlele is imposing rather than discovering his thesis. To see Achebe's Okonkwo (Things Fall Apart), for instance, simply as a man in revolt against white power is to falsify a richly delineated, fully rounded character. One would have liked to see the author explore the human individuality of characters who warrant it, for their individuality surely constitutes yet another African, if universal, image.

Those who know the early version of The African Image will realize that the entire first part of this new edition has been rewritten; that the chapter on the American and Caribbean response to Africa is new; and that the second part has been expanded and updated to include younger and more recent writers. When first published in 1962, this book was considered a significant contribution to the study of African literature. It remains an impressive work, both as a perceptive and inclusive consideration of the African experience, and, in sections where Mphahlele tells of his own life, as a personal testament of the inner and outer struggles of the black writer in Southern Africa.

Richard Rive (review date August 1975)

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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 lecturing in English literature at the University of Denver, Colorado, so is therefore in a strategic position to view how both the black American and African poets seek to answer that question, and to what extent, if any, socio-economic involvement and commitment is necessary. Much of this essay is taken up with a long, rambling, repetitive and over-cerebral attempt at finding a definition and function for poetry in general, only to arrive time and again at the author's thesis that great art endures because it integrates private instincts with those common to man in general within the cultural context.

A point of seeming contradiction in this section is the author's attempt to account for obscurantism in contemporary Western poetry (by which he means White Western poetry), because it is the product of a “disinherited mind”, a mind having lost its mythology and sense of the ancient past, and thus forcing its poets to create new, and often unintelligible symbols in the private sectors of their creativity. Dr. Mphahlele asks the question whether Africa will also experience this “disinherited mind”, and does not explore the fact that to the extent that it does exist, this situation is the product of urbanization and the encroachment of a materialistic culture, so that the black American poet as well as the black urbanized South African poet will be affected by such alienation, and yet this obscurantism is observable in the works of very few poets, such as the American, Leroi Jones, and the South African in exile, Keorapetse Kgositsile.

After his lengthy preamble Ezekiel Mphahlele starts coming into his own when he traces the history of poetry by blacks from Jean Brierre and Jacques Roumain of Haiti, Aimé Cesaire of Martinique (who with Leopold Sengor founded the philosophy of Negritude), to Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Dennis Brutus of South Africa and Gwendolyn Brooks of the United States in the present. He dismisses Negritude as an acceptable philosophy as it has never challenged the white power-structure, but considers the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as being important in spite of its failure, because it at least tried to prove to the white power-structure that the black writer was not only black but could also write. Dr. Mphahlele feels that the real emphasis should be the way poetry by blacks manifests itself between those who have power and the underprivileged. The second Negro Renaissance, which reflects the position of poetry by black Americans today, with the writers living under semi-military and cultural siege, is proving a threat to the white superstructure, as can be seen in the works of Don Lee.

You know
that when i dance again
it will be the
Death Dance

Ezekiel Mphahlele is at his best when analysing individual poets, and here his penetrating insight becomes apparent especially in his assessment of the poetry of Leroi Jones, whose knotted language he struggles to decode, and Dennis Brutus, possibly one of the best poets to come out of South Africa. One would be inclined to disagree with Mphahlele's dismissal of much of the poetry in that fine collection by Brutus, Letters to Martha, which he describes as “talkative verse which sounds like tired prose”. There are poems in that collection, especially in the section called “Postscript to Letters to Martha”, and “On the Island”, which are amongst the most poignant to have come out of the South African cultural desert. One would also have preferred a deeper analysis of the poetry of Wole Soyinka, instead of a far too long dissertation on the nature of power in independent Africa today, the divine right of the founder-President, as seen in Soyinka's verse drama Kongi's Harvest. And what of the poetry of Christopher Okigbo, John Pepper Clark and Arthur Nortje, which deserves mention, if only to offer a firmer basis for comparison with contemporary black American creativity? The author at no time commits himself on the question whether he accepts a black aesthetic in poetry. He accepts the black poet, but offers no clue whether he accepts black poetry. One would not expect him to commit himself on so loaded a subject, but one does seem to get hints that it is a development Mphahlele is not very sceptical about or averse to.

The other five essays, ranging in interest from a discussion of what tradition there is in African literature to censorship in South Africa, make up a collection which is very necessary in any attempt to understand with greater clarity the relationship between the black writer today, his environment, and the art he is producing.

Jacqueline Kaye (review date April 1981)

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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 illegal where both are performed under civil statutes laid down by the colonialists although polygamy remains legal where only the traditional African rites are observed. This plot has therefore something of a symbolic significance as Chirundu attempts to reconcile his traditional instincts, his desire for two wives, with his own modernity. This basic plot is muddled by the introduction of the python symbol of Nsato and by Mphalele's uncertainty about the narrative method best suited to his purposes.

The python is introduced at key moments and an irresistible parallel is suggested between this swallower-up from the animal world and those who like Chirundu are swallowing up their own countries. This parallel fails when the python is identified as the god Nsato, a figure to be worshipped and feared. The Chirundu of the novel simply lacks the force and power to make this work. Indeed at times he appears rather hesitant and confused: his actions are not those of a man ready to sacrifice all for the sake of his own personal power. He seems, for example, to retain a genuine respect for his first wife. This complexity of character goes beyond satire and is to Mphalele's credit but it only makes his ultimate purpose in the novel harder to discern and the main cause of this is his inability to sustain a point of view.

He switches between Chirundu and his nephew, the trade union leader Moyo; from Chirundu's wives to the old grandfather who in a series of monologues tells the reader the whole history of the tribes of the region which eventually became Malawi; dramatic dialogue is used in the courtroom scenes and in the jail where exiled political prisoners are held. There is no doubt that Mphalele had a serious polemical purpose in writing the novel—or rather he had many—to educate, inform, shock and encourage his readers. The shifting tone which results from these many purposes is at times perplexing and detracts from the overall impact. At the end of the novel one of the prisoners decides to return to South Africa where he will probably be killed rather than remain in a safe place where he can be no more than an impotent observer of a foreign political scene; the reader too has the impression that the author would be happier with the starker simplicities of apartheid.

Katherine Frank (review date 1983)

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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 Desire is set in the colonial era that spans the Boer War to the Second World War, while Chirundu is set for the most part in a post-independent African state; Caltrop's Desire strains after a rather brittle, self-consciously clever satire while Chirundu deftly combines epic, lyrical and tragic elements in a manner that recalls Ngugi's Petals of Blood. And, finally, Caltrop's Desire amounts to little more than a pretentious failure, while Chirundu is a compelling, if slightly uneven, success.

Gray's novel takes the form of a dying man's apologia. John Martin Caltrop, a South African journalist who has lived through, reported and been fundamentally changed by all his country's cataclysmic conflicts from the Matabeleland Campaign of 1896 through the British victory in Benoni in the Second World War, is expiring during election week in 1948. He is departing this life, in fact, precisely at the moment when all the battles he has witnessed will be irrevocably lost as the British colonial age is defeated by Afrikaner apartheid. Like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych or Browning's Bishop Blougram, Caltrop takes an unblinkered retrospective survey of his life and tries to make some sense of it, tries to determine if it has been worthwhile. As his life ebbs out in a dreary Johannesburg nursing home, he obsessively and at times incoherently reviews his past. The central question the novel poses is: Has history answered or crushed Caltrop's desire?

By his own estimation, Caltrop has been crushed. But one of the many problems in this exasperating novel is that we are never quite clear what it is that Caltrop sought. He narrates his life story as that of an impassioned odyssey, with himself a heroic, lonely questor. Much of the action recounts his one-man trek north from Capetown, bound for Cairo (‘like the Empire-builders’) in the 1890s, and the adventures and characters he encounters before he comes to a halt, marries and settles down in Kimberley. He says of this quest, ‘I was before my time, being a mounted one-man international, in quest of reconciling the nations within me into a greater whole’. Caltrop's identity, then, would seem somehow to be bound up with that of his country. Both are fractured, diffuse and deeply troubled. But the conflicting nations Gray depicts in the novel are incomplete because entirely white: British and Afrikaner. Except for two stereotyped black menials in the nursing home, Caltrop's South Africa is an uncontaminated white preserve. It is impossible, then, for us to believe in the historical veracity of Gray's South Africa, or in the hero-spokesman he has chosen to embody it. Caltrop seems an historical curiosity, a colonial anachronism for whom we can scarcely feel any nostalgia or sympathy.

Nor can we take much interest in the ‘desire’ that is supposed to be the linchpin of his personality and story. Here at the very heart of the novel is its greatest muddle. Various historical figures traipse through Caltrop's Desire, including Kruger, Baden-Powell and Mary Kingsley. But it is in connection with the nineteenth-century South African novelist Olive Schreiner that Caltrop comes as close as he ever does to disclosing his raison d'être. ‘Her desire was as thwarted as mine,’ he says, ‘and by whatever name we called it, I think we were trying merely to be decent South Africans’.

Such is the rather anti-climactic and indefinite claim of Caltrop's deathbed harangue. But even more damning than the feebleness of its message are the terms in which it is couched. Caltrop's Desire is an earnestly experimental novel consisting of disjointed utterances, fragments of memory, pompous observations. Chronology is exploded, causal connections severed, motivation obliterated. In short, it is a difficult novel, which is not a valid criticism per se, but certainly is highly objectionable when the effort the reader must exert goes largely unrewarded. Gray has read his Joyce and Faulkner and perhaps his Barth and Pynchon as well, but to little beneficial effect. Though brief, Caltrop's Desire is a tedious, derivative production, which despite its verbal fireworks remains curiously devoid of life.

Es'kia Mphahlele's Chirundu is another matter altogether. The author of several previous works of fiction and of one of the earliest critical studies of African literature, 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. The book adroitly and sensitively explores the public and private experience of one Chimba Chirundu. It is the history of his rise as an African leader and recounts the subtle stages by which he evolves from a fervent nationalist revolutionary to a power-hungry minister in a new African state, complete with all the standard paraphernalia of his station—the Mercedes, the London tailored suits, the house with the swimming pool. This, of course, is hardly a new story in the African novel. But what makes Chirundu so fascinating is that the familiar tale is told from within, largely from Chirundu's own point of view, so that it becomes a psychological as well as political account.

In addition, Mphahlele is concerned with the private, emotional toll that such a transformation brings in its wake. For Chirundu this means the disintegration of his first marriage, his illegal marriage to a second woman, and the breakdown of his relationship with a beloved nephew. The plot of the novel—the structure upon which all these emotional problems are hung—involves Chirundu's trial on charges of bigamy brought by his first wife, and a transport strike engineered by his nephew against Chirundu, the Minister of Transport and Public Works.

But interwoven with this dominant theme of Chirundu's political and personal development is a cluster of other crucial concerns: the conflict between traditional and western ways of life, personified by Chirundu's two wives (one for the ‘country’ who is loyal, brave, sensitive, and one for the ‘city’ who is sophisticated, materialistic, vacuous), the role of education in contemporary Africa, the breakdown of family bonds, the role of women, and most persistently, the drive for power. Because of Mphahlele's use of first-person narrative and the depth of his characterization, we become very close to Chirundu himself so that his fate, his corruption, seems not only frighteningly believable but also inevitable. In the end, he appears a figure of almost Shakespearian proportions, and our response to him is close to the classic one of fear and pity.

It is through his technical assurance and dexterity that Mphahlele is able to bring off his ambitious conception. The novel consists of three extended first-person narratives—Chirundu's, his first wife's, and his nephew's—interspersed with dramatic scenes of dialogue spoken by secondary characters. This complicated use of point of view is made even more complex by Mphahlele's treatment of time. The novel is narrated from a ‘present’ of April 1969—during Chirundu's bigamy trial—but the three first-person narratives move backward and forward in time so that we have a vivid picture of how and why things have reached the political and personal crisis at the heart of the novel.

There is only one way in which Mphahlele's control of the story falters and that is in his rather awkward and heavy-handed use of python symbolism. From the earliest pages of the book, Chirundu is insistently associated with the ‘nsato’ or python which crushes his victims to death. The python image fails to function as the objective correlative Mphahlele intended and instead is a useless gilding of the lily, distracting rather than illuminating. The python is trotted out at every conceivable moment and we too clearly see Mphahlele gesturing in the wings on behalf of his symbol, unnecessarily apprehensive that we shall miss his point.

But the creaking of the python is the only major flaw in this impressive and deeply moving novel. And at the very end, on the last page, the symbol suddenly springs to life. Like a dangerous caged snake, Chirundu is jailed after he is convicted of bigamy—of breaking the marriage law of the western way of life that he in all other respects so slavishly imitates. Chirundu, however, is only temporarily constrained—not vanquished. As one of the minor characters observes of Chirundu and his kind, ‘What bothers me is that they never let go once they have tasted power’.

Caltrop's death certificate reads ‘Cause of Death: Despair’. Mphahlele's conclusion to Chirundu is equally bleak. The crucial difference between the two novels is that we are unmoved by Caltrop's death and unconvinced of his world. But we are frightened by Chirundu's promised survival, and Chirundu's world is the same one we live in and see all around us, a world from which Mphahlele so eloquently shows us there is no deliverance.

Martin Jarrett-Kerr (essay date 1986)

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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 Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.(1)

It is true that Dante, when exiled from his native Florence, put a brave face on it by claiming philosophically, “My country is the whole world.” And when his recall to Florence was offered him on dishonourable terms he rejected the offer with the words “Can I not everywhere behold the light of the sun and stars; everywhere meditate the noblest truths, without appearing ingloriously and shamefully before the city and the people?” In the same stoic spirit Epictetus, born a Greek slave, had earlier urged men to claim that they were “citizens of the world” rather than “countrymen of Athens or Rome.” But these seem desperate and unreal remedies.

Is there not, however, another way of interpreting exile and alienation? Ovid was expelled from Rome (9 AD) by Augustus, partly for having offended with his Ars Amatoria, and partly for some scandal affecting the imperial family. He was sent to Tomis on the Black Sea where he wrote the Tristia and his Epistolae ex Ponto which contain moving and fine accounts of his sufferings. Or, to take a case from the Russian diaspora—dissident writers expelled from the USSR: some have bitterly complained that by this means Russia has lost those who have given most to Russian culture; whereas a few, like Joseph Brodsky, have actually had their Russian-ness enlarged, not stifled, by the acquisition of a new (the English) language.2 These are poignant examples—and many others could be adduced.3 Their achievement is to show what creative art can make of adversity.

And at the dimension of world history a similar argument is available. Marx made alienation and its cures the centre of his early work. But even he sees a kind of necessity, and therefore of opportunity, in the stages that have to be overcome—the dialectic is description, not exculpation, but his implication is that evolution is recordable. And in a narrower, more localised context, Mr. Terry Eagleton makes a similar point. He opens his Exiles and Emigrés with an extended epigram:

If it is agreed that the seven most significant writers of twentieth century English literature have been a Pole, three Americans, two Irishmen and an Englishman, then it might also be agreed that the paradox is odd enough to warrant analysis.4

This issue is raised in a striking form by the publication of two books: a Life of Es'kia Mphahlele, Exiles and Homecomings, by N. Chabani Manganyi,5 and a year later by Prof. Mphahlele's autobiography, Afrika My Music.6 The latter is a continuation of his own well-known earlier Down Second Avenue7 which appeared in 1959; this second part covers from 1957–1983. Prof. Manganyi's life is useful, particularly for the inclusion of many letters, notably between Mphahlele and his English South African friend Norah Taylor; but it is long-winded, and contains a number of tiresome and self-conscious taped discussions between Mphahlele and his friends which are embarrassingly hearty and “spontaneous.” The autobiography is sharper, concise and full of graphic descriptions and illuminating comparisons. This second part takes us from his flight from South Africa to Nigeria in 1957; his teaching in Lagos and Ibadan; to Paris as Director of the African Program of the Congress for Cultural Freedom; on to Kenya as (briefly) Director of the Chemchemi Centre; then to Denver, Colorado, for his Ph.D., which took the form of his first novel, The Wanderers,8 and earned him a teaching post at that university; while there he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature; then he was elected Professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and finally, after a preliminary visit to South Africa for a conference in 1976, he returned to his home country for good, ending up as Professor of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Mphahlele's first step towards exile was a short-term move from South Africa to Lesotho (then Basutoland). Here is what it meant to him: He went there

… in search of something. What it was I didn't know. But it was there, where it wasn't, inside me … I stood one night a few yards from the foot of a hill. You find solid palpable darkness in Basutoland … When you take the first step into exile, you take on the universe and breathe fire … Myriad voices great and small keep telling you: bitterness will sour your spirit. It will spoil the music, the poetry, and will turn you into a dilettante.9

But it was not until his final one-way ticket out that the fact of exile hit him. The first effect was surprising, exhilarating.

I kept feeling in those days of exile that that country [Nigeria] and its people were doing something to me, deep in the core of my being … Nigeria was retrieving Africa for me. It made me feel, perhaps for the first time, immensely African.10

It taught him that “back in South Africa I had always mistaken anger for bitterness … (Now) wholesome and purer emotions like anger became possible. I was free to be angry.”11

This lesson was never unlearned. But soon Nigeria, like so many of his places of exile, proved but a staging post: Paris, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, the year's stay in Kenya—they were tiring, restless, but enlarging. In Paris he mastered French with remarkable rapidity, and this opened up for him the rich world of Francophone African poets and novelists—he has done some valuable translations of some of these. But the cosmopolitan experience enabled him to take a fresh look, from inside, at “Western culture.”

