One Way to Heaven by Countée Porter

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Countée Cullen, well known as a black poet, wrote only one novel, One Way to Heaven. Given the fervor of the Harlem Renaissance, in which Cullen was an active participant, it is not surprising that he would turn his talents to writing a book that reflected elements of this movement.

One Way to Heaven has been called two novels in one, largely because it has a dual focus. On the one hand, it is concerned with Mattie Johnson and her love affair with Sam Lucas, a dark, handsome, one-armed confidence man from Texas who never stays long in one place. On the other hand, the novel is a satire on the social life of Harlem’s emerging middle-class black population.

The common thread in the two stories is that Mattie Johnson, a good-looking young black woman, works as a domestic servant for Constancia Brandon, wife of Dr. George Brandon, a physician from Oklahoma who has made considerable money in oil. Constancia, light enough to pass for white, is exhilarated by life in Harlem, where she is a well-established hostess and organizer of social events.

The Mattie-Sam story begins when Sam goes to the Mt. Hebron Episcopal Church in Harlem and there undergoes a conversion to the faith. Unknown to Mattie, it is part of Sam’s habitual pattern when he goes to a new place to undergo a public conversion in order to make the congregation have confidence in him.

Sam’s performance at the Mt. Hebron Episcopal Church is superb. He goes to the altar with tears welling up in his eyes, but not before he has taken from his pocket and dashed to the floor a deck of playing cards and an “evil looking razor,” which are devices of the Devil. So impressed is the congregation that nine other people, including Mattie, who up until this time has been reluctant to be converted, follow Sam to the altar. After Sam has been converted, members of the congregation flock around him, some forcing money upon him.

The Reverend Clarence Johnson, who is present for Sam’s conversion, recognizes Sam as a drifter who has undergone a similar conversion in his presence in Memphis some time before. He does not make much of this fact, however, and instead ruminates on Sam’s success in bringing nine other souls to God, a record that the Reverend Johnson himself could not have equaled that day.

Mattie falls in love with Sam instantly, and before long they are married. Constancia Brandon insists on having the wedding at her residence, and she is also instrumental in arranging for Sam to be employed as doorman at a nearby theater. Sam certainly is not the marrying kind, and he soon succumbs to the flirtations of Emma May, the usher in the theater where he is doorman.

Mattie by this time has become pregnant. Her baby dies a few hours after it is born, and Sam leaves Mattie to go off and live with Emma May. Mattie is looked after by Aunt Mandy, an old black woman whose faith is a mixture of pagan animism and Christianity. Aunt Mandy blames Mattie for Sam’s leaving.

Eventually Sam falls ill with pneumonia, and Mattie generously agrees to take him back and to care for him in his illness. She expresses her concern to Aunt Mandy that Sam has not truly been saved. She wants to be with him and their baby in the Hereafter.

Aunt Mandy tells Mattie that sometimes dying people receive signs, hear celestial choirs, and are converted before they finally expire. Sam, overhearing the conversation, feigns a genuine conversion out of deference to Mattie. This is the first selfless act that Sam has committed, and through it Mattie has the comfort of thinking that he will die in a state of grace.

Interwoven with the Mattie-Sam plot are the Constancia Brandon episodes. Actually this portion of the book has no consistent plot but is rather a series of highly satiric and quite entertaining vignettes about life among fairly well-to-do blacks in Harlem during the 1920’s.

In the preface to One Way to Heaven , Cullen waggishly states, “Some of the characters in this book are fictitious.” Actually, anyone who...

(The entire section is 1,106 words.)