Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
High Cotton is a significant contribution to the discussion of race in America, providing a balance in several ways. For one, the novel calls attention to an often overlooked segment of African American society, a literate black middle class that has been established for generations. For another, it examines black identity as a complex concept that has changed over time and that is fraught with ambiguity. For still another, it stresses the weight of African American history on the present: “The past gets longer and longer,” the author notes. Finally, the book injects honesty into a public discussion almost stifled by stereotypes, clichés, ignorance, hypocrisy, and political correctness. Pinckney seems to take delight in opening up the discussion by revealing shibboleths and flinging around “bad” words (he refers to Harlem, for example, as “Valley of the Shines”).
In High Cotton, his first novel, Pinckney already has a successful voice, a voice that is shocking, erudite, entertaining, and distinctive. Prior to publishing the novel, he developed the voice by writing essays on African American literature for The New York Review of Books. So what if his narration in High Cotton does resemble a string of essays and anecdotes loosely tied together? This narration too seems to be part of his distinctive style.