Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
The System of Dante’s Hell represents an early effort in the postwar period to appropriate a classic of Western civilization for the cultural use of a non-Western audience and culture. Although it may be neither accurate nor productive to consider African Americans outside the domain of Western or Anglophone culture, it must be acknowledged that the status of these people and the works of their imagination as either contributing to or dissenting from those of the dominant culture remain matters of intense debate. Some of the intellectual and artistic energy fueling that debate and some of the debate’s ultimately political implications are given significant expression in the form, technique, and revolutionary conception of The System of Dante’s Hell.
In addition to its cultural and perhaps ideological self-consciousness, the novel seems to owe some local artistic debts. Its decision to construct an artistic reality based on an ethos of community energies seems to draw, without specific acknowledgment, on the example of William Carlos Williams, the influential New Jersey poet and man of letters. It would be surprising if Baraka, whose reputation rests on his poetry and drama rather than on his fiction, were not aware of both Williams’s fidelity to place and his artistic experimentalism. The status given the New Jersey city of Paterson in Williams’s long poem “Paterson” (1946-1951) is comparable to that given Baraka’s Newark in The System of Dante’s Hell. In that sense, the novel has a perhaps paradoxical, even marginal, but nevertheless revealing place in the American tradition of radical aesthetics.
An additional factor that must be included in any assessment of this novel’s significance is its date of publication. The history of the mid-1960’s in the United States is to a considerable extent the history of the African American and the adjustments made to accommodate the African American struggle for an adequate model of citizenship. That struggle took many forms, not the least of which were artistic. The public expression of a critical African American consciousness during this period provides a standpoint from which the revolutionary artistic character of The System of Dante’s Hell can be evaluated, particularly as the novel’s psychological tropes, community dynamics, and radical form identify energies and anxieties within the African American experience that are far from being fully acknowledged.