Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The narrative strategy of assembling a cast of characters and sending them on a voyage can be traced at least as far back as the fifteenth century German poem Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Ship of Folys of the Worlde, 1509), and the representative nature of the characters of Natives of My Person, as well as its inevitable moral critique, align it with the tradition of such works. This tradition has connotations of plotting a course and envisaging a destination, as well as of foundering and losing one’s bearings. These two sets of connotations continually interact in Natives of My Person.

Despite the work’s allegorical potential deriving from its medieval prototype, the novel’s main critical context is indebted to more modern works. Although Natives of My Person is conceived and executed on a much larger scale than Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), its thematic debt to that work is not difficult to discern. The thematic force of the journey as an event of more psychological than geographical interest is obviously present in both works, and the insistence on the corrupting effects of power, and on power conceived of in exclusively exploitative terms, is also aired in Conrad’s story.

It is important also not to overlook the author’s declaration of his own cultural allegiances. These are suggested in his partial dedication of the novel to the African American author Richard Wright and in the title’s echo of Wright’s most celebrated novel, Native Son (1940). Apart from the inherent interest in one writer’s public homage to another, the dedication acts as a firm reminder that the issues raised in Natives of My Person have remained current, and that the human history that engendered these issues still requires the imaginative reconstruction and moral dissection to which George Lamming subjects it.