In South Africa he had had a love-hate relationship with “European” (sc. “white”) culture. He had immersed himself in all that was available to him—especially poetry, drama and the novel. Indeed he was (rightly) suspicious of the desire of some white “Africanists” to preserve indigenous literature and art; he felt that their motives had been patronizing and regressive. Yet he had been aware that the black elite in South Africa could become alienated from their less literate countrypeople. Indeed, he had started a little magazine, The Voice, which was a good training for his later work on Drum magazine. The Voice concentrated on prose fiction and especially to expose the treatment of blacks on white farms, in prisons, etc. He formed a group of writers who produced a dynamic movement—“it was the black man writing for the black man … not addressing himself to the whites—no appeal or pleading to the white man to try to understand us.”12 But now, after his immersion in European life and culture he could begin to make distinctions within the white world. And when he moved to America he found yet another version of “European culture.” Older Europe had said to him that history has already been made. But

with those hamburgers, Coca-Cola and Cadillacs, Americans seemed to be saying all the time that there could be no past … History and culture were like material artifacts, something for recycling so that the present might prove more abundant. The future? It could only be resplendent in its promise.13

But he found something else which was crucial. In Denver he began to look at American negro poetry of protest, and found not only “what it feels like to be a black American,” but

if we look at the poetics that I began picking my way through, we realise this is what poetry should have been doing since man gave that first cry to articulate his feelings. Something happened to poetry subsequently that turned it into a mere cerebral activity for the poet's own private amusement or that of his coterie. This was one of the aberrations of alienated Western man. It was thus, all over again, conflict and challenge that were to shake up poetry with an awareness of mission.14

So we get a double alienation, not just of the exile from home, but also from those he is exiled among. Out of this Mphahlele develops something of a mission. He explained to an American colleague “You might say that Denver was antiseptic. Denver had no smell, you see. It's high and pure air,” whereas he needed to guide himself by his sense of smell.”15 When he bought a house in Denver its owner left a piano in the basement because it would have cost 60 dollars to remove. Mphahlele hacked it to bits with an axe. “That was a moment of glory for me. I did not see why I should inherit someone else's junk. You love your own junk because it has a smell that expresses you.16 But his mission was not only to the American whites. At a symposium on “The Function of Black Criticism at the present time” a number of distinguished African writers were present. They discussed various forms of literary expression appropriate to a black world, and Mphahlele suddenly exploded with “the novel is a bourgeois form.” Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet-novelist, took exception to this. But Mphahlele grabbed the microphone:

“No, no, no. I did not say narrative. I said the novel, which as a specific kind of narrative is bourgeois because it developed in a bourgeois culture.”17

Mphahlele's pioneer work while still in South Africa was a thesis on the black man as portrayed in South African fiction—black and white, though mostly white. This was his M. A. thesis for the University of South Africa, and it formed the basis of his first major work, The African Image.18 This was a wide-ranging, perceptive survey of the field—the first of its kind. He followed it while in Denver with a serious critical essay on “Poetry and Conflict in the Black World” which, with five other shorter essays together make up the volume Voices in the Whirlwind.19 Here he expresses, sometimes pugnaciously, views which he could never have formulated without a period of exile. He could be laudatory.

Negritude caught on with the Caribbeans and then with the Africans. And now that colonialism has receded … the Afro-Americans have taken it back and are producing volumes of verse vindicating their black pride … (They) have mastered the language of “felt thought.” They do not try to use rhetoric and do their thinking for them … The poignancy that we read in the American and Caribbean poetry of alienation shows again and again that this is where negritude began, that it was not mere gesturing but alienation felt deep down in the marrow.20

But Mphahlele is also too good a critic to let the bogus and the shoddy go by, and this has earned him some unpopularity. Thus, while accepting that negritude can be “a protest and a positive assertion of African cultural values,” he criticises

the way in which too much of the poetry inspired by it romanticises Africa—as a symbol of innocence, purity and artless primitiveness. I feel insulted when some people imply that Africa is not also a violent continent. I am a violent person and proud of it—it is often a healthy state of mind.21

Protests of course followed. In America Mphahlele found that some had formed an image of him as “a king of Afro-Saxon or Euro-African who can't be trusted to speak for Africa, is still less fitted to penetrate Black American writing.”22 And when, on his return to South Africa he visited the National University of Lesotho at Roma many students opposed him. He tried to explain that he had “come back to claim my ancestral heritage, to assert my role as a humanist,” but they still insisted that he was “a traitor to the cause in ever having returned.”23

In fact the protests were largely misplaced. What was being demanded of him was that he should become a mere propagandist. But again and again he has denounced “art as propaganda.” Many, he says, have seen African literature as “functional”—writing to advocate the black man's cause. But this draws a dangerous line of distinction.

between a function in which an author vindicates or asserts black pride or takes a sociopolitical stand, (and) a function in which he seeks to stir humanity as a whole … The functions overlap, and the bigger the rift between them the more stridently the propaganda wells out, the more life's ironies and paradoxes are overlooked, and the more the reader feels his sense of belonging assailed or unduly exploited. It is not that protest is necessarily faulty; indeed all art … is a kind of protest, a criticism of life. Much depends on the writer's vision and the way he protests.24

The problem could hardly be better stated. And the mention of “humanity as a whole” is particularly significant. For what Mphahlele is really raising here is the deepest issue of all: the relation of the particular to the universal.

Mphahlele's detailed studies of Black African, Caribbean and Afro-American writers show his concern for the particular distinctiveness of this genre of writing. But he is also aware of the ambiguities of this very distinctiveness, because his experience as a South African never left him wherever exile took him. In South Africa he was battling precisely against the (white) government's claim that

the schooling he [the black South African] had been receiving (British oriented and steered mostly by mission institutions) alienated him from his own people, and frustrated him because, as the structure of society stood, he could never compete with the white man.25

Mphahlele had to agree about the alienation. Indeed in another context, concerning the Francophone contributors to Présence Africaine (Sedar Senghor, Birago, David Diop, etc.), he himself said that

it is only the elite who have been assimilated and who assert this importance of being Negro—negritude … Poetry inspired by negritude is for an elite, because only the elite are plagued by the problem of identity.26

But the South African answer to this alienation was that of total excision: cut the black man off from “European” education and leave him with his homogeneous culture.27 Mphahlele, like all self-respecting blacks, would solve it by eliminating the barriers. That battle is still engaged.

To show his pride in the distinctive blackness of African writing he has a paper on “The Fabric of African Culture” in which he lists such features as family relationships, “rites of passage,” the relation of the individual to the group, music and dance, and loyalty to the past—the spirits and ancestors.

Always Africans gravitate towards one another in towns. A European suburb always looks dead on weekends … Africans on the other hand, swarm the streets on weekends, just walking about and visiting.28

These broad elements of the “African personality” are common to most societies on the African continent. Apart from that, “we are all ambivalent personalities, switching from one form of response to another as we find convenient.”29 Elsewhere, for instance, he says

Although I am African, the Nigerian or the Kenyan or the Zambian experience is alien to me in the cultural specifics. And if I want to explore imaginatively and sympathetically any such experience, I cannot afford to skip the specifics … I have to be alive to the similarities between my experiences and the other black man's at different periods of history.30

In fact Mphahlele turns the tables neatly on the kind of white critic who exaggerates the distinctiveness by saying (as one did) that because only the black man can write authentically about being black (a proposition with which one must agree), therefore “Negro suffering is not of the same kind as ours,” and so the non-black can never understand or enter into the emotion of a black work of art. Mphahlele's response to this was to appeal to an extremely interesting and little-known article in the British Journal of Aesthetics by an Indian philosopher, Professor Krishna R. Rayan, on the place of emotion in art. Prof. Rayan there showed that

The theory of Rasa-dhvani—The suggestion of emotion in art—first made its appearance in Sanskrit literary criticism of the ninth century through the writings of Anandarvardhana. Although T. S. Eliot did not become acquainted with Sanskrit criticism till as recently as 1955, his “objective correlative”—the formulation that “in art, states of sentience are suggested through their sensuous equivalents”—corresponds very closely to the Sanskrit theory.”31

In other words there can be unlikely correspondences of aesthetic phenomena, and even of the interpretation of them, over widely separated geographical and chronological spaces. It is interesting, by the way, that in his account of his early self-education in South Africa Mphahlele discovered

the incisive qualities of the Scottish and English ballads and saw in them an exciting affinity with the way in which the short story works: the single situation rather than a developmental series of events; … action, vivid and dramatic; singleness and intensity of emotion; … the often terrifying and intense focus on a situation … (etc.) They are so close to our own folk tales that depict violence and the supernatural.32

All this suggests that there are certain human ‘universals’ which the separate study of non-related cultures can demonstrate. Dr. Wole Soyinka has coined a valuable phrase to describe some such principle: he calls it the “metaphysics of the irreducible.”33 However much Soyinka may have on occasions disagreed with Mphahlele, it seems that they would agree upon this.

A challenge to this conception might come, indeed has come, from the political left. Dr. T. Eagleton, in the book quoted earlier, criticised T. S. Eliot's use of mythology, especially in The Waste Land, as implying that a common principle underlies all manifestations of life.

This is a fundamental presupposition of the anthropology Eliot uses … (sc.) the belief that men, always, and everywhere, are basically alike … It is a belief which Eliot certainly held. He believed in a “common principle underlying all manifestations of life” (Jessie Weston) … This belief is related to Eliot's general conservatism … To believe that all men are always and everywhere much the same is to believe that radical change (with the exception of religious, extra-cultural change) is an illusion … and is to undermine the significance of particular cultures and histories in the light of a primitive, permanent, and universal substratum of consciousness.34

However, I do not think that Mphahlele need feel that his withers can be wrung by this particular species of naive marxism. He is not so simple-minded as to hold that social change, indeed class change, is incompatible with a “profound belief in common patterns of emotional and cultural presuppositions.” Indeed, his whole career has been devoted to asserting both together. And this is underlined by a striking contrast between two works of his, both produced since the ending of his exile. The first is a novella, Father Come Home,35 in which with a remarkable power of recall he travels back to his childhood (for the story must contain elements of autobiography) to picture a barely literate boy growing up in 1913 in a Northern “Native Reserve,” whose father has deserted the family, and who sets out to find him (he is only fourteen). It is delicate, economical of words (no purple passages), poignant as well as funny, and so sharply defined that not the slightest noise, smell, encounter is swallowed up in verbal fog. Perhaps he needed to travel those thousands of jet miles over the many continents he has dropped down upon to be able to come back and see what was all the time “back there.” But the same travel will have taught him that the rich, tumultuous but devouring and debilitating experience of exile is recognisable wherever humanity has suffered it. And we can say that the Greek, the Hebrew, the Chinese, the Malay refugee could find in their own lives echoes of his recent poem, “A Prayer,” written since, and about, his final return after nineteen years of exile, to his native land:

Nineteen years I've roamed the continents
renting one glasshouse after another
whence I've gazed and gazed
upon the wilderness of exile
all around me …
still turning around in circles
sowing seed
on borrowed land
for crops we'll always have to leave behind.(36)


  1. John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, st. VII.

  2. See Henry Gifford's Review Article of Joseph Brodsky, Selected Essays (Viking Press, 1986) in the Times Literary Supplement, London, Sept. 19, 1986, p. 1019).

  3. I am grateful for some of these references to an unpublished essay on “Exile” by Mr. Richard Welch.

  4. Terry Eagleton, Exiles and Emigrés (Chatto & Windus, 1960) p. 8 (The examples he refers to are Conrad, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, & D. H. Lawrence.).

  5. N. Chabani Manganyi, Exiles and Homecomings, a Biography of Es'kia Mphahlele (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1983).

  6. Es'kia Mphahlele, Afrika My Music, an Autobiography, 1957–1933 (Ravan Press, 1984).

  7. ———. Down Second Avenue (London, Faber, 1959).

  8. ———. The Wanderers (New York, Macmillan, 1972; London, English Edition, 1973).

  9. Manganyi, op cit. 131.

  10. Ibid., p. 169.

  11. Ibid., p. 195.

  12. Ibid., p. 137.

  13. Ibid., p. 245.

  14. Mphahlele, Voices in the Whirlwind and Other Essays (New York, Hill & Wang, 1972) pp. 60–1.

  15. Manganyi, op. cit. p. 278.

  16. Afrika My Music, p. 132.

  17. Manganyi, op. cit. p. 279.

  18. Mphahlele, The African Image (London, Faber, 1966; revised and enlarged ed., 1974).

  19. See note 14, supra.

  20. Voices, pp. 190–1.

  21. Ibid., p 165.

  22. Manganyi, op. cit. p. 272.

  23. Afrika My Music, p. 212.

  24. Voices, p. 189.

  25. Ibid., p. 211.

  26. Ibid., p. 195.

  27. The insistence in 1976 of compulsory Afrikaans as the medium through which all “Bantu” education should be conducted for blacks was a political, not a pedagogic, policy, and was the final spark that ignited the Soweto explosion of that year.

  28. Voices, p. 156.

  29. Ibid., pp 157–8.

  30. Voices, p. 96.

  31. Krishna R. Rayan, “Rasa and the Objective Correlative” in The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol V, No. 3 (July 1965) pp. 246–260. Cit. Voices, pp. 77–8.

  32. Afrika My Music, p. 17.

  33. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 184. (I have discussed Soyinka's work and similar themes in comparative literature, in an extended Review-Article, “Shared Propulsions,” in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature vol. 21, no 3, April 1977, pp. 65–78).

  34. Terry Eagleton, op. cit., pp. 157–8.

  35. E. Mphahlele, Father Come Home (Ravan Press, Johannesburg), 1984 (Illustrated by Goodman Mabote).

  36. E. Mphahlele, “A Prayer,” in The Unbroken Song—Selected Writings (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1981). This volume also contains some of Prof. Mphahlele's best short stories.

Gerald Chapman (essay date Fall 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12524

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, Kenya, and Zambia, in Paris for two years, and finally in the United States. He studied and taught at the University of Denver during 1966–68 and 1970–74 before accepting a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania which, in 1982, awarded him an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters. During his exile Mphahlele became the acknowledged voice worldwide, the doyen, of black South African letters, even though all his writings were “listed” in his own country. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize. In 1977 he resigned his professorship to return home. After almost two years of local harassment and rejection, well publicized in American and European media, he was offered at last the post of Senior Research Fellow at the African Institute of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg—though required to live in Soweto. Now a Professor of African Literature at Witwatersrand, he has undertaken a major project of collecting and recording oral literature in several languages of the northern Transvaal, the region of his boyhood and family origins. He is the author of several novels, books of short stories, and critical works. A version of the following essay will appear in a global Festschrift soon to be published in South Africa.

In December 1966, just before he turned forty-seven, Es'kia (Ezekiel) Mphahlele squared to his bluebook like a schoolboy. The cowherd who first learned to read at thirteen, then persisted to earn the first M. A. ever granted “with distinction” in English at the University of South Africa, had emerged as a writer of world importance—although in exile—of stories, essays, poems, even plays. His lucid autobiography about growing up in a black ghetto, Down Second Avenue, had been translated into seventeen languages. Pioneering critic (in The African Image), founder of arts programs and writers' workshops, acknowledged friend of dozens of other writers from Wole Soyinka to Doris Lessing, he was also a much sought-after spokesman for the New Africa. His opinions graced Foreign Affairs in the same issue with Henry Kissinger's he had written for Encounter and New Statesman as well as Harvard Educational Review and Jewish Quarterly, among other periodicals with a world audience. No conference of African writers, even Francophone, was likely to convene without an invitation to exiled Mphahlele. Savants at Massachusetts Institute of Technology had sponsored a month's American visit to hear him lecture, as indeed he had lectured or consulted throughout Europe and Africa, from Tel Aviv to Ibadan and Accra, to Paris and Stockholm. Now he had wandered onto the American high plains, to Denver, Colorado, with his wife, Rebecca, four of his children, and his worldly goods, in order to study English (!) at a small private university at the foot of the American Rockies. What was he doing there? What was “English” doing there? Furthermore, he hated snow. No doubt with a guttural sigh he opened his bluebook and glided through the graduate reading examination in French (passages from Boileau, Flaubert, and Verlaine, chosen for him by me, the Chairman of the English Department, an uprooted Texan who spoke only fractured French and had never met an African before). In his hurry he mistranslated Boileau's feu séditieux (Epistle IX.61, just before Rien n'est beau que le vrai) as “evil fire”—less a political slip, one may suppose, than a self-caution, for he still faced examinations in Michael Wigglesworth and Anne Bradstreet, English metaphysical poets and prose writers, and to his tragic-mask distaste Renaissance epics in translation, including Marino. Required memorization of “facts” in the last-named course proved so irksome that Mphahlele earned a B. Nevertheless, with a heave of the heart, he would register for “Literature and Ideology of the 19th Century” in the following term, which allowed some hope, and, alas, for the Chairman's course in “Augustan Satire, Parody, and Burlesque”: here he could explore the profundities of Hudibras by reading Canto 1, followed by placid fields of heroic couplets from which the author of Down Second Avenue might acquire some principles of 18th-century gardening as well as instructive gossip about Colley Cibber and The Dunciad. The Denver system required an oral comprehensive at midcareer, and so in the following December, just before he turned forty-eight, Mphahlele endured a three-hour oral exam on the whole of English and American literature, beginning with Anglo-Saxon poems and closing, as I remember, with Conrad's Nostromo—or was it Wallace Stevens? Everyone agreed that his performance was among the best ever—so mature!—then everyone adjourned to a wild pre-Christmas party already smashing in his honor.

What must have surprised him most was that despite his rage within the sometime mask, and despite the unstable blandness of Western-American manners, he had come to like people in Denver and sometimes the place. After all the Joycean nets and more violent nets he had flown, could he be trapped now by an academic cocoon, in high-plains suburbia? By the following August, now in 1968—as student riots still erupted across France—he was winging to Lusaka, Zambia, against his will, virtually stateless, his American visa lapsed, again with wife and worldly goods and the two younger children, but now with an earned doctorate in “English.” In the 1960s a doctoral degree was an economic passport in no matter what country, and he had needed one. Dr. Mphahlele could make a living somewhere, say Canada or Brazil, until, some day, he would go home.

What may smell like a quick-fix degree on the American plains was in fact a triumph of educational good sense on the part of many people, not least Mphahlele himself. He had heard about the Denver doctorate in creative writing from Herbert Shore, a specialist in African theatre appointed at Denver but on leave in Tanzania. Shore wrote to me two long, warmly detailed appreciations of Mphahlele in March 1966, but I was slow on the uptake. Granted, internationalism and especially “non-Western studies” were the cry everywhere, and at Denver had developed an African pitch. The Social Science Foundation on campus, dating back to 1926, had pioneered in international academic programs while America as a whole remained isolationist. Redesigned in 1960 as the Graduate School of International Studies, GSIS expanded its elite faculty from four to eleven and by 1966 had 120 students from around the world, two thirds of them doctoral. One graduate was already a director in the Ford Foundation's African program; another was Secretary to the Organization for African Unity. (The witty Edward Miles, an American black specializing in marine law and soon to become an intimate friend, had graduated from GSIS, then joined its faculty, in 1965, the year before Mphahlele arrived.) In 1964 a special summer program on Africa, closing with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation's Conference on Leadership Training, had climaxed the University's centennial celebration. Ambassadors and other celebrities, including Wole Soyinka, had gathered in Denver from eight African countries; for the occasion Shore had staged Soyinka's Drums and Voices with an all-black American cast. In short, a tide of “non-Western studies” was mounting everywhere. (On November 20, 1962, to pick a date, an unofficial Swahili class met at 4:30 p.m. in University Hall, Room 20—nothing similar could happen now.) Piles of applications for “English” landed on my desk—what did these people around the globe imagine that “English” would be?—most of them from applicants impossible to help or even to admit for graduate study, though into our back-country program had wandered graduate students from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Tunisia. Mphahlele, impressive on paper beyond doubt, needed more than the $2000 fellowship that I could swing. Why should he come out here? But since in early May he would star, along with Soyinka again, at a writers' conference nearby, an interview was only courtesy if he really wanted one. Besides, I had never met an African.

