Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
The System of Dante’s Hell appeared under the author’s given (Baraka would say “slave”) name, Everett LeRoi Jones. This is significant, since Baraka’s adoption of a Muslim name just a year later, in 1966, represents one way in which the author has attempted to deal with the difficulty that his novel presents but never resolves. Baraka chose his new name carefully. Imamu signifies a Muslim poet-priest; an honorific title rather than a name per se, it implies that artistic creation is concomitantly a religious act. (Baraka subsequently dropped this title.) Amiri implies a warrior-leader and transcends the “slave name” Jones. Baraka is a gift or blessing—in the author’s case, a conversion from his intellectual Western and Christian background to another intellectual and religious tradition, Eastern and Muslim. His name change therefore implies that Baraka had continued to deal with and, at least on one level, resolve the problem his Narrator considers unsolvable.
Baraka’s novel drew considerable fire from critics upon publication. Most considered it largely unreadable; others gave cautious approval to the “fast narratives.” Even so, the book exists, not for its readers, but for its author. It is a work that Baraka had to write, one from the depths of his experience. Though it may seem to its readers at times offensive or outrageous, it is the work of a profoundly original mind, of a man who has seen “the dark night of the soul” and survived.