Sutton Griggs Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Griggs, Sutton 1872-1930

(full name Sutton Elbert Griggs) American novelist and nonfiction writer.

On the strength of his five novels, Griggs became an influential figure in African-American fiction during the period between Reconstruction and the Depression. His influence rests not on his ability as a craftsman—critics have tended to judge Griggs's work harshly for its limits in characterization and plot—but on his political foresight. Written in an age characterized by "Jim Crow" laws and militant white supremacy, works such as Imperium in Imperio (1899) called for blacks to take action against whites in order to establish a separate nation in the Southeast. Few were prepared to take the steps demanded by Griggs; only in a later era would African-American critics pay homage to an author who, in spite of his shortcomings as a stylist, offered sometimes uncannily accurate political prophecies.

Biographical Information

Born the son of a Baptist minister, Griggs grew up in Texas, and graduated from Bishop College in the town of Marshall in 1890. He attended Richmond Theological Seminary, finishing in 1893. Following his ordination, he assumed his first pastorate in Berkley, Virginia. In 1895 he moved to Tennessee, first to East Nashville and then Memphis, and in 1897 married Emma Williams. The couple had no children, and for the next three decades Griggs would devote himself to his church and his writing. Griggs wrote five novels and published them—at his own expense—over a period of nine years. As a selfpublished author with a high personal stake in his books' success, he sold them door-to-door, which one critic has cited as a reason for the greater impact of his work over that of contemporary Charles Chesnutt. But Griggs turned to nonfiction following the publication of his last novel in 1908, producing a number of full-length books and tracts on issues of concern to African Americans. His philosophy had mellowed over the years, and whereas he had begun by implicitly advocating armed struggle against the white government of the United States, he ultimately became more accommodationist in his views. His financial losses from his books ended a plan to rebuild his Memphis church, and in the latter years of his life Griggs returned to Texas. There he became pastor of his father's old church in Denison, then moved to a position as leader of a Baptist organization in Houston just before his death.

Major Works

Griggs's primary impact came through his novels, and secondarily by means of nonfiction works such as Wisdom's Call (1911). Among the themes of his fiction are racial violence; the need for a separate black nation; questions of racial purity arising from the mixing of bloodlines because of white men raping black women; and the endurance of suffering by patient black characters, usually women. By far the most significant of his novels is his first, Imperium in Imperio, whose two central figures are the dark-skinned and poor Belton Piedmont and his friend Bernard Belgrave. Bernard is lightskinned, and he lives well because his mother is "kept" by a white man—presumably his father—yet he proves the more politically radical of the two friends. He becomes leader of the "Imperium in Imperio" (Empire within the Empire), a black nationalist movement, whereas Bernard dies of execution by the Imperium for his failure to support its radical plan to wage war on the United States. The novel is filled with improbable events, including Belton's miraculous survival of hanging, shooting, and an attempted dissection; or the suicide of Bernard's fiancee Viola, who kills herself rather than contribute to further miscegenation by marrying a mulatto. Belton, Bernard, and Viola—respectively the cautious conservative, the hot-headed revolutionary, and the longsuffering woman who accepts death before dishonor—reappear in other Griggs novels. In Unfettered (1902), for instance, there is the passive Harry Dalton, the "ebony-like Apollo" Dorian Worthell, and the woman they both love, Morlene. White characters are often vicious race-baiters like Horace Christian in Overshadowed (1901), who keeps a black mistress; but in The Hindered Hand (1905) a white prosecutor risks his reputation in an unsuccessful bid to bring a lynch mob to justice. Pointing the Way (1908), Griggs's last and least critically acclaimed novel, was also his most accommodationist in tone. It involves a wide array of characers and a confusing plot, but at the center of it are familiar Griggs characters such as the heroic Baug Peppers, who ultimately brings a case before the Supreme Court, and his mixed-race bride, Eina. After Pointing the Way, Griggs turned to nonfiction, producing works such as Wisdom's Call, in which he developed themes of black self-reliance that had appeared in his novels. The Story of My Struggles (1914) presented those ideas in an autobiogrphical light; and in works such as Life's Demands (1916) and Guide to Racial Greatness (1923), Griggs applied his considerable learning in the natural and social sciences to questions that concerned African-Americans of his day.