Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Linden Hills is Naylor’s second novel, coming after the extremely successful The Women of Brewster Place (1982). Linden Hills examines a second panel of twentieth century African American life. The Women of Brewster Place reflected the faults, passions, and culture of a poor community. Linden Hills, on the other hand, is a representation of the affluent and spiritually dissolute upper class. Linden Hills is also a modern version of Dante’s Inferno; souls are damned here because they have offended human nature and themselves rather than any religious system. Naylor’s novel is thus an allegory based on the physical and moral topography of the Inferno, covering five days in the life of a twenty-year-old black poet, Willie Mason.
Like Dante, Willie analyzes the lives of the inhabitants of the hills as he works his way from the top to the bottom as a handyman. When he finally escapes from the frozen lake at the bottom of Linden Hills, Willie decides to give up his aimlessness and take charge of his life. Dante’s model universalizes the novel and also gives a mythic dimension to what otherwise would have been a narrow subject. Naylor’s bow to Dante’s work puts her within a long literary tradition. Linden Hills is also a part of an explosion of noted works by African American women, including Naylor and her prominent contemporaries Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Paule Marshall.