The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Max Reddick’s cry of “I am” echoes those of many characters in American literature, but as a black, male victim of racism, Max most notably echoes Richard Wright’s protagonists, Bigger Thomas and Cross Damon, and Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist of Invisible Man (1952). Like the last of those, Max is kept running, by racists and by his pride, but he runs on three continents. After decades of struggle and of growing success as a novelist, journalist, and presidential speechwriter, he sees, with his acute eye for the history that he hates, that his successes have been used by racists and have led him away from himself and to his destruction. In choosing his mode of destruction, however, he is finally able to be true to himself and to strike a blow against the enemies of his blackness and his selfhood. Sitting at the café at the opening of the novel, he knows that he exists because he hurts, physically and emotionally. At the end, on his way back to the café (but actually to his death), he is reminded by Saminone, a trickster figure but the voice of his honest if humbling historical black identity, that he is real.

Another device for characterization that Williams uses to make much the same point is Max’s love and loss of two women, one black and one white. In loving Lillian, rather than a white woman, Max affirmed his blackness and his freedom from the symbolic power of stereotyped white womanhood, but he also evaded the problems...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Max Reddick is the central character of the novel, and it is through his eyes that the reader sees the panorama of history colored by the condition of the black intellectual/artist. Max’s character is somewhat autobiographical (he, like Williams, is a novelist with a journalistic background; also, as Williams did, he must grapple with the choice between the quixotic pursuit of writing as a livelihood and the practical pursuit of getting a “real” job in the real world of the 1950’s black man). In his relationship with Harry Ames, the Richard Wright figure in the novel, however, Max resembles a combination of several black writers (including Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison) working during Wright’s tenure as “literary father.” Max assumes the role of the artist, of the observer; his function is to be “a super Confidence Man, a Benito Cereno saddened beyond death.” Yet he assumes this role only near the end of the novel, when he receives the King Alfred Plan.

Max must be kept aware of his racial and historical self by his cynical, Dozens-playing subconscious, Saminone (Sambo-in-one), and by his literary mentor, Harry Ames. Ames, older and more consistently militant than Max, is vividly portrayed in The Man Who Cried I Am as the man who, with some modifications, Max could become. Early in the story, after Max has published his first novel, Harry explains to Max: “I’m the way I am, the kind of writer I am, and you may be too, because I’m a black man; therefore, we’re in rebellion; we’ve got to be. We have no other function as valid as that one.”

As far as his relationships with women are concerned, Max is compelled to compare each to his beloved Lillian, who dies after a botched abortion. Max’s subsequent marriage to Margrit is a result of his initial attraction to her as a white reincarnation of the dead Lillian. Lillian, a middle-class black girl with middle-class dreams, does not want Max to follow the road of shattered dreams that so many other black men had traveled before. She wants security and predictability, but for Max to pursue such goals would be to forsake his role as an artist.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Maxwell (Max) Reddick

Maxwell (Max) Reddick, a black novelist and journalist in his forties. Max struggles relentlessly against the forces of prejudice that would prevent him and other black people from achieving a place in American life and letters. After an assignment in the Army during World War II, he goes to Harlem and lives in poverty while writing his first novel. Although many liberals offer help, none of their promises or jobs ever materializes. Living in Europe, he at first believes that there is less racism there, but he becomes more aware of it when he marries a Dutch girl, Margrit. He travels to Africa and sees at first hand the corruption that is encouraged by whites and all too willingly carried on by black people. Later, Max hears of the death of Harry Ames and receives the message about the King Alfred Plan to control black people in America. He also discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. Soon afterward, he dies fighting two black CIA agents. He has passed on the material given him by Harry to Minister Q., but the minister also is assassinated, so there is no one left who can expose this conspiracy against black people.

Harry Ames

Harry Ames, an expatriate black novelist modeled on Richard Wright. Ames was one of the earliest black novelists and spent some time in the Communist Party in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He leaves the Communist Party in the 1940’s and struggles to continue as a novelist. He befriends Max Reddick, although there is a natural rivalry among the fellow writers. He perceives a great opportunity when the Lykeion Foundation offers him a fellowship and a...

(The entire section is 675 words.)