Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The reviews of The Learning Tree were supportive but not enthusiastic. Whitney Balliett called it an old-fashioned melodrama, but with an African American rather than a white hero. Comparing it to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Balliett complained about excessive “blood, blood, blood.” David Dempsey also noted the melodramatic nature of the novel. Arguing that it was too much an adventure story, Dempsey disapproved of the plot. He found the significance of The Learning Tree in its portrayal of a time when African Americans were more concerned with their personal problems than with racial justice. Another reviewer, Nat Hentoff, called it a book for boys, not adults. Placing it in the literary tradition of works about small-town life by such writers as Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe, he noted the moralistic nature of the work and its characters, contrasting that with the moral ambiguities portrayed by Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner.

The reviewers reflected their own time. When the book was published in 1963, the Civil Rights movement was fighting racism on many fronts. Parks’s portrayal of African Americans in the different world of the 1920’s did not strike a familiar chord with the literary and social critics of a later time. The author writes of a society and a family in which traditional religious and moral values were accepted without question. By the 1960’s, much had changed.

The Learning Tree has had little impact upon later African American writers, and later critical commentaries rarely discussed its significance as a work of art. Nevertheless, it has remained in print almost continuously since it was first published, and in 1969 it was made into a successful film directed by Gordon Parks, who became the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film. If not widely praised by critics, then or since, the novel has been read avidly by more than one generation of Americans.