Now almost twenty years later, I cannot remember a word that was said. A stocky, very civil black gentleman with traveler's fatigue and a fixed smile scrutinized me to the bone, and I remember a dazed conviction that something must be done, would be done! here and now. Within a few hours we broke into administrative schedules, entrusting details to a new and extraordinary young dean, Edward Lindell; the director of creative writing was consulted; and it was settled: a title of visiting lecturer to assure his visa, a stipend of $4250 plus tuition and fees, the remainder up to $9000 to be supplied by the Farfield Foundation in New York, moving expenses from Nairobi to be paid by the Congress of Cultural Freedom in Paris. Mphahlele had come provided! A few weeks later I joked that such bounty descends only from the CIA or a Communist front. As we know now, though not even Mphahlele knew at the time, it was indeed an assist from the CIA in one of its more statesmanlike operations.

In two calendar years of hard work, continuing summers, Zeke, as he chose to be called, satisfied requirements for a doctorate in “English” as rigorous as those on any but a few American campuses at the time. To be sure, his “creative” dissertation—a first novel, The Wanderers—would have been accepted nowhere else except the University of Iowa, even though within a few months it had won first prize as the best African novel of the year (from African Arts magazine at the University of California). The program at Denver was not slack. It afforded him technical study of fiction and personal friendship with John Williams only a few years before his National Book Award, a seminar on Shakespeare from Gunnar Boklund, who at the moment had just supervised the translation of all Shakespeare into Swedish, metaphysical lyric from Harold Priest two years after his award of a Medaglio Culturale, American literature with Robert Richardson, 19th-century prose and ideas with Burton Feldman, to name only a few of his classroom teachers the first year. Yet it is probably true that, given Zeke's age and interests, and partly because he was “overqualified,” none of the big-name programs in English would have accepted him as a student or have given him the help he wanted. It is also true that in 1968, some twenty-one years after its founding, the creative writing doctorate at the University of Denver, though uncelebrated, was unique on earth. (Donald Davie knew about it while still at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and recommended some students.) Anything less, I believe, could not have kept a Mphahlele—or, in other ways, a Boklund, whose European reputation as a scholar rivaled that, in the same generation, of Mphahlele as a writer. Boklund's appearance in an “English” department in Denver, Colorado, should have been no less startling. Why was he there?

The creative writing doctorate at Iowa was the first established; and in its separate administration, under Paul Engle, its well-funded workshops and visiting writers-in-residence, it has been more often imitated by the many doctoral programs that now exist in the United States. It was the conservatory idea transferred to letters. Veterans of World War II returned hungry for change, impatient of pedantries: both programs sprung from their needs for tailor-made criticism and for the solace of hobnobbing with other hopefuls in a literate milieu where writing could be lived all day for its own sake. The Denver program, however, was fixed squarely in an “English” department. It promoted a living give-and-take of creative with scholarly and scholarly with creative that is not practical with all faculties, or perhaps with any faculty (or students) at all times. It grew upon principles all its own, more from common-sense discoveries and initiatives than from a theory of what ought to be. Born of necessity—that is, without creative writing no academic doctorate could have taken root at such an impoverished back-country school with so poor a library—it discovered also an interdependence: at one height, the “belated” writer at mid-century who must clear an “imaginative space” for himself while shouldering “the burden of the past” (to use terms of later fashioning) often needs a university, its historic institutions and intellectual standards, its ambience of learning, its readership, and sometimes its salaries. More widely, for several generations of “literary” Americans there was just nowhere else to go, no other oasis in reach. As in Stoner, Williams' powerful tale of William Stoner, who moves from unlettered farmboy to run-of-the-mill medievalist (though with a dignity in the achievement that is an end in itself), they found themselves arriving at adult years still having to search in the loneliness of books or in routines of “higher” education for an authentic “high” culture that seemed always to have happened somewhere else some other time, to somebody else. The university (or the college) at least awakened and protected the search. Is Africa so different?

The founder of the program at Denver, Alan Swallow, a native of Wyoming, was the program from 1947 to 1954. After a doctorate in English at Louisiana State, where The Southern Review was at its peak and Robert Penn Warren a personal mentor, he returned to the plains believing that as the time of Southern Romanticism was passing in literature, the time of the West had arrived. Regionalism could make sense until the late 1960s. He also founded the innovative University of Denver Press whose list included Yvor Winters, J. V. Cunningham, and other “Westerners”—the first university press also to publish new fiction. When the university in one of its periodic slumps toward bankruptcy canceled the press, he resigned in anger and, two blocks from campus, ran the now historic Swallow Press until his death in 1966. His former student, John Williams, a native Texan, replaced him on the faculty in 1954 after finishing a doctorate at Missouri. (Williams' first important novel, Butcher's Crossing, 1960, is among the most truthful in the “Western regionalist” mode, just as his latest to date, Augustus, witnesses a necessary transcendence of it: by 1972 only a larger perspective on civilization in history made sense.) He kept the program alive more or less single-handedly until joined by—significantly, a New Yorker—Seymour Epstein in 1969, and of course by the African Mphahlele. The program has never had more than its present four appointments exclusive of academic colleagues intermingling with it, and its writers have chosen to teach academic courses also. It came to life or failed as part of the spirit of a place at a given moment, a friendship and esprit de corps as well as a set of requirements, and in the “merged” quality of what was likely to be hoped for, sought or debated. Young (or older) writers met the same basic requirements as young scholars or teachers (for example, Anglo-Saxon as well as contemporary American poetry, history of criticism as well as style and prosody); crossovers between programs were common. In its somewhat naive commitment to produce “educated” writers on the plains, it had a touch of the classic, including somewhat formalistic or purist norms of good writing. Yet it was frontier-exciting in its no less naive insistence, perhaps Emersonian, perhaps Western-egalitarian, that all literature, no matter how polished and canonized, should be studied for its potential to become contemporary. Every work of literature had been made once upon a time by a flesh-and-blood being in an anxious present; even Shakespeare penning The Tempest (or Butler penning Hudibras) had also to suffer the resistance of words and the horror of unfinished pages, in the subversions of time. And so, the scholarly to-be-studied and the creative to-be-made could be symbiotic in vision, at least in that most visionary and privileged of all places a university.

But the program lived also because particular and extraordinary people wandered together at a particular and extraordinary time. An Mphahlele could be allowed his own speed without threat to either side, scholarly or creative, and without boredom could feel so surprisingly at home, at least for a couple of years, that he almost stopped his wanderings. After two harsh years in Zambia, where he reported himself, however teasingly, as “homesick for Denver,” he returned as associate professor from 1970 to 1973 (indeed he did not resign until 1974), only to be puzzled by changes he could not explain, not all of them his own restlessness. Despite the congenial chairmanship of Richardson from 1968 to 1973 and a mature, rather cosmopolitan department that had acquired the German medievalist Joerg Fichte (who became chairman at Tübingen), the New Zealander-Londoner Eric Gould (now chairman at Denver), Margaret McIntosh (now Director of Women's Studies at Wellesley), the poets Robert Pawlowski (now chairman at a Florida university) and William Zaranka (now a dean at Denver), and other notables, he was still not home. The high-plains air was too thin. He moved east to the larger, more urban and varied University of Pennsylvania; and though he returned as visiting professor (of creative writing and black novel) in the spring of 1981, the excitement of Denver had passed for him.

Perhaps a story so strange, if only as an episode in a great life, is worth telling, and pondering. It could not happen now. The fate of the university and the department during the 1960s was part of it; the character or failure of individuals, the rich ambiguity of “English,” perhaps even the fate and character of America, were part of it. One is hard pressed to say plainly just what “it” was, though I will try to say before I close. Whatever it was happened also to Boklund, who in 1963 ventured to Denver as a one-year visiting professor but decided to stay on. He returned to Sweden in 1968 to assume a chair in English at Uppsala, at the same time that Mphahlele left for Zambia. Three years later, however, he resigned at Uppsala and moved back to Denver permanently, also to find himself gradually baffled. What happened?

In 1966, when Mphahlele arrived, the University of Denver was a sparse campus of almost chance architecture, mixing granite Victorian pile with a sprinkling of World War II wooden barracks, an ornate Edwardian chapel (now burned) with contemporary-functional structures, two of them having stylish facades. A pseudo-Gothic pinkish brick library dating from 1931, with distinctive square tower and creamy cement ornamentation, dominated the campus but is no longer used except for offices and classrooms. A giant reconverted hangar, dismantled from an army installation in Idaho, served for a fieldhouse: its hockey rink and basketball court were disassembled for convocations and rallies or student registrations. Alongside it lurked a decayed football stadium used for track events and rented on the Fourth of July for patriotic fireworks displays by the American Legion. The English Department, then as now, nestled in a squarish wing of three-story red-brick apartments built in 1950 as student housing; almost every “office” still adjoins a bathroom cluttered with storage, whose tub and shower are never used and are probably unusable. A busy traffic artery bisecting the campus made going to class an unaesthetic adventure, despite panoramic glimpses of the mountains. Yet even in its homeliness the place had a human scale and a special energy. If Mphahlele misjudged what its future would be, he belonged in 1966 to a host of wishful judges. Only six years before, the university had been singled out by the Ford Foundation, along with five other “regional” private universities, for a “challenge grant” of $5,000,000, mainly for faculty and programs, to be matched over three years by gifts and grants of $10,000,000. The other universities were major ones with major endowments: Chicago (for the Midwestern region), Johns Hopkins (for the Midatlantic), Stanford (on the West Coast), Vanderbilt (in the South), and in the following year Brown (for the Northeast). As if overnight the University of Denver, still joked about locally as “Tramway Tech” long after the trams had gone, and best known for its championship hockey and ski teams (called the Pioneers but filled with subsidized Canadians and Norwegians), soared into national view.

A glamour of public image coincided with geography, demographics, and expansive times: despite fine state universities no other private university existed within a rough radius of eight hundred miles enclosing one of the fastest-growing populations and local economies in the United States. Within a few years 80 percent of its student body (double what it had been) was coming from out of state or abroad. A wave of new and often exceptional faculty migrated with them. As so often in America, the injection of money not only opened opportunities but conferred importance: respect from outside, especially from The People Who Count, made more comfortable, even possible, a faith in oneself and the worth of one's homemade products, or dreams, in the here and now. The University of Denver could appear both to itself and to others as not just promising but destined, though still with some of the gawkiness, or hangdog evasive air, of an arriviste or late starter.

A few days after announcement of the grant, on September 28, 1960, Chancellor Chester M. Alter set forth a “blueprint” of priorities “both for the immediate three- or four-year future and for the decade, indeed the century” (!) in a crisply confident speech—New Goals, New Tasks—that could as well have been entitled Great Anticipations. Denver, in a spirit of the new West, would anticipate the future from “peaks of excellence” within interdisciplinary enclaves (college, center, school, or institute) reminiscent somehow of the task forces that won World War II. The College of Law, for example, would move beyond old-fashioned precedent law to “anticpated solutions” law, organizing team research in all the fast-developing social sciences to be prepared for the unique legal problems sure to arise in late 20th-century society, local and global. The dream stirs even yet. Similar adaptation of traditional disciplines to the fresh curve of contemporary needs would occur in the long-established School of Business and Public Management (still existing), in the new Boettcher Center of Science, Engineering and Research (still a name for decentered groups) where physics, chemistry, and mathematics would interact with the already vast, government-funded applied projects of the Denver Research Institute (just hanging on); in the School of Communications (now defunct) where art, music, journalism, radio-television, speech, and theatre would intermix; in the Graduate School of International Studies (still existing) interacting with a new American studies doctorate in history (now defunct). But the priority of priorities, if Denver were to become a great university of the future, must be “a renascence [it is not explained when the nascence had been] of humanistic studies: literature, philosophy, religion, languages and the arts.” In short, culture. Lots of it.

The progenitor of such light, Chancellor Alter—an astute and honest leader—had been a metallurgist in the awesome project that only four hundred miles south, on the site of Los Alamos Ranch School, had built the first atom bomb. He had seen the desert bloom with strange things when great men gather from around the world. A generous, often shrewdly practical man, a man of good will and responsibility who could read the newspapers, he saw also with compassion a “new and revolutionary world order” at mid-century in which “the seething discontent of colonial peoples” and “rising tides of nationalism” had produced new nation-states in need of new kinds of assistance and understanding: the West must help them while at the same time winning the power struggle worldwide with Communism. Possibly the gravest danger, short of atomic annihilation, would be lost comprehension of “the humane and social values” for which alone all those struggles were justified, and hence the mission of a great university in the American heartland to make of those values “the powerful and magnetic pole stars that surely they should be.” His own favorite poet was James Whitcomb Riley. Not always a model of sophistication, in 1963 he welcomed the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association to its convention in Denver by expressing profound thanks for English, regretting that any other languages still existed, and looking forward to their demise. Yet he had the courage of make-believe—what else is humane on the plains? how else does culture begin anywhere? how else did it begin 40,000 years ago, among wanderers on the plains? If you're short of a world, make one up; if you can't be for real, go for show; wishes are better than nothing, and sometimes they work. And so, anticipating again, he wished for “what might be called a Center of Humanistic Studies” at which “highly promising or established scholars from all over the nation—perhaps the world” (!) would gather, right here in Denver, Colorado, to study “the whole major problem of the place of humane values in higher education and in our world society” and especially “American Values in the Twentieth Century.” For the Chancellor this meant freedom and a good-natured piety in which Hegel and science were somehow leveled into Methodism, with perhaps a touch of Matthew Arnold or other 19th-century liberal values. A quotation from John Wesley in 1780 says it all: “Preach expressly on education. … ‘But I have no gift for this!’ Gift or no gift, you are to do it; else you are not called. … Do it as you can, till you can do it as you would.”1 Nobody who knew the University of Denver in the 1960s is likely to forget the intoxicating optimism that “anything is possible” (or was it a saving illusion?) blurring an everyday world stubbornly spare and dull, the bewilderment of one's own urgency to build from little or nothing, in the middle of nowhere, what on earth no one could say, the day-by-day discovery that despite all the hurrahs in which one busily joined, at evening one was still rather out of pockets and unadvanced on empty plains under a brilliantly empty sky. A noble naiveté and its rhetoric could hide for a while, but not altogether, how close one still was to the Western frontier, barely a century in the past and not always so far. The cost of such innocence had to be unreality. When I first arrived at the university, having yet to publish a book, I was commended, in sober daylight, to consider myself a member of the Center of Humanistic Studies, as soon as it existed. Another bewildered though well-published member, a European, was added the following year with the arrival of Wolfgang Yourgrau—a truly eminent mathematical physicist and philosopher of science, later a winner of the Einstein Medal from East Germany. I don't believe the Center of Humanistic Studies was ever heard about again. (To its credit the university hired the individual in its purview and budget at the moment, without standing upon technicalities or fussing over symmetries. It did as it could.)

Part of what happened, but only part, should be credited to Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs Robert S. McCollum and his many helpers. To quote a student yearbook of 1965, still in the days of innocence: he “helped create,” which is to say market, “an intellectual atmosphere. At the same time, aided by modern advertising techniques [his] office built the reputation of the university through national publicity.” Only two years before Mphahlele arrived, even Gordon Ray, head of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, had bought the “concept”: in a commencement address at the University of Colorado nearby, he announced his belief that although the Rocky Mountain region could not compete at the expensive outer edge of scientific research, its universities might become truly great centers of humanistic study. Many of the faculty drifting in believed no less, and stayed to take part. Innocence had become a source of dynamism and hope—and also, let it be conceded, of some high accomplishments. Somewhere in the early to mid 1970s, however, unable to yield the dying image, many at the university—even Dean Lindell, who resigned in 1976—would find themselves playing at being, as if an image hard enough believed in might come alive somehow, no matter what the objective conditions. In the fall of 1967, Mphahlele's last “student” year, a new Chancellor took up the torch, the playful and sophisticated Maurice Mitchell, head of Encyclopedia Britannica, a former radio announcer become tough businessman and eloquent spokesman for civil rights. Anticipations soared even higher. Though admittedly no scholar, he accepted university office, he said in retrospect, because he “felt that here at Denver this country might have one of its last chances (!) to build a great private university in a world that is becoming increasingly state dominated … a private university has a special destiny, and I still believe that right here at Denver this country can put its foot down again and build … an outpost in private higher education.” The self-betrayal of the rhetoric is quoted from 1975, in an interview for the yearbook, when the truest conviction left is that of approaching insolvency and disappointment. The faith bright and new ten years before had gone.

Now perhaps one should ask not so much “What happened?” as “What was missing that things could go so wrong?” Money? character? leadership? realism? culture? mellowing time? politico-economic conjunctions (to be invoked, like astrological conjunctions, when one does not know but needs to believe in something)?

A spirit of palpably comic illusion had emerged from the centennial celebration of 1964, whose kick off had also been signaled in New Goals, New Tasks. In fact, in another anticipation, Chancellor Alter had squirreled away $10,000 a year since 1953, his first year in office, to stage an extravaganza nobody would forget. The year-long carnival had something satisfying in it for everybody, even the cynics, and reinforced a public-affairs image of the University of Denver as “where the action is.” For the rest of the 1960s almost every profitable amazement—including the arrival of Mphahlele—could be regarded, in the phrase of the day, as a “spin off” from the centennial year investment. In no small degree the spirit of the university which Mphahlele enjoyed in 1966 to 1968, and Boklund even longer from 1963, was a spin off from the annus mirabilis. Lectures, symposia, faculty seminars, conferences, concerts, panel discussions—all year long large audiences (nine hundred and more were common) had gathered to watch a sparkling rotation of ambassadors, celebrities, prestigious thinkers and academics, from U Thant and Anatoliy Dobrinin to Perle Mesta and George Wallace, from Martin Luther King, Barbara Ward, and Fred Hoyle, to Milton Caniff (creator of the cartoon Steve Canyon) and Otto Preminger (pioneer of film noir and the wide screen), to name only a few who stamp the time. The Departments of English and Theatre co-sponsored a very successful lecture series, published the following year by Princeton University Press, on Shakespeare, whose quadricentennial had the good luck to coincide. A centennial symphony, commissioned from the Hungarian composer George Barati, was performed, and also a centennial opera on a Western theme, The Hanging Judge, by the resident composer, Normand Lockwood. A centennial painting, which still adorns one of the Centennial Hall dormitories, as well as a fancy ceremonial mace for processions and one hundred bronze paperweight medallions, exploded from the School of Art. During the winter term, seniors (male) conducted a beard-growing contest to commemorate the West of a hundred years past. Other students battled in the GE College Bowl on national television: clearly the university had gone on the move. Especially colorful on March 5 was the congratulatory procession of over 150 representatives of universities and colleges from around the world—marching soberly in the chronological order of their founding dates, as if they had prepared the way for Denver—to a convocation address in the reconverted hangar by W. Averill Harriman. A time capsule, an eighteen-inch tube designed by the Denver Research Institute, was buried to entertain and instruct the future with an image of the way we were. Those lucky enough to be alive in 2064 may study a microfilm of the student newspaper (whose name is The Clarion), college bulletins, a pictorial history of the university commissioned for the centennial, one of the one hundred medallions, and autograph messages of warm congratulations to the university solicited from the following people who had nothing else to do, before or after, with the university: President Lyndon Baines Johnson (who however would put the nation's foot down on campus to receive an honorary degree in August 19662), Albert Schweitzer (who nevertheless had changed planes in Denver on the way to Aspen in 1949), Bertrand Russell, Wernher von Braun, C. P. Snow, Bing Crosby, Norman Vincent Peale, Everett Dirksen, Dean Rusk (who however would speak at dedication ceremonies in 1967 for the new GSIS building), and Walt Disney. The last-named may seem the most appropriate, though one never knows which talisman may work. (Chancellor Mitchell would later have hopes of getting money from the Disney empire, but no luck.) A clear need was to reach up from those dry dead plains to Guaranteed Important People Somewhere, one or two of whose names may still be identifiable in 2064, as Ionian farmers had revered Olympian gods, or nearer in time as Plattes and Arapahoes had called upon ancestral happy-lands for benevolent energies to flow in aid. One might smile more comfortably if one could be sure that writers, critics, scholars, and those who teach the works of writers, critics, and scholars, are less cultic in devotions, or less pathetic in our summonses for help on the plains to Saints Aristotle, Shakespeare, Emerson, or Flaubert, or Bishops T. S. Eliot and Leavis, Paul de Man and Derrida. What is “English”? Not to mention our frantic telegraphy, RSVP, to ACLS, NEA, NEH, the Guggenheim Foundation, or any others who might be listening.

