There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series) - Essay

Leon Forrest

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In technique and in material, Leon Forrest is clearly in the tradition of Faulkner. Even the emphasis on history, whether national, familial, or personal, reminds one of Faulkner. Also like Faulkner, Forrest is preoccupied with the problem of identity in a society which begot sons and then rejected them because their mothers were of a subject race.

The background of Forrest’s work is complex. He calls upon gospel rhythms and jazz beats, upon Christian and classical symbolism, and upon historical events. In his visionary passages, the grim facts of black history are seen as part of a people’s memory: the slave boats, the bloodhounds, the lynchings, the castrations. In the juxtaposition of allusions from so many sources, there is a great richness of texture and of suggestion; in the variety of styles, from matter-of-fact to poetic, from elegiac to gospel, there is almost a symphonic effect.

Forrest’s complexity has drawn varied reactions from critics. Some have found him incomprehensible or undisciplined, indulging in private symbolism. Others—among them, Saul Bellow—admire the integrity and originality of his vision and argue that his difficulty results from the scope of his allusions and from the fineness of his thought. It is significant that Ralph Ellison, himself a difficult but a rewarding writer, praised Forrest in the introduction to the novel, suggesting that only a complex style such as that of Forrest (and such as that of Ellison himself) can do justice to a complex world.