There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden Characters

Leon Forrest

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Nathaniel Witherspoon is the central character in the novel, which chronicles the Witherspoon family as well as the neighborhood of Forest County. Nathan’s inward search begins as he sits in a Cadillac with Aunty Breedlove on the way to his mother’s funeral. In his late teens, Nathaniel is a troubled youth searching for meaning in his existence, torn in different directions by members of his family and the influences of life in an American city. Nathaniel’s journey transcends the bonds of time and space. The exploration of his consciousness reaches far back, to the memory of his grandfather, Jericho Witherspoon, who was born a slave. It also reaches to his immediate future, when he attends college. It is through his consciousness that the voices of the past speak as he weighs the lives and influences of his ancestors against the troubles of the present. Nathaniel’s own development is illustrated through a number of vignettes that show his attachment to as well as conflict with his family. His father is strongly outlined in the first part of the novel. As a man who works as a cook, he is considered to be a failure by the more successful Dupont side of the family. Nathaniel recognizes his father’s appreciation of the small wonders of life; that appreciation influences Nathaniel to develop his own poetic strengths.

The Duponts provide a more sinister influence. The family has made a fortune on skin-bleaching cream. Nathan feels the pull of their mercenary power. In the end, the voices of his ancestors who struggled out of slavery and built a community enliven his spirit and point the...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Forrest’s list of characters in the first section of the book, “The Lives,” includes purely fictional characters along with real ones—Louis Armstrong, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln. Among Nathaniel Witherspoon’s childhood friends, Goodwin “Stale-Bread” Winters is disposed of in two phrases—he was the class valedictorian, he overdosed and died. The lives of Taylor “Warm-Gravy” James and Maxwell (“Black-Ball”) Saltport are related fairly objectively, though Forrest does become more poetic when he speaks of Saltport’s religious change. For M. C. (or Master-of-Ceremonies) Browne, who was killed by his father, Forrest changes technique, simply recording his dying words. Madge Ann Fishbond is characterized through the dramatic monologue, addressed to Nathan (Nathaniel Witherspoon). Hattie Breedlove Wordlaw, whose religious views are expressed frequently throughout the novel, is described in “The Lives” merely by the use of one word, “honor,” which is both the key to her character and the mode in which Nathaniel must treat her.

The two most important characters in “The Lives,” and the major characters in the novel as a whole, Nathaniel Witherspoon and Jamestown Fishbond, are treated in extremely complex ways. The book begins with Nathaniel’s description of himself and his increasingly poetic evocation of the images of his life, as he moves backward and forward through the years, ending with his friendship with Jamestown. Several pages later, when Forrest comes to Jamestown, he begins in the third person with limited omniscience, later moves to a journalistic listing of jobs, dates, and talents, in the manner of notes for a biographical entry, and finally returns to the third-person mode, broken by a first-person fragmentary birthday entry in diary form. Most of the later sections of the book record Nathaniel’s thoughts or dreams, but Jamestown’s own horrors have penetrated the mind of his friend Nathaniel.

It is obvious that the characters differ in the extent to which their minds are penetrated by the author. The historical characters, Jericho Witherspoon, and all of Nathaniel’s friends except Jamestown are dealt with externally. Madge Ann Fishbond tells her own story in one section of the first chapter. Only Nathaniel and Jamestown reveal their inner experience to the reader—their fears and dreams and nightmares.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Nathaniel (Turner) Witherspoon

Nathaniel (Turner) Witherspoon, the boy who recalls most of the events in the book. He is intelligent and has a vivid imagination. His complexion is lighter than those of some of his black friends because his great-grandfather, on his father’s side, was a white slave-owner. His father tried to instill in him the cultural myths of both black and white American society; consequently, Nathaniel is torn between the two worlds. He painfully tries to reconstruct his own identity as well as understand his role in a world beset by racial strife. Nathaniel’s attempts to resolve his internal conflicts form the basis in the book for questions concerning wider social issues.

Aunt Hattie Breedlove “Breedy” Wordlaw

Aunt Hattie Breedlove “Breedy” Wordlaw, Nathaniel’s aunt, who, aside from his father, is the greatest influence in Nathaniel’s life. She is wise and shrewd and tries to counteract the attempts by Nathaniel’s father to make his son into a great, heroic “man.” She is gentle with Nathaniel but can be tough when necessary. A devout Christian, she believes that only love and self-sacrifice can better the world. Breedy tries to teach Nathaniel love, dignity, pride, and inner strength.

Jamestown Fishbond

Jamestown Fishbond, Nathaniel’s boyhood friend, later an artist and criminal. He is an Afro-Indian described as ebony-black in complexion and six feet, one inch tall. Extremely intelligent, he is a prodigious reader, a very good painter, and a speaker of several languages. He is also a superior chess player and has published articles dealing with jazz. As gifted as Jamestown is, he has also been diagnosed as a manic-depressive and paranoic with a...

(The entire section is 724 words.)