An expanded Department of English was assuredly required by the times. In 1959, before Ford, it had dwindled to only four full-time faculty and two graduate fellows, all of them able but overworked and despondent. By 1966, when Mphahlele arrived, it had twenty-five buoyant full-time faculty including an endowed chair, an adjunct professor (the medievalist Anne Fuller, under whom Mphahlele also studied—until recently a vice chancellor in Texas), two contributing lecturers from other departments, and about twenty graduate fellows. (In 1968, when he left for Zambia, the department had hit its ceiling of twenty-nine full-time faculty; it now has eighteen.) Even small signs confirmed what the heart was saying—for example, the physical move in 1965 from one red-brick complex to another nearby, from sharing quarters with the Hotel and Restaurant Management School to a wing of the department's own: custom-made bookshelves, new desks, chairs, and filing cabinets for newly painted “offices,” and passageways broken through walls or closets to make the building more labyrinthine-interesting as well as more practical. Such rocketing growth left everyone woozy with excitement but also apprehensive, not to say apocalyptic on bad days. What goes up may come down. Annual reports for the period reveal a department living always at the edge, whether of glory or precipitous unraveling nobody could tell. It was wonderful.

To concede commonplaces: times of growth and hope will be penetrated, as Matthew Arnold might say, by illusions, of necessity; memory is always selective and so is perception; any effort to be just to a youthful time must steer between sentimentality and antiquarianism. Most of the tenured or soon-to-be-tenured faculty were youngish as the profession goes, in early thirties to late forties; no futures seemed closed. To lure and keep top youngish faculty was a top priority and challenge. Numbers of graduate students, on the other hand, perhaps most of the doctoral candidates, were oldish, near the age of the faculty (if not older), many of them experienced writers or teachers. (At a physically young forty-seven, Zeke was not altogether out of line.) In addition, there were always select mature officers on academic leave from the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs seventy miles south: most of its English faculty at the time had studied at Denver. Dropping out a decade didn't matter as it would now. When jobs abounded, it was never too late for sidetracked or hard-luck talents to begin, or begin over, if a graduate school would have you. A university so unendowed as Denver (ca. $12,000,000 when Zeke arrived) would have you if it could. The university lived nerve-wrackingly near hand-to-mouth on tuition and fees, as it still does. Students were encouraged to take lots of courses, especially in English though not necessarily with greed aforethought: in the glow of 1960 the department, rebellious at meeting every class a deadly five days (hours) a week, shifted to a more respectable three-hour norm even though degree requirements for total hours in the College of Arts and Sciences (now defunct) remained the same. The resulting extra load of courses, almost a third more, was softened by generous independent study and independent research arrangements, but it could be onerous. The poet Robert Pawlowski, at age thirty-six, entered at the same time as Mphahlele (the two became and remain friends): he was not unusual in taking twenty-one separate courses, including four transferred from Iowa, and six independent studies or researches beyond the M. A. Mphahlele was unprecedented in that after his first fourteen courses and oral comprehensive, he was set free from the classroom for a record twelve independent studies or researches (including “Modern Fiction,” “Modern Poetry,” “Whitman”—and more “Augustan Satire”). No one else has finished a doctorate so rapidly. Despite high teaching loads, low salaries, pinched library, remote location, nation-wide mobility and competition by better-endowed schools, Denver managed surprising excellence by serendipity and ad hoc personal accommodations—for example, by finding strong talents and setting them free to take responsibility early whether for advanced courses or whole programs, indeed cheering them on to experiment and invent—and by its attractive, indefinable atmosphere. There emerged a laissez-faire atmosphere of almost family-like acceptance of differences and even defects, whose built-in flaw was that visions of excellence might be displaced in time by the bond of family. But for the time that was, the standard curriculum blossomed gradually with glorious sports and hybrids, whose effect was not dissipation but reassurance that no good idea would be lost for lack of welcome and a trial (including from time to time Mphahlele's dyspeptic militancies: “Well, he has a right to feel that way. I would too …”). Nobody need fear when everybody dared for the common good, or so it was possible, even easy, to believe in 1966 and a while longer.

The department, like the university at large,3 would mature its center by steady innovation at the edges, or so it liked to suppose. Conscious of style's importance, it saw itself as a free-wheeling, imaginative faculty able and glad to teach around mixedly—for was not literature one? If in Paris Blanchot was heralding “the death of literature,” we had not heard of it yet. Not half the ideas floating about could be funded. What about restoring the University of Denver Press?—the hope was cherished for years. What if a foundation would microfilm the Vatican for us! or better yet, the British Library, well some part of it, the Manuscript Room? Richardson and I flew to St. Louis at the expense of Dean Lindell—I forget the year—to see how St. Louis University had managed with the Vatican. What about a crash program in two or more foreign languages for the faculty, well anyhow the humanities faculty, so that, say in five years, we would all chatter at each other, in hallways and classrooms, in two or more foreign languages? That would be different. I wanted an interdepartmental doctorate in the style of the foundation-supported Stanford Graduate Program in Humanities but less rigidly bureaucratic, more open to critical theory, and of course parallel to, intersecting with, the program in creative writing. We must be patient and await strong graduate faculties in allied departments—but they were coming, never fear. (We are still waiting, and now the English doctorate has been threatened with dissolution by an administration clique reinfatuated with “communications.”) More than once I remember sober discussion about listing European-style, or more nearly perhaps like TV-Guide, all the hundreds of classroom lectures or discussions conducted by the department each quarter, and throwing them open to all comers, free of charge or admission requirements. Why not a confluent (not to say confounded) campus? What learning gets lost behind doors every day! Let the word go forth: Joseph Andrews, Lecture #3, University Hall 35, Monday, 11 a.m.—Middleton's The Changeling, Lecture #1, etc.—Introduction to the American Renaissance—Comparative Prosody of Hardy and Stevens, etc. Perhaps the best could be taped for daily consumption on intracampus television: we were good enough, and with public exposure would get better, while culture-hungry public, faculty, and students, even an occasional lost administrator, would of course crowd round to receive the good news. For were not humanities the centrally human care? and was not literature the central humanity? Where but in words is the word/Word? As time went on—as soon as possible—others would join to multiply our light with lectures “On the Nonuniqueness of Oseen Flow Past a Half Plane” or “The Jacobins of Auvergne.” Imagine the campus agroan with lectures day and night! To be sure, experimental course multiplication, established everywhere in the United States, not just in Denver, in the 1960s, flourished far into the 1970s, and even now has its national monument—but without a center—in the happy chaos of section meetings every year at the convention of the Modern Language Association. Our version, however, was more like trying to create a locale, or at least an ambience of “connection,” of learning in community. By the time Mphahlele returned to Denver in 1970, his stunning bouquet of African and black courses4 were seen not as exotica but as natural expressions of “English” for the times, as indeed they were. They snuggled right at home in the summer of 1970 with “English” courses such as Visiting Professor Ello Gianturco's “Italian Renaissance and Its Expansion in England, France, and Spain,” and Visiting Professor (Air Force Colonel) Jesse Gatlin's “20th Century Southern American Literature.”

Behind all this joyous burble, whose details can only be sampled, was a selflessness of commitment and a purity of intention, almost a religious intention, certainly a duty to something like “humanistic culture” or interchangeably “education,” especially a Schilleresque “aesthetic education” or a Faustian flight from das Gemeine—we had a genuine hunger for making the humanities happen on the plains, for making the best thought, said, and imagined prevail right now, in one's own time and place, on the plains. The chancellor should have been proud; and indeed he always supported us. Action toward culture guaranteed hope; hope made possible action. And of course, the truth was: we were only a fraction, rather a small, provincial, do-it-as-you-can, not very important fraction, of America during the 1960s.

From such a ferment of cultural dream with ad hoc opportunism, the Denver Quarterly popped into existence. John Williams had submitted a proposal, with my covering letter, in 1963; but it was not until 1965 that a chance broke open to fund it. Two unexpected resignations from the family (Harvey Gross and the medievalist John Adams) threatened momentum and morale just as it was going strong. Immediately I proposed to Chancellor Alter that we turn disaster into gain by diverting part of a salary. He summoned not only his Arts and Sciences dean, the wise James Perdue, but also his vice chancellors. The project, it was argued, would be important in itself, humanistic and pioneering, but also a regular advertisement around the country, perhaps the world(!), for the university. In a short afternoon, the remarkable man agreed; that was the kind of talk he liked, but also, like any true leader, he had meant what he said, and was part of what he meant. Williams' first issue appeared in the spring of 1966, shortly before Mphahlele arrived for his interview. Eight editors and two associate editors later, all unpaid and largely unstaffed, it still exists with distinction despite periodic threats to kill it, as the university press had been killed before. The jaunty subtitle A Journal of Modern Culture was dropped in 1975 during the year I served as editor in chief. But it had captured the mood of the department in the late 1960s of openness to “interdisciplinary” including non-literary contexts, as also its mood of being in-between the “modern” felt to be finishing and a “new” yet to be made. Williams' fine editorial statement in the first issue spoke the thoughts of many besides himself. In his first student year Mphahlele contributed, in addition to a book review, his essay “African Literature: What Traditions?” (Summer 1967) first delivered two months before in a departmental lecture series entitled, significantly, “The Relevance of the Past.” At his return in 1970 he became an active associate editor under Burton Feldman, rendering the Denver Quarterly even more idea-centered and internationalist in spirit. In the spring of 1973 Mphahlele contributed the moving essay “Why I Teach My Discipline,” first delivered in a college symposium of faculty struggling by that time to regain rapport with demoralized, alienated students for whom the idea of teaching had turned sour. It was felt by many at the time as valedictory, even though it included one of the highest compliments that any of us could have wanted, along with a keen truth: that despite “only a superficial contact” with “American education,” to which he felt himself belonging less and less, it had been nevertheless “the kind of contact that enables me to find circles of human intercourse sufficient to sustain me in exile such as I could find nowhere else in the world (at any rate at this time) because Americans are all exiles of one kind or another.” Still another essay was published in the Quarterly in 1975 after he had moved to Pennsylvania.

But perhaps the innovation, or spin off, most expressive of the department when Mphahlele arrived, as also the most bizarrely touching if not Utopian was the outburst of five lecture series from 1964 to 1967. Emboldened by centennial crowds drawn to hear famous men speak on Shakespeare—J. V. Cunningham, Northrop Frye, Robert Heilman, Harry Levin, Maynard Mack, and (from the department) Gunnar Boklund—we persuaded the new Dean Lindell, with a modest venture funding of $2000, to let us show what we could do! (Also the new Denver Quarterly would need essays.) “The Moment of the Modern” (seventeen semi-weekly public lectures, January to March, 1965) imported two guests, Irving Howe on the idea of the Modern and Philip Rieff on Freud. The remaining lectures came from seven English faculty and four colleagues from History, Philosophy, and Theatre (including Herbert Shore), all on wide-ranging experimental topics worked up afresh. Many of us spoke outside our nominal fields—for example, Boklund on “The Impact of World War II on Modern Literature,” Richardson preceding his book of the same title on “Literature and Film,” and myself on “James Joyce and Tradition.” The success was giddy, beyond anticipation. Almost immediately we raced into the following fall with “The Renaissance” (again seventeen semi-weekly public lectures, September to November, 1965) with eight English faculty, three from History, Philosophy, and Art, and a single distinguished visitor—all the budget would allow. To hear Herschel Baker from Harvard speak on “Time and the Elizabethans,” crowds so overflowed a large auditorium that television monitors had to be set up hastily in adjoining rooms. Clearly we were on to something! Wasn't this proof that Denver, both campus and city, was hungry for the literary gospel in our keeping? Who could doubt that even as satellites slowly ringed the earth and McLuhan's “global village” startled into reality, nevertheless it would still be verbal in profound respects, and would need no less than us—that is, our kind—at the unstill center? And so, three months later, given new funding, we lurched ahead with “The Modern: Texts and Contexts” (only ten weekly lectures this time—we were slowing—March to June, 1966), half of them by guests from outside including Nelson Algren, who embarrassed a crowd of about nine hundred with a half-drunken diatribe on Vietnam. The omen was understood but not believed. A restful year later, we argued “The Relevance of the Past,” in which Mphahlele joined (thirteen semi-weekly lectures, April to May, 1967) with four English faculty and eight luminaries from outside. In tribute to his ambiguous status, we were able to squeeze out an honorarium—of $75. (We ourselves, of course, always spoke for free.) All four series permitted academic credit (requiring a term essay) for any qualified student, but also were free to the general public, who responded loyally. If at last we grew sated with lectures and not less with the endless succession of parties afterward, nevertheless we had torn down the walls between ourselves and with a public; we had tested ourselves against luminaries and as often as not found one another more interesting; and we had found a place in the curriculum for the large synoptic inquiry that tears down other walls and exacts fresh personal thought and research, in what seemed to some of us the true university spirit.

In the spring following, while Mphahlele struggled with drafts of The Wanderers, the department shifted from lectures to a series of eighteen poetry readings (one a week from January to June, 1968) funded piecemeal from a state council, a student organization, and the ever-helpful Dean Lindell. Nine “local” poets, departmental (Williams and Pawlowski) or else resident in the region, alternated with nine outsiders: Robert Creeley, J. V. Cunningham, Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Howard Nemerov, J. F. Nims, Robert Pack, and Karl Shapiro. Despite a few moderate to skimpy audiences of the same loyal faces, most audiences were gratifyingly large—but for more political figures such as Creeley, Gunn, and Kinnell, overflowing. Tribes of the “counter-culture” appeared whom we had not attracted before, in grand flowing beards or peekaboo halter tops, most of them an ideal audience, others unpredictably noisy and belligerent. Indeed two audiences had become visible since 1965, and we were obsolescent to one of them. What Northrop Frye has labeled The Age of Hysteria (1968-71) had begun, not just in Paris and Berkeley; half the Denver student body, it was estimated, were on “drugs” of some kind. As Frye also observes, the demands now to be placed upon universities were essentially religious demands, deeply and desperately existential and beyond a possibility of satisfaction. Two years later, in May 1970, shortly before Mphahlele's return, the University of Denver was virtually under siege by the playful or else schizoid squatters of “Woodstock West”: a thousand or more young people (and outsiders not so young, including professional organizers) erected a sort of shantytown on campus, determined to shut the university down, and after a nightmarish week were ousted physically by cordons of police and bayoneted troops of the National Guard. One consequence was that two faiths, or, as some will prefer to believe, illusions, on which many in the department had depended for energy, experienced a disintegrative shock within two or three years—the years, as it happened, when both Mphahlele and Boklund were out of the country. I mean “faiths” in humanistic and especially literary education or culture (training of the imagination) as redemptive—which is to say, existentially life-fulfilling in such a way that to be without it is to lose the human center—and in the university as a sanctuary for alternative visions to the world of power.

Journalistic or politicizing tags such as “Vietnam” or “Kent State,” or locally “Woodstock West,” explain the point only by missing it, for such events are in themselves just that, events, outcomes. The very students who rebelled or dropped out, replacing soft hearts with clenched fists, were, large numbers of them, mirror-images (but in disaffected reversal) of our own overinvestments in what culture or a university could be expected to do—that is, save us. They suffered the same shock to the same faiths when, to their lights, the rebellion failed, as to our lights it succeeded all too well. Both sides were likely to overlook that the enemy was within themselves all the time, and sometimes took up temporary residence, disguised itself, in the best thoughts they would ever have. Long ago the shock penetrated the general public, which reacted by withdrawing faith from both humanistic education and the idea of a university, neither of which had been the enemy. And so uncultured people, or what is often worse decentered people, willing to rule by force or deceit because they can imagine nothing better, have made their way into high university offices thereafter.

A remarkable testament of how students saw it—testament in a triple sense of credo, evidential monument, and post-mortem bequest—is the student yearbook, the Kynewisbok, for 1972, Mphahlele's next to last year. Previous years are full of starchy, clean-cut, always smiling faces and poses, proprieties and hijinks, with here and there darker episodes as the sixties close: protest against Dow Chemical, drug-busts, sit-ins—the kaleidoscope of collegeville, profoundly conventional, shallow, sentimental, juvenile, but full of hope and a modest confidence. The yearbook for 1972, or rather antiyearbook, is a photographic “demonstration” in a spirit of brokenhearted knowledge of failure. It starts abruptly, as if speechless, from a blank white page, without title page, contents, or explanation of what it is, as if it has no identity—it starts from nothing into the first 167 pages of black-and-white pictures, almost all without captions of explanation and with the grimy look of wartime newsphotos despite the expensive paper. Of the only eight color shots, six are brightly quaint landscapes in ironic contrast with, for example, the dusky first picture in the book: a deserted classroom with disordered or overturned furniture. The other two color shots show a smiling male guitarist and a full-page portrait of a freckled, clean- and healthy-looking “all-American girl” frowning in bewilderment and anger, hair bedraggled, as if trying to decide whether the reader can be trusted, prematurely bitter. In most of the pictures, speaking for themselves panel after panel, blurred faces glower from half shadows; solitary and anonymous figures stare off at some distant ugly event; a few groups pose for the camera, hence the reader, in defiance without conviction, or in smiles too tired or tentative to care whether they are believed. Fragmented subjects, not without meaning but in decentered compositions, march by in meaningless juxtapositions—and this is what I learned, they say. In the following yearbook, 1973, a new set of editors renounce such cynical radicalism and, as if to prove how deep the self-division goes, rush in the consciously opposite direction: color, cute captions, hoopla, old-fashioned ornamental borders, long preachy commentaries in which the word tradition is often repeated. But most revealing of all: a series of brilliant opening color shots presenting downtown Denver, vistas of the Rockies, a crowded shopwindow at Christmas, a church—but not the university or university life, the true traditional subject. The center has been misplaced even among the defenders, and their ruling passions, though in the service of a different cause, are much the same angers and anxieties, hatreds and omissions, that drive those they are angry with. Neither the humanistic faith nor the university faith is intact. As for the opposing parties: perhaps the artistry of the radicals brings them closer to honesty, and their wordless exposures of horror and loss express a truth of both sides. That also is part of what happened.

