There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden Summary

Leon Forrest


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden is an experimental novel depicting the growth and development of Nathaniel Witherspoon. Narrated from a central image of Nathaniel Witherspoon riding in a Cadillac with Aunty Breedlove to his mother’s funeral, the novel ranges in time. His mother’s death in the late 1950’s, while Nathan is a teenager, ignites a personal search for meaning in life and leads him to a deeper understanding of his African American family and consciousness.

The novel consists of six chapters: “The Lives,” “The Nightmare,” “The Dream,” “The Vision,” “Wakefulness,” and “Transformation.” It uses various narrative devices such as sermons, letters, poetic monologues, and dialogues to tell the story. For example, “The Lives” depicts the partial biographies of the main fictional characters as well as giving thumbnail sketches of historical figures such as Louis Armstrong, Abraham Lincoln, and Harriet Tubman. Within this section, some of the characters speak to Nathaniel, telling their stories in stream-of-consciousness prose. The last chapter contains a long letter to President Lyndon Baines Johnson by Nathaniel’s grandmother, Sweetie Reed. With the help of Nathaniel, who types out her long-winded oration, Sweetie outlines poignantly the progress of her people while indicting the American government for its injustices to the black race. The final section of the novel contains a sermon concerning Martin...

(The entire section is 594 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden is a novel which explores the consciousness of a number of characters. From the record of those explorations, one comes to understand not only the characters but also some of the events which shaped them. There is no traditional plot line which proceeds in an orderly fashion throughout the novel. There are, however, a number of incidents which were important enough to influence the characters.

One of those incidents, referred to in the initial description of Nathaniel Witherspoon and repeated in the final chapter of the book, is the funeral procession of Nathaniel’s mother. Another has to do with Nathaniel’s grandfather, Jericho Witherspoon. Born into slavery, his father a white man, Jericho once attempted to escape, and the pursuit by bloodhounds has become a part of the family memory. So that he would “know his place,” the white man branded his black son, and that memory, too, has come down through the generations. Jericho hated his white father; Jericho’s son hates his white grandfather.

The lives of the Fishbond family also become important in the novel. Hilda Mae Fishbond becomes the head of the family when her husband walks out, leaving seven children and a pregnant wife. For a time she manages, working for rich people for almost nothing. Finally, one cold night, without heat, almost without food, she snaps, tears up her apartment and sets it on fire, leading her brood down the fire escape.

In his progress through jails and mental institutions, Jamestown Fishbond is taunted and abused. At one time he is beaten and fears damage to his genitals; at another he is plunged into water in a straitjacket and fears that he is being drowned. Yet his most humiliating experience occurs when he is a small boy: At a party of Nathaniel’s color-proud mulatto kin, Jamestown has the door slammed in his face.

Finally, the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, winding through the countryside and through the novel, fusing with the funeral procession of Nathaniel’s mother, is an important plot element and a major motif in what is a thematically constructed work.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Discusses Forrest in the section on fabulation, romance, and fantasy. Considers Forrest as part of a tradition of black fabulators who use dream visions and other linguistic forms to present personal and spiritual journeys.

Byerman, Keith E. “Orphans and Circuses: The Literary Experiments of Leon Forrest and Clarence Major.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Praises Forrest’s use of stream-of-consciousness techniques and believes that within the stylized and surreal episodes lies a cultural wealth of material carried by black Americans.

Forrest, Leon. Conversations with Leon Forrest. Edited by Dana A. Williams. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. This compilation of interviews with Forrest provides insight into his creative process and his thoughts on literature; includes one interview devoted entirely to There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden.

Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African-American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Jones stresses the blues, jazz, spiritual, and sermonic rhythms of the text as it attempts to redefine the oral tradition of black Americans.

Lee, A. Robert. “Making New: Styles of Innovation in the Contemporary Black American Novel.” In Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. Comments on Forrest’s strengths in making symbolic connections between generations while expressing mythic racial truths of American history.

Mootry, Maria K. “If He Changed My Name: An Interview with Leon Forrest.” The Massachusetts Review 18 (Winter, 1977): 631-642. The author comments on his own goals, interpretations of his novels, and his writing style.