Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When Sarah Phillips was published, it was naturally compared to Andrea Lee’s earlier work, Russian Journal (1981), a diary of a trip Lee and her husband made to the Soviet Union. Although Russian Journal was highly praised as a well-written, perceptive work, reviewers were surprised that the author seemed so little interested in race and, in fact, hardly mentioned that she was black.

Unlike Russian Journal, Sarah Phillips does deal specifically with the difficulty of being African American in a white society. Sarah, though, is a member of a prosperous, conservative black subculture that seems to have more in common with whites of the same social level than with poor blacks; the fact that critics vary so greatly in their assessment of the novel may reflect the varying attitudes toward the class that Andrea Lee describes. While some have lauded Lee for her realism, even for pointing out a cultural common ground between middle-class whites and blacks, others have accused the author of elitism and of indifference toward the black heritage.

Because Sarah Phillips is written in the first person, and because the protagonist has the same background as the book’s author, it is difficult to distinguish the degree to which the novel is autobiographical. This question is particularly important, because many readers find that Sarah is too detached to be an appealing character. It may be that Lee is pointing out Sarah’s passivity; it may also be that Lee shares Sarah’s habit of maintaining a distance from her subject. Whatever the case, critics have generally agreed that Lee’s first novel is beautifully written and perceptive.