As for the Department: our lives into the 1960s had borne unwitting witness to the Arnoldian prophecy (is it yet finished? or just “politicized”?) and its implicit faith in the study and teaching of literature, especially “English,” as a calling and social mission. Literature, which nobody could define, was not just pleasurable and instructive, but, as core-Romanticism had always taught, redemptive: it was complexly and variously redemptive, with all the accumulated weight of centuries of learned discovery and usage once “literature” had become self-aware—redemptive therefore from self-love, barbarism, or scholasticism, from dead matter, science, or industrialism, commercialized and technological mass-civilization, social and political injustices but also mob hysterias and the politicizations that are in fact dishonesties of immaturity and that enforce blinders, or just from provincialism, dullness, ignorance at large, bad manners, and bad writing. It was all too vague, and perhaps too much. Yet such a benign tolerant faith in all the values to be found in all “literature”—including African literature as it appeared and will appear—taught by thousands of aesthetically trained priests to thousands and thousands and thousands of communicants hungry for “meaning” in their lives which, it was believed, the word held waiting for them—all this was a very high achievement of Anglo-American liberal society and of the Bildungsbürgertum whose scholarship and theory prepared the way and lent support. “Literature” could not be defined, however, because to do so would have been to acknowledge as its ground a too long disguised faith (all too often fossilized into a gnosticism), whose invisibility and unacknowledgement was somehow a guaranty of its acceptability and vigor. It was easier to see wherever it was lost.

As so often in Arnold, the university was understood as a necessary social and physical correlate, and literature became institutionalized. For more than a century, but even more intensely after World War II, in the nuclear age, a university campus could be felt, by people of many continents, as like a cathedral close—such was the inner invisible myth—a special place or home built for the human spirit, where disinterested endeavors of teaching and learning, in sciences and arts, would be undertaken for their own sake without first regard for uses in the world of power. Between the great cathedrals and the smaller parishes traveled the greater and lesser clerics lecturing and advising in the common work. A university was a sanctuary, to repeat, for the gospel of “culture” or “education” or sometimes “civilization,” self-justifying and universal in its hope to make the best prevail on the plains of history.

Now both these faiths, as we received and enacted them, had illusion somewhere in their relation to the world. Something went wrong, though whether they themselves were faulty or just fell upon unready times and into the trust of unripe practitioners, is still not easy to determine. Another generation must try again. Betrayals and despairs that struck private lives as they aged, forcing up a rottenness older still, perhaps will be avoided next time: divorces, vanities and spites, diseases, addictions, sloths and misfeasances, all the detritus of personal or domestic failure, must be weeded from the substance before it can be judged to be wrong itself. We had feasted upon each other's innocence, and the passing of it was disillusioning. But for the time that was, the excitement was not illusory, nor was the gain in the lives of those we taught, who took heart from us, illusory. And the knowledge we came to have of each other was not illusory. At any departmental buffet and booze—and there were many each year, including some at Zeke's house—graduate students and faculty and their spouses or friends melded indistinguishably; conversation flowed as high as the laughter; and an observer of no more than ordinary ways might stop suddenly, stare about, and wonder at a strange unifying energy in the air: something happening again, voices, convenientia consensusque. I remember especially, at a smaller dinner one noisy, smoke-layered evening, a celebrated wit from Harvard. Mphahlele was sitting across from him on the further side, tonight in his Buddha pose, growling and slipping in oracular jabs while the New Yorkers Epstein and Datz dogfought with the Southerner James, I think about Faulkner. Williams was there, and Feldman, Richardson, Pawlowski, and Boklund. Suddenly our wit, who was truly such and a Johnsonian, bounced up as if in panic (or was it in ecstasy?) and whispered across his elbow to me, “How well they talk!” his eyes still fixed on the table as if checking an instrument panel, before he dived back into the mêlée. Visitor after visitor reacted with the same surprise, and I have the correspondence to prove it. A poor-relations anxiety was sometimes in the air—were we really any good?—and energized a will to talk faster or dream higher. We had something going, but what was it? Somehow we imbibed an energy of faith and a playful community from the same ideals—but of what? literature, was that it really? education? friendship? We could never have agreed what they were, perhaps even that they were. At the time, to ask such a question would have been felt as portentous and silly—some may still regard it so—or if not portentous then officious, or if not officious then reckless. Something “worked” and that was enough while it lasted.

To all appearances, Zeke delighted and frisked about in such sociality like a moody dolphin gradually discovering that the safety of a salt-water pool compensates somewhat for its smaller size and the loss of exotic abysses. His own anomalies of status—a graduate student with the visa and majesty of a visiting professor, a middle-aged militant exile whose bright African chemise (and Zeke would have been thought ridiculous in anything else) looked both sporty and at home, “that African gentleman” as uneasy students called him too amazed to attempt his name—all vanished in American familiarity. One always knew that Zeke kept to himself or with Rebecca a secret side which spoke in alien languages, or remembered strange worlds that none of us could enter. (But were not our own secret worlds as alien to him, indeed to each other?) Sometimes it appeared in a somber intellectual joshing, as if to see just how far people would go to accommodate his “strangeness”—before they waked in the trap of their own stereotypes. Other times, more puckishly, he would launch some unlikely tale and maintain it with a poker face until as many as possible were seduced—for example, his earnest explanation one evening to Pawlowski (who could be both defiantly proud and defensive about his Polish ancestry and mien) that strange and huge footprints had been discovered in South Africa, always going north. They were like those of the Rocky Mountains' “Big Foot” (which had been recently in news-gossip) and not unlike those of the Himalayas' Abominable Snow Man. Always going north. Or almost always—sometimes they went in a circle. Strange, huge footprints. Later they were revealed as the tracks of “South Polacks” trying to get home. (One wonders: had they been in exile too?) Then there followed the Laugh, a deep throaty chuckle and heh heh heh heggggh whose depth grew and grew until it engulfed the room and everyone in it like an embodied irony. Not to join was impossible, but was one being laughed at or not? One was included, yes: but how was one included? There was no knowing always, even when, as we knew when he started rubbing his eyes, the laughter was ending. Whatever the answer, it would have to be sought in the always-intelligent, always-scintillant eyes, and their mixture of bitterly compassionate and yet patient humanity. The line between joke and judgment was indistinct often for all of us, as one might expect among playful friends of unspoken covenant. If conversation strayed into subtleties of metaphysics, say poetry and Aufhebung, or admired some fashionable writer (including many black American writers) who seemed to him narcissistic, Zeke might well interrupt with a booming “Barbarian!” He would be frowning with mock gravity, but one knew also that he meant what he said. He contemplated the spectacle of Western (not just American-Western) self-indulgence and waste, even in small literary matters, from the vantage point of an African citizen of the world, often with a tight-lipped smile and weary shake of the head described by one colleague as both “quizzical” (why are you kissing that lizard?) and “aristocratic” (a better world is possible). He was, somehow royally, appalled by complacent masses of un-civilization in a world of so much unimagined individual want and suffering. It was one job of literature to imagine such individual suffering until it became real to human conscience. His gratitude to major black American writers from Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison to Toni Morrison in no way softened his disappointment with the meretricious or bad wherever it was found. He loved jazz (as well as Schubert) but not the jazzed-up. Literary show-biz, white or black, was no substitute for social vision and technical discipline. Yet, even as he criticized, one could glimpse in him sometimes a stinging reproach of himself for landing hard or a defensiveness as painfully divided as one's own—and love him for letting it show. He knew his pocket of weakness for the wealth of American supermarkets and discount stores, for feasts at will, cheap record albums, plumbing that looked nice and usually worked, whatever nagging uneasiness they may have cost him. He would grumble about “glut”—meaning, however, the glut of literary and academic culture as well as the material—and yet he was too honest not to recognize in himself an only-human fascination with free variety and abundance. I have sometimes thought it touched some early void or tapped a childhood fantasy. Zeke was a disciplined man, a trained athlete of a great vision of world order stirring within. The criticisms sometimes levelled against his multisided vision, his civility and concreteness, by hucksters of violence, have amazed American friends who knew his commitment to revolutionary change as well as his deep, perhaps tragic, understanding of its horrible pitfalls. One colleague still compares him to Erasmus. Yet it is also true that he could parade the aisles of Target (a discount store) with kingly delight in just things, or perhaps a little boy's delight or fascination with magic and tricks. Consciousness of wealth (not that he privately ever had any) for some people must always be a challenge to conscience, not least for those who have known the other side and whose loved ones live there yet. One day, in 1977, he would give it all up, not I believe from ideological envy or spite but because he had to give it up to get home, because he had always been loyal to the larger purpose in his life.

If in some ways Denver was the back end of nowhere, it gave him nevertheless a freedom to be whatever he could make of it, in easy friendship with others who sometimes he must have noticed were as self-puzzled and displaced as himself, and as wandering in search.

During his last two years, 1971–73, Zeke met every Saturday morning with Boklund and myself for a swim in the pool at my apartment house. In his white bathing cap he reminded me of some kind of pilot but I could never decide where he imagined himself to be going. He swam each time a measured seventy-six laps, moving slower and slower, until near the end he was submerged alarmingly long. We would sometimes check on him. But a limp hand would finally rise up, linger, and flap over. There followed a sweaty bull session in the sauna, culminating in still more talk over coffee in my living room. Much was banter and gossip—easy friends being friends; but also we came to depend on it, or I did, at a time of deep hurt and bewilderment in our lives. (After Zeke left, Richardson took his place—there was good swimming room in the pool only for three—and to these three men I can never be grateful enough for an education.) We almost never discussed politics, whether foolishly or wisely I still don't know, as if dreading some intolerable discovery. A specialist on Edmund Burke might not seem the best soul-mate for a militant exile. In late 1967, after his first year, Zeke had become associate editor of Africa Today, a bi-monthly published by GSIS. I still have a presentation copy of an issue devoted to African liberation movements on which is scribbled: “from Zeke—with hem … trepidation.” When he underwent his dissertation orals (on The Wanderers), the examining committee was chaired by Josef Korbel, head of GSIS, a splendid courteous Czech of the old school, an exile himself, who had been at Munich in 1938 and who knew the world. What he didn't know was that the rest of the committee, from English, had plotted playfully to give Zeke a hard time if they could. They knew the worth of the manuscript as well as some soft spots. Korbel, always unflappable, sucked his pipe nervously throughout, and as soon as Zeke left the room, he erupted: “Gentlemen, don't you know? this man is a dangerous revolutionary!”—as if to say, “Risk your lives if you like but not mine.” At a recent African conference near Vail Pass, Zeke had orated with spleen and Korbel had heard. The public speaker and the private man were one, but they could leave some different impressions. In a way Korbel was right. Something else he didn't know was what a bedrock of love had formed in two years.

On one of our last swims in 1973, it was a bright hot day, and, as happened on occasion, several young women were sunbathing near the pool. Zeke must have been extra tired: for some reason instead of gathering his robe to go upstairs, he pulled down his bathing trunks and began stepping out of them as Boklund spluttered, “Ah now, for heavens sakes! Zeke?” while Zeke stood there in his bathing cap, blinking. We accused him, of course, of planning to “streak.” At his going-away party not long after (at the house of the departmental secretary, Sonia Bronstein) to assembled applause Boklund and I staged a ritual procession together with speeches and remarks admiring the Mphahlele prowess, after which he was presented with a foot-high Streaker Champion trophy, mounted with a bare and lonely runner, duly engraved. It was our version of a loving cup, and I'm told that it stood on his desk for years. I hope he still has it, to remember us by—and one of his university homes.

So what was “it” that happened and linked us but also in time made necessary separation? It was indeed, in great part, the two faiths—though they were not all. What in retrospective vision of some part of its lifting or recession in the vast cancelings of Time appears more and more like a humanistic-literary church, or at least an “order” on the world scene—or was it a Christian or post-Christian heresy?—or just a set of publicity images?—must, of course, have provided individual summonses of commitment and action to people individually circumstanced, none quite the same. For me it was inescapably bound up with the banalities and “high culture” void of a small East Texas town where I lived till age eighteen. Wherever I turned, even within, something was missing, something needed—“education,” one might say, or “culture.” I could not have told what it was, nor have I enough of it yet to say all that it is or can be. Sometimes, it seems, a fabric of gracious manners would have to be part of it, at once fecund and past, a community of vision old as Time and yet open, transhistorical (could it ever be global? should it be?) and yet as individual as handwriting—a living ancestry to learn from and extend, so that, as Burke dreamed, people need not be “little better than the flies of a summer.” Whenever I have dreamed of countries, I have thought the happiest on earth should have been the smaller ones, like Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Greece, or Sweden (I was partial to European tribes), with long-mellowed traditions still vibrant in an always-opening here and now. But all the Big Brothers in history have never let them alone; and das Gemeine is well known in Sweden. Probably my small-nation (or polis) myth can be traced to childhood fantasies about the Republic of Texas, whose juncture with the Union in 1845 never had my full consent. What now I doubt is that the “education” which beckoned an African cowherd to read was so altogether different from that which tugged at illiterate stars on East Texas nights, or stirred indelible yearnings to know in a Swedish youngster whose father played the organ at school, or in a Massachusetts youngster whose father loved the university first and pointed it out. Bra Zeke, I would not dim your physical exile and its hurts in the complacency of a metaphor—but you may have noticed “it” first: we were all exiles from some green country or other, homelands lost to aliens so subtle they were deep in ourselves and we no longer knew where to belong, so determined they seemed never to be removed except by a self-betrayal so violent it would destroy all we loved along with them. We were all Mphahleles in Denver, astray on the frontier. Wasn't that it? Global-ready stoners and choice aquavites, heckling swallows, kynewisbokers and hokey colporteurs, wishfuls, carnival watchers, brethren of the swim, questers after “English,” jaboneys all. Yet the faces made for each other became true faces we had never had before, and they met in such love we forgot each other's strangeness and our own. Perhaps in such light, and under so wide a sky, we never knew each other's strangeness, or our own.

I hope one of us is home now.


  1. Quoted in R. Russell Porter, The University of Denver Centennial: Its Philosophy, Preparation, Presentation (Big Mountain Press, Denver, 1965), 11.

  2. In September 1966, in reciprocal honor, Ladybird Johnson dedicated the new Humanities Garden, but flew from town in less than two hours.

  3. For example, in the March before Mphahlele arrived, Sir Karl Popper was visiting on campus, a centennial spin-off. His controversial lectures on the theoretical interdependence of logic, physics, and history were so exciting that Dean Lindell and two senior professors (Yourgrau, aforementioned, and Allen Breck, Chairman of the History Department) decided to stage an international colloquium on the spot. By May, in less than two months, they had gathered around Popper a circle of eighteen theoretical geniuses from six countries.

  4. During his first year back he taught nine courses, counting summer school, whose reading lists differed sharply, requiring over fifty different books including anthologies: SUMMER 1970: “Beyond the Blues: Readings in Contemporary Black American Poetry”—junior level (enrollment of 35), “Introduction to African Literature”—senior/graduate level (36); FALL 1970: “The Literature of Self-Definition: African Autobiography”—junior level (33), “African Literature: Thought and Ideology”—senior/graduate level (28). “African, Afro-American, and Caribbean Fiction: Aesthetics and the Black Experience”—senior/graduate level (28); WINTER 1970: “The Early Romantics: Blake, Wordsworth, and Their Contemporaries”—junior level (33). “Poetry and Political Conflict”—graduate seminar (9); SPRING 1970: “African, Afro-American, and Caribbean Poetry”—senior/graduate level (25), “The Black Image”—graduate seminar (9).

Brian Worsfold (review date Fall 1986)

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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 Volume” was announced by N. Chabani Manganyi in the introduction to his biography of Es'kia Mphahlele, Exiles and Homecomings (Braamfontein: Ravan, 1983). Manganyi went on to suggest that this extensive selection of his subject's letters, from 1943 to 1980, would be of interest to both scholars and the general public alike in that it “should magnify the portrait of Es'kia Mphahlele [as drawn in the biography] and provide a valuable source for the study of the social and literary history of the times” (7, 8). All this it certainly does. Bury Me at the Marketplace makes a fine companion volume to the biography. Moreover, since in Exiles and Homecomings, Manganyi employs an unusual biographical technique by writing in the first person, that is, as if Mphahlele himself were speaking, the narrative voice is perceived as being the same in both volumes, although, as Manganyi points out, that of the letters being without “the earlier authorial uncertainty” of the biography (see Introduction, Bury Me 1).

Manganyi admits in his introduction to Exiles and Homecomings that it was Mphahlele's unexpected return to South Africa from Pennsylvania that convinced him he was a “worthy” figure for biographical study (2). The unexpectedness and daring of the move attracted the attention of Manganyi, a clinical psychologist, and led him to choose Mphahlele's life for “reconstruction” (1). Bury Me at the Marketplace may be perceived, then, as another stage in the process of the reconstruction of the life of Es'kia Mphahlele, and as such this fascinating collection of letters constitutes a valuable source of information for the researcher. Read as a continuous piece and not randomly, the letters provide 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.

The letters are divided into three sections: “The First South African Phase, 1943–1957”; “Exiles and Homecoming, 1957–1977”; and “Last ‘Trip to Liberty,’ 1977–1980.” They are presented in chronological order, and, despite the fact that the correspondence is one way (i.e., only Mphahlele's letters are represented) and that there are the inevitable “gaps,” the selected letters form a whole which is thematically remarkably coherent. Part 1 is made up almost exclusively of letters to Norah Taylor, benefactor and friend of Mphahlele from the early 1940s, when he made his first attempts at writing, and during his years in exile. Written from Enzenzelini Blind Institute in Roodepoort and later, after marrying Rebecca, from Orlando West township, Johannesburg, the letters display friendly respect for Norah Taylor and gratitude for her help and encouragement. Nevertheless, the contents of this section reveal Mphahlele's growing frustration with the apartheid state, especially from the time of his being banned from teaching in government-controlled schools in South Africa up to his departure for Lagos, and are important in that they fill out the events long since related in the closing chapters of Down Second Avenue (1959).

