(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Reading as a picaresque novel of its protagonist’s adventures on three continents, a spy novel, and a historical novel, The Man Who Cried I Am is a political novel in the large sense of exploring the causes and effects of the actions of persons, organizations, and governments in their relationships with each other. Its plot is woven of the inner and outer aspects of the life of its protagonist, Max Reddick, whose personal history illustrates developments in American race relations between the mid-1930’s and the mid-1960’s. The story is narrated from the omniscient third-person point of view, but in a voice that often features the dying Max Reddick’s reflections upon his present circumstances or his memories that are stimulated by the funeral in Paris of his dear friend and fellow black novelist, Harry Ames, and his meeting in Amsterdam with his estranged wife, Margrit.

The novel’s opening and closing scenes take place in an outdoor café in Amsterdam. In the opening scene, Max Reddick sits waiting for Margrit to walk by, on her way home. The day before, after Harry Ames’s funeral, Harry’s mistress had asked Max to meet her soon about papers that Harry left for him. Now he muses about sexual attraction, the role of black artists as entertainers for the Dutch, the role of the Dutch in making the first sale of African slaves bound for North America, his rectal bleeding and pain, his impending death, and his feelings about Margrit. When finally he sees and calls to Margrit, he confuses her with Lillian, his first great love and loss, and he feels an unanticipated rush of love for his estranged wife. He hides his illness...

(The entire section is 676 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Man Who Cried I Am is the somber chronicle of Max Reddick, a novelist and journalist who, while suffering the final stages of rectal cancer, introspectively reflects on his life and experiences, covering three decades, which take him to three continents and through numerous personal upheavals. As a reporter-observer (“That’s what you are, Max, a noticer, a digger of scenes”), Max fashions a tale which represents the excursion of the black American through perhaps the most disquieting and turbulent period in American history. Throughout his reflections on past successes and failures and his associations with various women, Max Reddick ponders the state of black America, what it means to be black and living in late-twentieth century America.

Upon his ironic return to Amsterdam (“I’ve returned. A Dutch man o’ warre that sold us twenty negars,’ John Rolfe wrote, Well, you-all, I bring myself. Free! Three hundred and forty-five years after Jamestown. Now . . . how’s that for the circle come full?”), Max gains possession of documents detailing the organized extermination of all blacks in America. After reading the King Alfred Plan, the name of the “emergency” operation, Max realizes that America has no intention of making good on its proclamations of fairness and equality and that his own tragic odyssey embodies that of the deluded black American: “Destruction . . . was very much a part of democratic capitalism, a philosophy which was implicitly duplicitous, meaning all its fine words and slogans, but leaving the performance of them to unseen elfs, gnomes, and fairies.”

The novel’s bleak prediction for American society is best represented in Max’s conclusion that history must have its victims and that those victims must be conditioned to being victimized. Thus, Max must admit near the end of the novel, “Man is nature, nature man, and all crude and raw, stinking, vicious, evil. . . . It is still eat, drink, and be murderous, for tomorrow I may be among the murdered.”

Yet there is a glimmer of optimism remaining for Max, who retains the will to resist, and it is in this resistance that the possibility of good can come about, for once man recognizes that he is evil, then he, by resisting his own degenerate nature, will attempt to better himself.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bryant, Jerry H. “John A. Williams: The Political Use of the Novel.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 16, no. 3 (1975): 81-100. Williams uses the novel to communicate an accurate picture of racism in America, showing whites the extent of the damage done by discrimination and suggesting how African Americans might overcome it. He also uses the novel to show individual struggle for awareness, clear perspective, and self-knowledge in a world in which the truth is ambiguous, motivations are impure, and feelings are mixed. He draws readers into mo-ments of revelation and ambivalence.

Burke, William M. “The Resistance of John A. Williams: The Man Who Cried I Am.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 15, no. 3 (1973): 5-14. Max Reddick knows the full horror of cyclical human history. His responses to positive experiences in his personal life and his choice of deaths illustrate Williams’ theme of affirmation and dignity achieved through resistance.

Cash, Earl A. John A. Williams: The Evolution of a Black Writer. New York: Third Press, 1975. Presents autobiographical elements, historical parallels, and Williams’ ongoing themes. An appendix includes informative interviews with Williams.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1975. Max Reddick...

(The entire section is 443 words.)