(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The 180 pages of Hurry Home are divided into three sections. The point of view shifts frequently from third to first person, sometimes even taking notebook form. The jumpy narration, lacking transitions to aid readers, is extremely difficult to follow. Despite the clues tucked away casually at points throughout—dates and place names thrown in almost in passing—putting events in a logical and coherent order demands constant attention. This storytelling style, apparently meant to be in a high modernist mode, but an ineffective employment of it, combines with often-shaky prose and a spattering of merely decorative literary allusions to turn the story of the protagonist, Cecil Braithwaite, into a mere puzzle too much of the time.

The ordeal of Cecil Braithwaite commands attention, for it presents an intelligent man striving for high achievement and succeeding against considerable odds. Cecil is only the third African American to have been admitted to his law school and is only the second to be graduated. Cecil has to cope with poverty, work, and the distress he suffers from his girlfriend Esther’s stillborn birth of the son they had already named Simon.

The novel opens on November 14, 1968. November is the month in which bad things always happen to Cecil, the month that he can get through only by going to bed with a bottle. He had been graduated from law school and married Esther in 1964, spent three years abroad, and returned to Esther in 1967. In 1968, he is working as a janitor at the Banbury Street Arms, enduring life as best he can. Why he is not practicing law is not explained, but he apparently is in a state of spiritual sloth.

Cecil’s state of mind is dramatized in the opening scene. As he cleans a stairwell, he picks up a tin can, crushes it, and drops it five stories to the basement. The echoing racket rises to the fifth floor, where a woman—red-haired S. Sherman, thirty-two years old—opens her door and asks him why he dropped the can. They have been aware of each other’s presence for a year. The result of their...

(The entire section is 851 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As Hurry Home begins, Cecil Otis Braithwaite, the janitor of an apartment complex, dreamily crushes a Carnation milk can and drops it five flights into Dantesque murk. Staring deep into the darkness, he recalls “how they run movies backward, how the can could leap up from the floor, return to his hand and unfold there, a flower opening.” This thought suggests the novel’s structure: As in one convoluted instant replay, all the characters relate events that occurred months and years earlier, dovetailing past and present through letters, diaries, dialogues, and random thoughts.

The novel’s mainstays are Cecil’s stream-of-consciousness reminiscences. He has supported his law studies through earnings from janitoring, a scholarship in his final year, and his girlfriend Esther Brown’s hard work. His relationship with Esther has been soured by the stillborn birth of their son Simon, which he finally attributes to Esther’s being “just too tired to carry him any longer.” Nevertheless, he marries her on his graduation day, ostensibly to provide a comfortable life in return for her love and loyalty. Anguished that he cannot return her affection, he deserts her that same night.

Cecil then drifts for three years, mainly on the European continent. He haunts museums, old parks, and libraries as if the past can imbue him with purpose and fearlessness. Often he seesaws to the other extreme, carousing in bars and initiating liaisons...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Coleman, James W. Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Of the seven chapters in this book, one is devoted to Hurry Home and is subtitled “The Black Intellectual Uncertain and Confused.” The black intellectual’s alienation is stressed, and much is made—though not to much point—of the modernist narrative method. An interview recorded in 1988 makes an excellent appendix.

Coleman, James W. “John Edgar Wideman.” In African American Writers, edited by Valerie Smith. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. A useful survey of Wideman’s career, but only brief comments on Hurry Home.

Draper, James P., ed. Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Provides a biographical profile, as well as excerpts from criticism of many of Wideman’s works.

Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1995. Mbalia examines a number of Wideman’s works while exploring themes such as the African personality in Wideman’s writings, the way Wideman portrays women, and the place of the intellectual in the community.

Mumia, Abu-Jamal. “The Fictive Realism of John Edgar Wideman.” Black...

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