The second part contains letters to Norah Taylor, William Plomer, Richard Rive, Makhudu Rammopo (a childhood friend of Mphahlele's), Robert D. Richardson (professor of English at the University of Denver), Sonia Bronstein (administrative secretary to the chairperson of the English Department at the University of Denver), Teresa Mphahlele (his only daughter), and Khabi Mngoma (professor of music at the University of Zululand in KwaZulu and lifelong friend of Mphahlele's), along with several others. The letters cover the period spent in exile, first in various parts of Nigeria (1957–61), then in Paris at the Congress pour la Liberté de la Culture [sic] (1961–63), Nairobi (1963–66), Denver, Colorado (1966–68), Zambia (1968–70), in Denver again (1970–74), and finally in Philadelphia (1974–77), from where he returned to South Africa on 15 August 1977. Mphahlele's strong feeling of impotency as a writer and educator brought on by life in exile becomes apparent in these letters. What must have seemed like endless wandering from place to place, the resultant strains on family ties, constant form filling and dealings with administrators and bureaucrats, a growing disillusionment with society in the USA, and an awareness that the South African exiles and antiapartheid groups there are “irrelevant” (123) are all secondary to the frustration he feels as a South African writer in exile. In a letter to Khabi, 23 June 1975, he writes, “But for the academic and intellectual and literary growth I have experienced outside the whole exercise in exile can be written off as utter waste. … Because the feedback is not from the people who made me—South Africans in S. A.” (114).

Part 3 comprises letters to Tim Couzens (associate professor and senior research fellow at the African Studies Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg), Martin Jarret-Kerr (a literary critic and acquaintance of Mphahlele's), Peter Thuynsma (one-time student of Mphahlele at the Universities of Zambia and Denver and close family friend), Professor Norman Hodge (University of the Transkei), N. Chabani Manganyi, Houston Baker (University of Pennsylvania), Gunnar Boklund (University of Denver), and Khabi Mngoma, among others. The bulk of the correspondence, however, is with Teresa Mphahlele, who remained behind in the U.S. after her parents' return to South Africa. Mphahlele's letters to Teresa reflect his deeply felt inability, owing to the distance separating them, to keep track of, guide, and lend a helping hand to his children. He worries in particular about Puso's education and Teresa's health, tries to encourage Teresa in her educational and professional ambitions, and expresses general anxiety for Puso's and Chabi's welfare. The other letters deal principally with arrangements and problems that settling down in South Africa again involves and reveal especially Mphahlele's disappointment and resentment at having his application for the Chair of English at the University of the North turned down.

In respect of research material, the contents of this third section are interesting on two important points. First, they demonstrate Mphahlele's qualms about teaching white students in South Africa at universities “where only the privileged blacks are allowed” (158). On his appointment as senior research fellow at the African Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1979, he writes in a letter to Tim Couzens:

I wondered if it [i.e., teaching in a university where most Africans are excluded] would be morally defensible, even though Wits does not uphold that policy. But I could arrange an accommodation within myself whereby I could teach and compensate by doing research that is based among Africans. (160)

The second point, which Mphahlele writes about in one of the last letters of the selection, to Teresa (July 1980), concerns his own conclusions about life in South Africa's apartheid society. He writes:

Maybe the greatest challenge here [i.e., in South Africa], even more than the racism, is the mediocrity, the inanity, that keeps coming at you. There are various dodges and on-and-off switches one can operate to deal with racism: it's stark, visible, etc but mediocrity is sump'n else. I'm learning to keep my cool in its presence, because to rave and rail and shout only breeds ulcers. But damn it, it may be, indeed I believe it is, something one can deal with better than the more complex, barbed-wire tangle the American thing is. (189)

Manganyi hypothesizes in the introduction to Exiles and Homecomings that, “at the end of 1977, … Es'kia Mphahlele … has made himself a promise—to move closer to his self, a self that is out there in the potential responses of his people to what he will be able to offer in the last lap of his life” (5). The reader of the letters, on the other hand, is left free to draw his own conclusions. As Manganyi hopes (see Introduction, Bury Me 3), the image of Mphahlele, the “wanderer,” is enhanced, and as one reads, words such as resilient, persistent, patient, willpower, drive, and restless spring involuntarily to mind to describe the writer, to the extent that by the end the reader wonders where Mphahlele will move to next.

Regarding presentation, the layout of the letters is visually pleasing, although it may have been helpful to have included Mphahlele's address at the head of each letter, even if not in the original. This is especially necessary when he moves from one place to another, as, for example, in the case of the letter to Makhudu, 3 November 1970, when Mphahlele is presumably in Denver, having moved there from Zambia, where he wrote the preceding letter to Sonia, 17 March 1970. Yet this is a small point. The list of correspondents and the brief life history of Mphahlele (1919–82) at the beginning of the selection are useful. All credit must go, then, to N. Chabani Manganyi for bringing to the publication stage this selection of Es'kia Mphahlele's letters, which, in turn, bring a little more into focus the image of one of South Africa's best-known and most widely acclaimed writers and educators.

Ntongela Masilela (review date Spring 1988)

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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 names designate different historical moments: each defining a particular ensemble of political and literary relationships. The demarcation line was the return to South Africa of Mphahlele a decade ago after spending twenty years in self-exile. It is this return of the prodigal son that has completely polarized South African artists, writers, and intellectuals at home and in exile. The group in exile has condemned Mphahlele unremittingly and in uncertain terms. In this group one can situate, among others, Lewis Nkosi, Daniel P. Kunene, Dennis Brutus, and Bernard Magubane. Those back at home, which include Don Mattera and Nadine Gordimer, have been generally sympathetic toward Mphahlele. What this short listing clearly indicates is that the pro-Mphahlele and contra-Mphahlele factions confound complacent political positions and received intellectual wisdoms. For instance, aligned against each other, are two Marxists: Bernard Magubane and Nadine Gordimer. Equally arraigned against each other are two humanists: the humanism of the poet and creative writer, Don Mattera, has positioned itself against the humanism of the literary scholar and critic, and until recently creative writer, Daniel P. Kunene. Further contradictory contrasts could possibly be drawn, but these are sufficient to signal the trauma the return of Mphahlele has caused in South African intellectual circles. What is missing in the above mapping of political and intellectual positions concerning the phenomenon of Mphahlele is the position of the younger generations of South Africans, the generations represented in the pages of the earlier moment of Staffrider. Though myself not belonging to this impressive and extremely talented constellation of Staffrider writers and poets, insofar as never having had the privilege to appear on its pages, I belong to that generation, age-wise.

What is incontrovertibly clear, and a great historical gain, is that the return of Mphahlele to South Africa has opened and founded a landscape of the cultural politics of intervention in the silent revolution presently, slowly but surely, gathering tempo and velocity in South Africa today. It is the unraveling of the curtain from this landscape by Mphahlele, to be sure unintentionally and unawares, that has made Mphahlele's return to South Africa a decisive historical moment. That Mphahlele himself has not understood the political consequences of his action should not hinder us from drawing the necessary historical lessons. Mphahlele has been hindered in understanding the political consequences of his action by the ideology of abstract humanism to which he wholeheartedly and blindly subscribes. If the latest literary piece from Mphahlele, the autobiography, Afrika, My Music, is an apologia for his return home, it only confirms the political philistinism of abstract humanism. Only a materialist dialectics can draw the necessary historical lessons. When Lewis Nkosi in a recent article, “South African Fiction Writers at the Barricades” (Third World Book Review, vol. 2, nos. 1 and 2, 1986), stupidly fulminates against Mphahlele and also against Miriam Tlali, Sipho Sepamla, Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Lauretta Ngcobo, Njabulo Ndebele, Mbulelo Mzamane, and Richard Rive, he only confirms what in another context I have characterized as his anarchistic agnosticism. In an essay, soon to appear in Staffrider, I examine the triadic structure of Mphahlele's abstract humanism, Nkosi's anarchistic agnosticism, and Nadine Gordimer's revolutionary socialism within the context of the Drum generation. Lewis Nkosi's disastrous shortcomings, which explain his destructive literary criticism, are due to his hostility to any form of historical explanation of literary systems, poetics, and processes (see “The Discordant Voice of African Criticism,” Third World Book Review, vol. 1, no. 3, 1985). It is hardly surprising that Lewis Nkosi has been unable to grasp the political and cultural import of Mphahlele's act, even though he has been in the forefront among those fulminating against it.

Besides opening the possibilities of the new cultural politics of intervention in the developing situation in South Africa, the return of Mphahlele to South Africa has made it possible for a whole generation of young South African writers, intellectuals, and artists to retrace and reestablish the literary and cultural connections and continuities between the Staffrider writers and the Drum writers. This has been a tremendous gain on the part of younger generations in South Africa, even if the Old Guard outside South Africa has not been able to see it as such. The wisdom of the Old Guard has been concentrated on matters aimed at acquiring political and state power on behalf of the wretched of the earth in South Africa and has not been focused on cultural matters. The writings of Mphahlele (e.g., “The Wisdom of Africa: Notes on the Oral Tradition,” Staffrider, vol. 2, no. 4, 1979; “The Early Years,” Staffrider, vol. 3, no. 3, 1980; and “Literature: A Necessity or a Public Nuisance—an African View,” Classic, vol. 3, no. 1, 1984) have assisted us South Africans of younger generations to reconstruct the cultural and literary history of our people. What we have disagreed on is the political nature of that reconstruction: whereas we insist on a materialist perspective, Mphahlele has been content to rehash a liberal perspective, however much cynically toned. The superior quality of Mphahlele's intervention, in comparison with Lewis Nkosi's literary mendacity, is beyond discussion and dispute. What is unsettling and unacceptable in some of Mphahlele's literary works are strands of national chauvinism against other African nations. To be sure, these strokes of nihilism are the by-products of his felt bitter experiences in these countries.

In contrast to the childish negativism of Lewis Nkosi, Nadine Gordimer has not ceased celebrating and dancing to the return of Mphahlele in South Africa. Though in public she celebrates it in historical terms (see “A Conversation with Nadine Gordimer,” Salmagundi, no. 62, Winter 1984), this cannot hide the fact that there are deeply hidden personal passions that unrelentingly fuel it (see “An Interview,” in Sophiatown Speaks, by the Johannesburg Junction Avenue Theater Company, 1986). In Gordimer's writings, both creative and critical, the public sphere and the private sphere are imbricated. But what gives historical legitimacy to Gordimer's endorsement of Mphahlele's return is her profound understanding of the cultural politics of intervention historically demanded of both white and black South Africans. Though the historical callings are different for both, they find their sociological unity in politicocultural practice. In a brief, but profoundly penetrating essay, Nadine Gordimer argues that only the black South African writer has been able to forge a reconciliation between the demands made on the writer by society and the writer's commitment to his or her artistic vision. In the South African context, it is this conflict between the demands of society and how they should be met that has made any activity of creativity treacherously difficult and challenging (see “The Position of the White Writer in South Africa,” Realities, Spring 1985). It is his failure in understanding this that has made Lewis Nkosi's literary criticism the catastrophe and unmitigated disaster it is. Nadine Gordimer, this great woman, never minces words: “The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Ideology demands it. Society exacts it.” It is her profound perceptiveness as well as her great artistic talent that will influence the writing of the cultural history of South Africa in the twentieth century. The unimpressive and uninspired nature of Nkosi's literary enterprise is seriously compromised by his advocacy of the purism of the creative act. Nkosi's chauvinistic attacks on Miriam Tlali and Lauretta Ngcobo are the nadir of this tragic descent.

Perhaps the deep animus between Mphahlele and Nkosi is partly explained by the fact that they are among the last colossal surviving figures of the Drum generation. The recent passing away of Bloke Modisane in West Germany has narrowed the circle even further. The real and undefined object of dispute between them is the question of the proper interpretation and reconstruction of this particular literary moment in which both of them found their literary voices. Neither of them has provided the proper historical instruments through which to grasp the literary moment of their youth. If the writings of Can Themba have been the literary signature of the Drum generation, then certainly the reporting of Henry Nxumalo possesses the sociological force to reconstruct this literary moment culturally. In other words, the dispute between them is historically unfounded, for the shaping of the cultural and literary structure in which both of them played a fundamental role was politically determined at the very moment of their literary emergence. It was the political voice of Nxumalo's investigative reporting that has defined the parameters of this literary movement. Despite the prodigious output from Mphahlele, both creative and journalistic, his works have not succeeded in dislodging the slender work of Nxumalo in providing the key words in interpreting this literary moment of Drum: the gigantism of Mphahlele has proven insufficient in contesting the miniaturism of Nxumalo. The rediscovery of the latter is definitely just around the corner. 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.

In this booklet Mphahlele attempts to trace the origins of poetic voice and humanism in oral beginnings. Points of reference range from Herder and Heidegger through Goethe and Marlowe to Giotto and Erasmus. As the names indicate, Mphahlele identifies humanism with Western civilization completely, thereby excluding in the process the contribution of Oriental civilization, and also other civilizations like the Amerindian and African. The sociological grounding of this intellectual bias is never made clear. So when later in the booklet, Mphahlele comes around to talking about African humanism, the implication is that the latter is a derivation of European humanism, which is defined as historical humanism. Though that could well be the case, no argument is presented for this perspective. Mphahlele subordinates an African intellectual tradition to a European intellectual tradition. Nobody would dispute the possible relations between them. The problem is that whereas Mphahlele is more than enthusiastic in tracing the origins of European humanism in ancient Greek civilization, he does not attempt to look for the beginnings of African humanism in ancient Egyptian civilization. Such an attempt at the citadel of the apartheid university system would have been a cleansing act indeed, let alone its historical validity. The tracing of the possible rivalry between European humanism and African humanism would have had deep implications in the context of the developing silent revolution in South Africa. The tearing of South Africa from the capitalist system to the socialist system, which has begun in earnest, would have found illuminating support from the academic podium. As it is, a great historical opportunity has been lost by Mphahlele. The academic acolytes, many of them of scandalous mediocrity, would have been shaken from their complacency of being what Paul Nizan contemptuously called the philosophical watchdogs of the established social order. To be sure, the social order in South Africa is in the process of rotting away. An unrelenting stream of ideological hammer blows will undoubtedly assist in bringing about the collapse of the neofascist order in South Africa which has caused untold sufferings for its people. In his own way, with the best implements at his disposal, Mphahlele has continued hammering away at the apartheid system. It is clear that he has not compromised himself by returning home. The Old Man still has die Kraft to continue fighting. What really compromises 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. The real tragedy of the phenomenon of Es'kia Mphahlele in our cultural and literary history is his steadfast refusal to disengage himself from the false mirage of liberalism. In the meantime, Nadine Gordimer, through development and confrontation, has shifted toward revolutionary socialism, the one real social philosophy of our century. Lewis Nkosi has led himself to the deep despair of anarchistic agnosticism. Both Mphahlele and Nkosi are our Teachers and Predecessors, without whom we could not possibly reconstruct the central moments of our literary and cultural history.

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

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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 African Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) at the end of 1987.

This was the first time I met Professor Mphahlele. The only contacts I had had with him were of an epistolary nature while I was doing research for my doctoral thesis on his and La Guma's novels. My aim in interviewing him was first to ask him to reexamine and redefine some of the key concepts that I consider essential to the understanding of his work, such as the concept of African humanism or that of irony. The interview was also designed to have his views on a variety of issues ranging from his personal activities to the cultural and literary changes that had accompanied South Africa's transition to democracy after the liberation of Nelson Mandela in February 1990.

The edited transcription of this interview was submitted to Professor Mphahlele for further corrections and modifications.

[Richard Samin:] The first series of questions I have is about the notion of African humanism as you define it. I suppose African humanism is something you were brought up in. Now what I would like to know is about the genesis of the discourse of African humanism as opposed to European influence because I think basically that this is what is behind the assertion of African humanism in your work. Isn't that correct?

[Es'kia Mphahlele:] That is true. It is not something that we had any discourse about until we felt challenged by the Western world. When people like Edward Blyden, in the late nineteenth century, began to talk about the African personality, he was criticizing the Christian missionaries for the approach they had towards African beliefs and was urging that they should consider the fact that the Africans have a personality and something very distinctive about it. Also he admired Islam for the way in which it entered Africa and came to terms with African beliefs—the marabouts, the high priests, and so on—and used them, because he felt that this was a challenge. Then the next time we hear about it is when it is expressed in the concept of Negritude. Senghor was always trying to impress it upon the Western world that there was something distinctive about the African. Sometimes he did become a little romantic about it, but one understands that it had to be put across very forcefully. Again, the romantic vision on his part was also manifest in the way in which he thought all artistic expression by black people was the same, that it was driven by the same spiritual force, which of course wasn't true. But as a social concept, not as an artistic theory, it has validity. When later Black Consciousness comes, particularly in this country, it's expressed in terms that showed that the people are kind of aware of how different they were. In this country, there is a more political force, political ideology, than a strictly cultural one, but there were always echoes of what had gone before the Black Consciousness concept. Now at this time, when there is a feeling that the Western world has almost conquered the African mind, in this part of the continent anyhow, people are beginning to express themselves on issues around African values. Right. At the university level especially, we are pressing for an Africanism, or an expression of Africanism, in the curricula and also in the way educational institutions are run, and curricula also in the lower levels of education in school. What we really need to do now is also educate our own people about it because they have lost out on that kind of teaching as a result of apartheid and repression. All we ever thought of was gaining power in this country, political power. The other things did not matter that much, such as identity, such as economics, the new economics—we couldn't even worry about that. The most urgent thing was this passionate desire to grab power from the white people. And we've lost out because of that, because we didn't combine the political struggle with the cultural struggle—the cultural struggle outside of the political culture. We didn't question things. Again, I would imagine that, because we were fighting the white man on his own terms, using the same formulae, you see what I mean—elections, political power, political discourse, and political ideologies such as socialism, capitalism, liberalism, mixed economies—on their own terms, so we were all wrapped up in that. We didn't have time to sit back and continue in matters spiritual, matters of feeling. What I try to do when I write about this, I try to impress upon our people to rethink our position in relation to white values. I can see what is happening: we are drifting in that stream, that direction, we want to move into white suburbs. …

African humanism is a broadly defined term which involves the entire continent, but there is a wide range of African cultures and attitudes to life. So what are the basic common values which we find throughout the continent and which enter into the definition of African humanism?

The pillars of African humanism are firstly the religious belief in the existence of external nature and human nature, all involved with each other. There is a continuity through our ancestral spirits. All Africa believes in ancestral presences and invokes them at every stage in our lives, at every initiation into a new stage of our lives, in our rituals, weddings, and worship at the shrine, and even the so-called Christians still believe in the ancestors. The next thing is social relationships, that's another pillar. The way we conduct our social relationships, human beings matter to the extent that the sense of community is always present. This is the one thing that we never lose. We've been battered around by Western values a lot as well as by the creation of economic needs which we did not have. But ancestral belief, the belief in the ancestral presence and also social relationships, these have stood the test of time. There is also the elderly people that are respected by everybody because they are about to be ancestors, and the belief that all the older people are wiser than the younger people is still a very strong belief among us. Then again, coming back to religion, I should also say that in African humanism there is no dichotomy between the material world and the spiritual world. There is a continuity reinforced by interrelationships, and interconnectedness. That is, animal life, plant life, and inanimate objects have a life of their own which is part of us. Which is why, for instance, a traditional healer will use organic matter to heal the body, it will be something plucked from nature, because there is a unity. Part of the continuity is also dramatized by the way in which women will take their afterbirth and bury it in the vicinity because it symbolizes reincarnation, the cyclical pattern of existence.

