Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

by Randall Kenan

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

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, A Visitation of Spirits, had a plot similar to the title story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; in both stories a young black man calls on magical powers that he is then unable to control. Among the ideas that Kenan shares with Johnson is the conviction that ideas themselves are important to people and thus should be important to fiction; therefore, one finds in both of these writers an interest and willingness to ruminate over ideas. Additionally, both writers are willing to present magic in their writing as it is presented in folklore—that is, as something that sometimes works and can affect people’s lives but is only a small part of a larger reality.

The two most apparent influences on Kenan’s work are James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Kenan shares in common with Baldwin a willingness to explore the importance people place on sexual desire in all of its manifestations and an understanding that sexual desire can be charged with a spiritual fervor. With Morrison, Kenan seems to share some of his recurring moral vision. Morrison has written extensively on the importance in African American literature of both the community and ancestor figures in the community. One of the changes in direction that is evident between Kenan’s first book and Let the Dead Bury Their Dead is that a reader gets much more exploration of Tims Creek in the later book. Further, although A Visitation of Spirits certainly was concerned about the role of community elders, the stories in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead—especially the title story, but also “Ragnorak! The Day the Gods Die” and “Cornsilk”—explore more richly the problematic interaction between younger members of the community and their elders.

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