Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In his short stories, Randall Kenan shows himself to be not only a fine writer but also an active student of literature. Let the Dead Bury Their Dead shows the influence of a wide variety of writers but does not let these influences interfere with the enjoyment of the text. In the best tradition of artistic influence, Randall Kenan has borrowed ideas and techniques both broadly and widely to fashion a series of short stories that are highly original.

Using a series of interconnected short stories to tell the story of a town is a form pioneered by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life (1919) and developed by Anderson’s African American protégé, Jean Toomer, in Cane (1923). Like both Toomer and Anderson, Kenan uses the form to reveal the hidden and half-hidden passions of members of the town. Kenan’s stories, however, are much fuller than the short sketches in Winesburg, Ohio or Cane. Although he is sometimes satisfied with presenting only a fleeting glimpse, he tends to make his reader look long and hard at each person.

In his interest in history, his playfulness, and his deep concern with ideas that are of spiritual importance to people, Kenan also shows a definite affinity to a more contemporary writer, Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage (1990) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986), among other works. Kenan’s first novel,...

(The entire section is 523 words.)