Is it still done nowadays?

It is done, it's still done.

Basically in rural areas, I suppose?

In rural areas, yes, and in the urban areas in the days when—that's not so long ago—midwives walked from house to house to deliver babies. They always respected the idea that the afterbirth would go into the ground, in the backyard. Now that women, in most cases in the urban areas, go to clinics and babies are delivered there, that custom is on its way out. But certainly, in the rural areas generally, and in an area like this, it would be common to bury it in the backyard. That's a manifestation of the continuity concept. As I was saying, African humanism has been battered a lot and we need to regain our balance.

Given the toughness of the social and economic environment for a majority of Africans today, whether in South Africa or elsewhere, how can they preserve their humanism in such harrowing circumstances and aren't they tempted perhaps to give it up simply for the sake of survival, of not going under?

That is true. Times have been bad for African humanism because there is a state of urgency that has been created by Western life, by Western economics, and Western politics. No doubt it's going to be a rough road for African humanism yet. But I would like to think it is possible for institutions of education to study the philosophy of this because that is one constituency which is in a sense regenerative. You have one generation for a number of hours in a school career and we can inculcate these values, let them know that these values have always existed and that there are still signals of their survival. If we can do that, when they move out of school and they go into the outside world, outside of their environment, they will be equipped to question the assumptions of the colonizing religion.

I have a feeling that your belief in African humanism against all other odds is rooted in what you consider a permanence of African arts, that is to say, in the final analysis, the arts have resisted the onslaught of Western civilization, or let's put it this way, perhaps not Western civilization but consumerist society. Is that correct?

That is it. That is what I believe in. More to the point, African art has the potential to take charge of its synthesis with Western art towards a point of real equilibrium. Whether there is a permanence or not, people are always going to create out of their imagination and spiritual impulse.

It seems to me that your work in general—your novels or short stories—is a kind of celebration of those who have refused to give in to destructive forces, I think in particular of all the women you have portrayed in your work and occasionally male characters as well, a celebration of those who have survived in spite of circumstances.

That's right, yes. There's a kind of piety also on my side that says to me no matter what human beings will survive and that there is something intrinsic in the human species to survive. The womenfolk, especially, who often traditionally have been regarded as the weaker sex. But in fact they always proved to be the stronger sex in many circumstances when it comes to the human heart and endurance. They definitely stay on. They stay on, yes, and this is what I have always wanted to portray in my works. I think so also because of my upbringing, because the women were always the stronger when I was growing up. Aunt Dora, whom I talk about in Down Second Avenue, was this in more abrasive ways than others. Generally there's always been that kind of resilience which I admire so much.

I have only recently come across your latest novel, Father Come Home. What has struck me is that this book seems to be a kind of celebration for having struck roots again. I don't know about the circumstances behind the writing—whether it was a book meant for children or for a mixed audience, or whether it's based on a true story. What has also struck me is the thematic continuity—the autobiographical theme, the treatment of your concept of resonance, and also the realistic way in which you tackle the relationship between the man and the woman, and the reunion of the husband and the wife after so many years, the refusal to idealize it. Would you like to comment on this?

Yes, well you have interpreted it right. In a sense, unconsciously or subconsciously it was a celebration. When we came to live here in 1977 we became friends with an old man, who lived not so far away from here, a few blocks from here, who has since died. We used to talk a lot about himself and how he was brought up, and he used to say, whenever we talked about our own lives, you see there are such similarities between your own life and mine, referring to the father-son relationship. And so I took a kind of outline from his own life and added my own characters and fictitious events, you see. Generally, I see his life in the context of rural life, for one thing, and then father going to then-Rhodesia, then his mother waiting all those years and trying to look for him, and finally moving with the mother to Rhodesia to find him. Those are the facts of his own life. I based the novel on that structure.

What has also struck me in this novel is the use of the journey theme. It seems to me that it is a theme which is fairly common in African literature. I'm thinking in particular of Mhudi. Here again we have a character traveling across vast expanses to find someone. At the same time this theme has a kind of universal relevance. I'm thinking of The Pilgrim's Progress in particular. Were you conscious of this when you wrote the book or did you simply follow the story?

No, I just followed the story, the factual story. I was not in the least thinking of the paradigm or the archetype at all. It is just so real to me, as a human story. That's how I presented it, that's how I conceived it. It's interesting that you have located that, that kind of element, the element of the journey. Now it comes to me how true it is that we make so many journeys in our lifetime.

To conclude on this particular point, the idea of celebration, I wanted to ask you about the open letter to L. S. Senghor which you published in The Unbroken Song. It sounds to me like a letter of reconciliation. Is it also because you were back in your country and you were celebrating this return that you wrote this letter for his seventieth birthday?

That's right, yes, at the time. And being back here I began to think a lot about that poem that he writes, “Time to Go.” It always haunted me that way. Suddenly I was in a position where he probably would have found himself—time to go. We had lived in the US and found a kind of dead end. Life was stimulating and exciting as far as it went, but when it came to the final count you felt that there was nothing more you could contribute to American life and in fact you had not contributed anything at all because you'd come in the middle somewhere in the line of continuity of American thought, American life, American history. They had their own priorities etc. and I could not even begin to put together the ways, the ideas that go into an educational culture. And I could not understand all the culture of American education, where it was all leading to and what was the impulse apart from the desire to achieve, the desire for success. Because I could not understand this and I could not find any explanation or clarification from anybody, from any of my colleagues, that is to say, that was it and the only place where we could still contribute something is within one's own culture. And coming back made me think of Senghor, telling himself that it's time to go. It is that kind of reconciliation that he writes, not even a reconciliation with a landscape that I wanted to flee from. It is a landscape that I have come back to, this is how it had to be, it's how it was meant to be, that I'd be back here.

So, in a sense you have also become reconciled with the poise, the smoothness of what you admired at certain periods of your life about the Negritude movement: the diction of its poetry.

Yes. I was revisiting that diction without that presupposition that if I was from this kind of life of oppression and restrictions, and torment and turbulence—which is what I took with me when I went to West Africa, confronting Negritude with that kind of predisposition—and I decided that there was another way of viewing it now, going through the same cycle, and still believing, as I say, that Negritude is a beautiful social concept, that the arts will go the way they want as individual media of expression, each one has got his own style, and that ultimately history makes style rather than the accident of birth, and color, and creeds. Only the communal dance and song will contain resonances of a public voice that evokes its own style.

Now I would like to talk about one of the key concepts in your writing: the concept of irony. Quite early in your writing career you defined irony as the meeting point between acceptance and refusal. Could you develop this point a little further?

Throughout my life I have found that I have to negotiate that meeting point between what I reject and what I accept, the relation to Western civilization, or Western culture, or Western values. I said to myself this is how we are brought up at school, we are taught subjects that originated from the Western world, reading books of the Western world. Much of our thinking was shaped by this kind of educational system. Even if Bantu education had not broken upon us, we would still be faced with this dilemma that, living a life that is between the Western world and the African world, we have to negotiate that meeting point. And even in our own artistic creations there is a point at which you reject certain values and the way you accept certain values. In the portrayal of ourselves in this situation we have to take cognizance of the irony. It is not all this color or that color; there are different colors of the situation. Also, if I create a work of fiction in which I portray a character, doing the same thing all over again, in the same way, full of hate and full of bitterness, and so on, that will not do for us to present as a full representation of who we are and what we are as a people. Rather there is light and shade at play all the time. In the white liberal woman I portray in “Dinner at Eight” and even in the “Mrs Plum” story, there is light and shade. That's the irony, isn't it?

Has this conception of irony helped you to develop what I would call your narrative point of view, the position of a narrator taking a distance from all his characters, whether black or white, and creating, as you say, an interplay between light and shade?

Yes, that's right. This is a narrative mode, a narrative approach. I keep tugging away at this kind of thing, whether I'm writing poetry or whether I'm writing fiction. Even expository prose, I'm doing the same thing. I probably take liberties in expository prose when I describe something or other, hit something. I like to have a kind of frontal attack.

I think there is a book, however, it's Chirundu, in which your irony verges on the satirical. That's a different attitude towards irony?

Yes, I intended it to be that. I surprised myself, as a matter of fact, in Chirundu. Some people pointed out that I said things I would not even have thought about. I find there is a truth in what they say about the main character. I say “surprised” because I let him to go, I kind of left him to his own devices. I just let him to go and left him to his own bitter end. In other circumstances I keep saying to myself, “Why didn't I try to save him, as his creator?” Then I said to myself, “Let him go away, naturally go.”

So, you felt much freer in writing this novel than perhaps in writing other novels?

Yes, I did. I was much freer and I was not even thinking of irony in the sense in which I would if, for instance, I were probing other situations of conflict. Here I was going to let natural impulses take their course. But you realize that I craft or create Tirenje, the woman, in the way I conceive womanhood.

As an embodiment of continuity.

That's right, she is the continuity.

Would you then consider irony as a kind of barrier against personal involvement? Do you have to fight against too much personal involvement in your writing? Does your personal experience tend to weigh down so much on your writing that you have to take your distance so that you feel much freer when you write about other characters?

Well, I would not say that. It is a complex thing that we are talking about because, as a writer, I find I'm never sure at what point I enter the narrative and at what point I don't. Because it all comes from me, doesn't it? I am shaping it, I will definitely echo some parts of my life, some parts of my thinking, and my honest thinking is that there is irony in our lives. That cannot be explained in terms of pure black and pure white. There are ironies, and this is a big irony that we are facing today, this reconciliation that's going on, a reconciliation that sometimes becomes a racket. There are ironies in our lives with the compromises we make, the distances we establish amongst ourselves, the affiliations we make, the associations we make. This is ironic all the time, and this is what surrounds me and has seeped deep inside me and in my own struggles to understand myself and my people. That's the reality of the situation. It's also existential. But the naturalist way in which I create Chirundu—let him drift, let him go down the cliff—it's OK, damn it, he deserves it, that guy; then again, you see, I could, for instance, have killed him, but I let him land in jail. …

But that would have changed the tone of the novel altogether, wouldn't it?

It would have changed it, wouldn't it? It would, you see. So, here I take control. This is what I mean by you never know whether you are leaving him to let him go, or whether you're holding the reins.

I was wondering whether the way you treat Chirundu had anything to do with the bad experience you had in Zambia. Is it reflected in particular in the way you let him go?

That is true. There again, you see, you're mentioning something I wouldn't have consciously thought about. At the back of my mind is this ugly experience that we had in Zambia, this unfriendliness, and that politicians would do what Chirundu does. …

This is not invented, this is a true story?

It's a true story in outline. Factually speaking, he does that sort of thing. And then I asked myself when I read, actually after reading the news report about it: how can a man do this when he knew that he was committing what Western law, or Roman-Dutch law, would say is bigamy? And then I say what was he trying to do? Was he trying to defy that law or was it an inner weakness? What was it? This is what I tried to grab. I said to myself, “This is something that I want to probe.”

In a sense, the way you define irony is a kind of barrier to protect a kind of sanity?

Yes, that's true, that's very true. It does have to maintain sanity. That's right. It tones down the brashness of experience.

Now I would like to shift to another issue: the notion of resonance. In many of your articles you have insisted, particularly when you address young writers, on the idea that they should distance themselves from the present—political circumstances, social stress, and so on—that they should create in their narratives a kind of perspective and that incidents should be treated in a kind of perspective. …

Yes, that's right, that's what I have always tried to urge. …

… and I think in this respect you also bring in the idea of myth. So when you refer to myth what particular myth do you have in mind?

A difficult question. The myth I have in mind here is quite difficult to delineate in precise terms. I am thinking here of the myth concerning who we are, and where we come from or where we are coming from, more exactly, and what it is we want ahead of us. The myth concerns the past and the future, the present. If you create a work based on the very present and on the agony of the instant, you lose sight of the myth. It has something to do also with perspective, hasn't it? It is that kind of myth that I need always to remember, that I am not just dealing with the present instant but I'm dealing with people with a history.

I suppose what you have in mind are African myths in particular?

African myths and also what we would project as the myths of the other people outside of our African origins. It is really a myth about who we are as an African people largely, and what we think our destiny is, and we don't have a literature that shows how myth orchestrates reality, thus enriching experience, revealing its poetry. Those who write poetry to me seem to be more conscious of this myth than those who write prose fiction—like Sipho Sepamla, Mazisi Kunene, especially Mazisi, who brings in a spiritual element, the ancestral element, and Sepamla who brings in the quality of a human being—and keep making references as it were to this sort of resonances. That kind of myth.

Do you think these myths could be updated or adapted, as it were, to modern life in African fiction today?

I really think they could. The ancient ones can. The modern myths already exist in our spoken languages. We could turn them into a creative force. We can do this if we apply our minds to it. We are just too caught up with the present, entangled with the present, so many of us. Those who began to write in the '70s, of the newer generation, we are talking of Sepamla's, were more fortunate. People like Mafika Gwala, people like Kgositsile. Kgositsile was very much caught up with the present in the US. There are others, among our younger poets, like Essop Patel: his poetry does that. And also the other Asian poet, Shabbir Banoobai. They recreate textured poetry and yet it plays round with that kind of myth as they see it from their own side. It's not specifically an Asian consciousness, it's a consciousness of history, and South African history, especially.

I was thinking, in particular, of another definition, another approach to resonance: the experience of writing. That is to say when different things, unexpected things, happen, emerge—for instance, in connection with an article in a newspaper, a landscape, fugitive impressions, or whatever—and suddenly the emerging of these creates an urge to do something about this impression, an urge to write. Isn't it true for what you call resonance?

Yes, that is true. It gives you an urge to write and such impressions register on what you are writing, on the diction and the imagery that you use. This is why I also think that a poem that simply shouts—a cry, just a cry, that kind of thing—does not take us anywhere, it doesn't elevate us, it does not enrich us, it does not increase us, we as readers.

So this definition of resonance, this approach to resonance you have defined and which you encouraged young writers to follow shows that writing is a re-creation and not simply a duplication?

That is it, you see, exactly. It is a re-creation; you have to recreate life through language, through manipulation, and also through that undercurrent stream of awareness, of myth, and that we have a context we live in. So what we create also must have a context.

And you can suggest this through images, symbols, narrative patterns?

That's it, narrative patterns, exactly. You can definitely bring these in. This is something that, of course, I was not really aware of when I was writing Man Must Live, which is why for me they are very immature stories. …

Immature, but interesting.

Are they interesting?

Yes, there are elements which, in my opinion, point to your future writing.

I see, yes, I suppose you are right. I just get the feeling all the time that there is a better way of doing these things.

In your opinion, what is wrong with these old stories?

The ones in The Living and the Dead to my mind are better. As for Man Must Live, here I was living in this little town called Roodeport in the West Rand, twelve miles out of Johannesburg, tucked away, in the bush, with mountains close by. I felt I wanted to write, just out of an impulse to put something down in writing. First verse and then because of my reading, as I was reading a lot of Russian fiction, short fiction especially, and reading British fiction, things just took shape in my mind, the impulse itself, and I got to writing. I think I was trying to imitate what might be short fiction without ever having read anything about short fiction or the short story but simply blazing that kind of trail. You might even say I was writing something literary, self-consciously.

It can be felt in the diction.

Yes, right. Diction that comes out of a book, practically, and knocked about together to be a short story. That is the only impulse I can think of, that call on me, the desire to write something. “Man, I can do something, I can try to write this kind of story,” I thought to myself.

I suppose when you wrote these short stories you were not directly inspired by your environment?

Well, I was. I was inspired but what I was trying to do was bring the two together: the experience of my life around me, and trying to take that experience to shape it into literary expression, I found myself using these strategies which I was reading in my general reading.

You said in one of the letters published in Bury Me at the Market Place that you were dissatisfied with the novel, with fiction writing, and yet at the same time you were writing Chirundu. Chirundu, it seems to me, is a very interesting experience in terms of narrative form: you use different points of view on the same issue, on the same question, you bring in relativity through form. So, I don't know whether there is a contradiction here. Why did you say you were unhappy with long fiction?

No. I think the context here had something to do with the novel as we know it from the Anglo-Saxon form. That I wanted to see the kind of novel that just moves, the narrative goes. You see, what I do in The Wanderers does not take into consideration any novelistic strategies. I'm just telling the story of the experience of exile, fictionalizing a lot and following my own journeys, pursuing my own journeys, shifting narrative points of view. That is what I was talking about. It seems to me that, especially in the African context, we may be copying the kind of novel that has been in existence for so long, from long-standing traditions. We may use something else to express what we want to express more efficiently. We are talking about a different kind of life here, life-patterns, ways of thinking, ways of feeling, isn't that so? Even melodrama may not be that out of place, as is often perceived to be in the Western concept of the novel. Sentimentality that is often scoffed at in the Western concept may very well come in at different times. What I'm saying is this: that there are so many elements that we can knock about and kick around.

In the same letter I have already alluded to, you say that you had planned to write a book about African voices in the US to build up what you call “a composite portrait in narrative style.” Isn't that what you are doing in Chirundu?

The way I structured Chirundu—and this was done consciously—chiefly, it was this: I have always been in love with the ballad, the literary ballad, and the traditional ballad and the way in which it moves—there is violence at the end and the supernatural comes in—and I thought to myself I would like to do a piece of work that brings in both the lyrical and the dramatic. And so here is the drama: Chirundu's story. And then I bring in Tirenje, who would provide the lyrical, and the drama continued by Moyo—Moyo had said no—and now Chirundu can provide the lyrical dimension and the python the supernatural. That is what I was trying to do.

Talking about Nsato, the python, there are many myths about snakes throughout the continent. What particular myths did you borrow from? Myths from South Africa or from Malawi?

It was really a South African myth about a python that coils itself around an animal. What one can do to save the victim is to cover the eyes of the python so that it will let it go. That kind of myth.

It's an interesting myth because there is an ambivalence in it?

That's right, there is an ambivalence in the myth. Here you have the strength of the python and yet it's vulnerable. And Chirundu is that vulnerable.

To conclude on this point, what you are striving for in fact, it seems to me, is an authentic way of writing fiction in a particular culture?

That is what I'm trying to achieve. These interludes have always intrigued me. The interplay between the dramatic and the lyrical, as I do in Down Second Avenue.

I have actually interpreted these interludes as vantage points from which you look back over the previous chapters. Is that correct?

