Ezekiel Mphahlele 1919-
(Also writes as Es'kia Mphahlele) South African novelist, autobiographer, essayist, short story writer, and editor, poet, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Mphahlele's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.
Mphahlele is noted as a major African author and a provocative social critic. He is especially known for his autobiography Down Second Avenue (1959) and the novel The Wanderers (1971). His writing has been marked by the alienation and pain he experienced during three distinct periods of his life: living in South Africa from birth through early middle age; a self-imposed twenty year exile from South Africa; and his ultimate return to that nation in 1977.
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.
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.
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.