That is it. Perhaps a little more than looking back to previous chapters. Rather looking for a corner of myself, more lyrical, personal, of the stream of consciousness. That is it. Then I let the story go, but I'm looking for a corner of myself.

Is it why you insist so much on the image of Moses' cradle?

Yes, that is right.

Something to protect, one little place.

That's it.

Is that what you felt when you were a child particularly, immersed in the vast community of Marabastad?

Yes. I felt that often. As I was going into my teens and through my teens, I always felt that kind of loneliness which, I know also, started here, at Maupaneng, moving over vast areas, herding cattle and goats all alone, listening to birdsong and imagining things.

Do you think that contributed to the development of your individuality? the sense of self?

The sense of self, while at the same time not wanting to isolate myself from the context, from the environment. Still living the context but seeking a corner where I can try to understand things.

So in your fiction what you are trying to reconcile is a sense of self, which exists, which is important, and the sense of a wider community?

Right. Because that self, when I probe that self, it never becomes simply a luxury. It's not a fanciful thing because of the need to do that and understand myself in order to understand what is around me. So I'm not that kind of alienated person who says, “I want to do on my own now and simply explore myself.” That is the European individualism.

Now I would like to ask you a few questions about possible development concerning fiction in South Africa. Now that the political question is out of the way what subjects do you think writers will concentrate on mostly? What themes will become prominent in their writing?

The racial theme will continue if only as a historical backdrop. But the way the creative mind, your creative imagination works, I can foresee that we shall latch onto themes that will deal with a larger human condition, even though within the South African context, with the South African historical background. No longer shall we be interested—and I don't think readers will be interested—in merely the theme of oppression. Hence my belief that it's tough life for those who were apprenticed in that mode, the racial mode, the racial approach, and who were not inclined to explore the other dimensions of human life. It's tough. Some of them, who went to colleges, dry up or already have dried up.

Have you any particular names in mind?

There is a young man called Matshoba, some of his short stories have been published by Ravan Press—Call Me Not a Man; he does not write anymore, and Sepamla has continued to write prose, although really he is a poet at heart. There are a few young people who were writing prose in the '80s, groups that Staffrider journal was publishing. Their kind of fiction is not satisfying any more, written in the protest mode. They are gone and I can't conceive them coming back into the arena again. They are dried up. I don't think they will find it easy to change gears for a future novel.

I have in mind a book of essays written by Njabulo Ndebele, The Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Do you think that young writers should rediscover the ordinary, or, as you said somewhere, document African life?

That is true.

In a sense you have already shown the way because I remember that in your Lesane stories you exactly did that—documenting African life.

Right. The drama of African life.

I notice that most of the writers writing after the Soweto era refused to address a European audience in their writings and instead sought to focus on an African audience. My question is: how can their writings become relevant from a literary point of view because, whether you like it or not, literature cannot be simply addressed to one single human community, somehow other people may read it and appreciate it?

That's true. I think there are two ways. There is a way in which you could be addressing your own people, your own cultural heritage but at the same time doing it well. You can have a localized story or a localized poem that is done so well that it is appreciated by other people. There is also a way in which you can just address a local audience and once you do that you'll always fall into the trap of trying to move people to social action, into the pit of propaganda. But if you say, “I want to be read by my people, even if I am not read by anybody else, I want to be read by my people and do it well,” you can do it so well that even people outside of that environment will hear you. When I was writing Down Second Avenue, I really was not thinking specifically of a world audience. Not really. I was thinking of a South African audience, no matter who it might be, but specifically my people, and be understood by them, because I could easily have decided that I'm going to use a diction that is only accessible to the larger world. But it so happened that it did ultimately appeal to people outside.

So we come back to the key issue of the writer as a craftsman?

He is a craftsman. That's what Lewis Nkosi rightly says: writing is a craft while it's an art at the same time.

Another important question is about what we might call the reappropriation of English. You have written a lot about the domesticating of English, an English less marked by English culture. How can that be worked out?

That can be worked out, I think. Number one, reporting dialogue not as if English-speaking people or native English speakers were talking. At the same time, not translating, say the way of The Voice—that Nigerian novel by Gabriel Okara—you see, not in that literal fashion but at the same time capturing the idiom, the metaphor, the symbolism, that is used by people when they talk even in their ordinary, daily speech. Also, I can't imagine that, for instance, I could write the language of a Nadine Gordimer. There's just something high flight and also supreme craft in the use of a language that I wouldn't aspire to because I don't think she is understood by people other than those in academia and a small select audience of white and black people. That's what I think. I think what eludes me in Gordimer is the poetic, the mythical, the spiritual, the mysterious, some of which we find in Paton, William Plomer, Laurens van der Post. But then they are different personalities. She is something of the clinician in her use of style and approach to character, but always admirably competent.

So you are vindicating a kind of medium solution: an English which is understood by English-speaking people but at the same time sounds African only through the use of structures, vocabulary, imagery, and metaphors. In a sense this is a kind of convention you are establishing between yourself and your readers.

And my readers. That's it.

This type of English is understood as being an African language; it suggests the tone of an African language.

The tone, the idea of an African language, the spirit of it, even though it's English.

So it's a literary creation.

Yes, a literary creation. I would like to see this as a literary creation.

This is what you have done in your short stories, in Down Second Avenue and in Father Come Home.

You know, in Father Come Home, I specifically wanted to make it a rural setting and therefore the diction can't try to race through feeling and thinking: I tried to create a pace here that corresponds to the pace of rural life, its contemplative aura.

To go back to the present situation in South Africa and particularly the literary world in South Africa, I'd like to have your opinion about the academic debate between different critical discourses, whether Marxist, structuralist, or poststructuralist, and so on. Where do you situate yourself in this debate?

I must confess that literary theories of today have left me far behind because I have tried to follow some of their arguments. But as a teacher of literature I have not found them particularly useful and accessible in the way one can understand literature, both for myself and also for the people I'm trying to teach literature. I find literary theory a philosophy of its own, a linguistic philosophy of its own. I would not definitely recommend it in the criticism of African literature because the premises are not often the same, the premises from which an African writer takes off, the origins of mythology, the internal regions of African life out of which we write. I think myself that this linguistic philosophy can miss out on a number of features in the process of African literature. Because also these are linguistic theories based on a kind of writing in a variety of European languages which have been in existence for a long time and I guess one can trace this literature and its history down to a specific kind of logic and sum it up in that specific kind of logic. I don't see that being relevant to what is happening and also may yet happen in African literature.

What you suggest, then, is a kind of holistic approach to African literature. In other words, in order to understand it you have to take in different aspects, not simply the text itself but cultural aspects as well—history, society.

That's it. The sociology of a people, the thought systems of a people, the belief systems of a people. That is for me indispensable.

My last question on this topic is about the national question. Nadine Gordimer said in the late '50s that there was no national literature in South Africa. Do you think now that apartheid is gone, you are moving towards a national literature since writers are or will be addressing the same issues?

Yes, we are moving towards that. I think it's a long way off yet because writing as we have been from different compartments of life, different sets of circumstances and experience, we shall continue to create that kind of sectional literatures, knowing that—after all, again, history is an important factor here—when history does say now you are a nation, it will evolve from that kind of concept, that kind of sensibility. If it so happens that integration, social integration, which also implies residential integration, if history takes us that way, so be it, but there will be masses and masses of people still living different lives with a huge black underclass.

I was just thinking about what you said earlier on concerning African humanism and the educational system. Of course, the educational system is essential for the nation. Isn't it the same thing for literature through the educational system? Can a national literature in English develop?

It can develop certainly through the educational system. I was answering your question more from the point of view of the writer producing a national literature. But, yes, when you come to the readership and understanding of the literature, you can create a concept of a national literature. And generation after generation of school-going populations should make it happen. The writing itself will not necessarily keep pace with that. The writer will write according to individual motivation, without feeling that he is bullied by the will of a nation or the process of becoming a nation. He can't write under duress. The two will go on. You realize that this will do for the next generation of writers because this generation of writers, we are trapped in the system as it always has been for three hundred years.

I suppose that if you want a national literature you first need a national community sharing common interests. But this society it still very much sectional.

It is still very much sectional. The Marxist may well try to level the concerns and the anxieties by saying we have a working class and a capitalist class, that there are white capitalists and black capitalists, there is a white middle class and a black middle class and then a black and white working class. But those workers may just superficially have the same problems because they are together on the shop floor in the factory. They don't necessarily have the same dreams or the same nightmares or the same feelings. They are still separate entities.

I suppose, for instance, there is still a lot of resentment between black workers and white workers.

The writer will also be pursuing problems of that kind. They are certainly worthy of record.

Now I would like to conclude this interview with a few personal questions on your present situation. First, are you still involved in the trust you set up in Soweto?

Yes, the Council for Black Education and Research. I have been Chairman of the Board of Trustees until the end of 1996. But the man who succeeded me is an old protégé of mine, Peter Thuynsma, who has been with me for years since Zambia. I taught him in Zambia and subsequently taught him in Denver, where he got his MA and then his PhD, then continued to work and came back to South Africa. He has been directing the center until 1996, at the end of which it had to fold for lack of funds. It is a center which has lately focused on computer literacy for a number of young people.

Where exactly was it situated?

Diepkloof, Greater Soweto, on the premises of Funda Community College. I have also been one of the pioneers of the FUNDA Community College. We began first with integrated studies, mostly social studies and the physical and natural sciences. Then we moved away from that to computer literacy.

Is there a great demand for this kind of study?

There's a great demand, yes.

When the students left the center, they could apply for jobs?

They could apply. Some of them got jobs, others not, and so had to upgrade themselves elsewhere to qualify for more important jobs.

I gather you are still teaching.

I still teach. I still long for the smell of chalk, for the classroom.

You are teaching at the University of the North?

That's right. Teaching English. At the moment I concentrate a lot on the interpretation of literature. We are just on a kind of course that anybody can gain from, up or down the gradation ladder, the first, second, and third years, and even Honors. Then I have a reading club, a reading circle in this area here. We meet once a month—we meet here—to discuss works that we have read over the month. It has proved to become a very important thing, while at the same time we are up against just the instability of African life. You know, in this country we are so unstable and what you see people doing, at various times, say creating a theatrical group or a group of dancers, a choir—there's lot of choral singing in this country, and the choirs hold the membership for longer periods than anybody else does—but all these other things are so unstable, there are lots of things happening in our lives. For instance, you could schedule a day for us to meet and only two people turn up out of twenty. Reason? A variety of reasons. To that extent we are still victims—victims is perhaps too harsh a word—we are still very loyal to our social involvement in funerals, weddings, in the things for which people require to go into Johannesburg, to go into bigger cities, that sort of thing. There is a way in which, when there is a social occasion, there is an instinctive response to that at the expense of anything else. Nothing else matters. Meeting to discuss works of literature very often, even expository literature in the social sciences, takes a back seat. And the social involvement becomes more important even without your discriminating one against the other. So, those are the vicissitudes, the hazards of the game. I'm used to it. Back in the '50s I had a theater group: you were never sure if people would turn up for a performance.

Nonetheless you scored some successes. Perhaps it was easier because it was an urban environment?

You would think that in an urban environment it would be easier, but it was not because the instability of urban life is greater than in rural life. And yet, in rural life, these social involvements come as a distraction. Trouble is that rural life still moves on the subsistence level. Too many people are still glorified gatherers. This saps their energies so that the arts either suffer or begin to fail.

Through this activity do you think you are going to encourage a desire for reading?

Yes, we are trying to. It's a hell of an uphill struggle. It's a drop in the ocean, really. As an American friend once expressed, “it's a peehole in the snow.” It's uphill because there aren't, I know, any reading circles outside of this one and the one we started in the east, in the Eastern Province. Well, one can say that the FUNDA Centre was pretty successful as long as we carried that program, for ten years. It's really difficult. I keep thinking that maybe I should really withdraw from all these community activities and concentrate on my writing.

My last question is about your personal projects. What's in the pipeline in terms of either fiction writing or any other form of writing?

I started not so long ago to try to compile a book of short stories for young readers. I did two, which were published in journals. I'm certainly bound to that. Another is a novel which has been milling around in my mind for some time now, for the last two years. It has a lot to do with neighbors in the street, typical of this town here, where relations go sour between neighbor and neighbor, these particular two neighbors. In one of the two yards, there is a big tree where weaver birds gather and they build their nests. I'm trying to read up on the weaver bird because I want to combine—again, it will be that kind of interlude, you see, I am still stuck on that kind of shape, of framework—the weaver bird and the human story, and the human story going on between these two neighbors who are at war with each other. Because weaver birds have a typical mythology, indifferent but almost as if they were aware of what is happening, of the conflict. But one winter time, shall I say one autumn time, they take off, they're gone. I want to call it And the Birds Flew Away. That's the kind of thing I'm trying to construct. Again I'm looking for resonances. How can I make this conflict between two families the microcosm of the larger conflict, the human conflict, not necessarily racial because it's a black area, an African area, yet feeling the wash of the tide that racism still is.

At the same time you seem to suggest that there is a kind of tragic dimension through the indifference of nature?

Yes, that's right. What bothers me here is: how can I convince anybody that this is not the intellect projecting itself into a situation where relationship between animal life and African life, or human life, shall I say, is thus interwoven? I want to show that there is a reason, a dichotomy in the passage of time, where they are now indifferent to human behavior whereas in earlier days we were all interlinked, we had a sense of interconnectedness with animal life.

This brings me to another question. It seems to me there is a kind of melancholy strain in most of your writings. How would you explain this? Where does it come from?

You are right. I am quite aware of that. I am simply unable to disentangle myself from melancholy. It has a lot to do with my upbringing and just the struggle of growing up, the pain of growing up, I would say. I only experienced a certain kind of euphoria at the age of 21 or 22 when I began to work and earn a living and when I got married a few years later. But that struggle within myself continued. When we left in 1957, that was another wave of euphoria, being free from the situation here. And yet, at the same time for me I have been a prisoner of just the whole condition of exile and not being able to reconcile the two, being away and being in the country, while at the same time being stimulated to achieve, to keep on achieving until one felt there is no point trying to achieve any more in academic terms. Now I think it has a lot to do with that and I do have a way of feeling lonely within myself without being alone. Alone in a crowd. And often I could just take off and drive away to just sit and think without necessarily being in a melancholy mood. That certainly is the constant melancholy streak in my writing. I think that also makes me aware of the joy of life, more distinctly than otherwise I would. I realize how joyous life can be, and it often is for me and those around me. The teacher in me often seizes hold of me, and the teacher in me says: What can I do to be of assistance to my people so that we come to a realization of those things I call our Selves with a capital S? What can I contribute? Maybe there's nothing to contribute. Maybe things are better just left as they are and evolve the way they will. The Taoist philosophy that you let reality be reality and let it drive naturally forward whichever way it may want to go takes hold of me, and then I don't feel so bad. And then again I see things go wrong around me, we fumbling and floundering, and then I say: If only we had, for instance, just an ordinary program of adult education which did not require people going to school during the day but we had night classes, I'd be such a happy man to contribute to that kind of situation. But the situation is all wrong for that kind of thing to happen. Then how people can get there, the public transport is minimal, people would need to have cars to come to the venue, that sort of thing. Just the material means of making it happen are not there. So this is how my moods fluctuate. And we are in the middle of a huge landscape where subsistence activities are the order of the day.

So there's a constant dialectic between your moods, tension and frustration, too.

Frustration, exactly. Then the lighter side of me says: You know this is a small particle of history, history is such a large movement of life, all that one worries about today is just like a snowflake in the air, it comes to nothing really, of no consequence.

So it's not an attitude of resignation but a kind of detachment, a form of wisdom, perhaps?

I think it's a way of counteracting or confronting the reality of loneliness. I guess also much depends on the temperament of the writer. My temperament has always been the kind of person who wants to feel himself think. I want to feel myself think. I don't want simply to say what I think, what I thought. I want to feel myself think. You might even relate it to what T. S. Eliot says: “felt thought.” And I think that is how my temperament goes. About five years ago I decided to probe Oriental literatures and beliefs. I really became drawn to the Taoist and the Buddhist way of thinking.

You have frequently quoted Rabindranath Tagore?

That's right. There is so much depth I feel there and the simplicity of faith also without the fanfare, melodrama, and theater that we put into religious belief. I've always been drawn to Tagore. I'm still with it and take time off to contemplate.

Have you found in this study a kind of continuity with African religions? Are there common links?

Yes, there are common links. There are a lot of things that Buddhism shares with African thought, lots of things. This idea of the flux of time. The way you don't start measuring time. You measure time because we live in that kind of civilization but in effect, in reality, every moment of time is part of eternity. There is no such thing as eternal life, which is always regarded as the afterlife, but there is eternity, you're in it, right now in your life. Tagore has so much depth, so much wisdom. I didn't like the theatrics that go into routine styles of worship.

So what you are aiming at is a kind of simplicity in religious worship, in religious practice?

That's it, very simple, where there is no preaching, no ceremony, no hierarchy, the inevitable hierarchy. Ceremony, I wouldn't discount altogether, but a simple ceremony which is functional, not the kind of ceremony orchestrated by pomp and circumstance.

So you have come to see religion as something which is totally integrated with ordinary life and not reduced to celebrations at certain times?

That's it. It is a continuum and a continuous experience. An experience rather than a mechanical faith.

And do you think this development in the way you see things has filtered into your writing?

Yes, I do.

Did it start with Father Come Home?

It started before without my being aware of it.

Maybe it started with Down Second Avenue?

It started with Down Second Avenue, that's right. Second Avenue begins this interplay between the rural sensibility and urban sensibility. It is forever in me to keep thinking of the rural and of the urban and being a carrier of this dual sensibility.

After all, this opposition is peculiar to South African situation because I have the impression that South Africa is the only African country which has such a strong dichotomy between rural and urban lives?

That is true. And it is dramatized in a number of ways. This dichotomy is even promoted by the things I said earlier that we think we have to acquire, acquisitions from the Western world, town life, and whatever goes with it: the furniture we use, the clothes we wear. We've got to follow fashions again typically in the Western style. All these things are encouraged, promoted by this.

I think it has come with a vengeance now with the development of a consumerist society.

The consumerist thing, consumerist passion has really seized all of us.

It's a challenge for the future both for African humanism and African literature?

Yes, it's a hell of a challenge for the future. That's right.

Thank you very much.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 192


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 true, the convincing picture” of what it is like to grow up black in South Africa.

Suffolk, Peter. “As If Bereaved of Light.” Punch 242, No. 6344 (11 April 1962): 585.

Lauds Mphahlele's The African Image and states, “His vision is disconcertingly penetrating, and his ideas (no less disconcerting) come bubbling out spiced with humour and heavily salted with bitterness until his own vivid, essentially African personality fairly leaps from the page.”

Additional coverage of Mphahlele's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26 and 76; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; and Major 20th-Century Authors, Vol. 2.

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Mphahlele, Ezekiel (Vol. 25)