Two Wings to Veil My Face

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In his third novel, Two Wings to Veil My Face, Leon Forrest continues to exhibit the force and eloquence of a major black writer schooled in a literary tradition that helps to shape his work. As a kind of foreword, Forrest quotes passages from Homer, James Joyce, and Ralph Ellison. Throughout the novel, references to William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Richard Wright, and other writers abound; at the same time, Forrest’s method of storytelling reveals a writer attuned to the oral tradition. Two Wings to Veil My Face is a better novel even than his first two, There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden (1973) and The Bloodworth Orphans (1977), both praised as major literary achievements.

In Two Wings to Veil My Face, Forrest tells the story of a strong black woman, Sweetie Reed, who tries to come to terms with her past as she prepares for a future judgment day. Though the details of the story primarily concern Sweetie, however, it is only in the telling of that story to her grandson Nathaniel that the events take on meaning. From Nathaniel and his acceptance of his complex heritage, Sweetie learns to abandon her self-righteous pride in an act which unveils her soul and prepares her for the redemption that she seeks. Just as important as Sweetie’s redemption is Nathaniel’s role in it, and perhaps more important is the revelation that the whole story of the “American curse” is something with which all Americans will have to deal as they try to come to terms with their nation’s history.

The novel is told through the consciousness of Nathaniel Witherspoon, who, at age twenty-one, the time of his majority, comes to hear the whole story of his Great Momma Sweetie Reed. At age ninety-one, Sweetie is willing to fill in the blanks of her history both for the edification of her grandson and for a final act of contrition. Nathaniel has been the recipient of bits and pieces of the story from his earliest memories, but there are things that have been left out, mysteries, which cast over the whole story an aura of wonder and of the incomprehensible. He has been aware, also, through all of his life, that his grandmother has been preparing him to become her hearer, that he must be a re-creator of her story, so that he can create himself from “history, ancestors, lovers, and the demons and gifts of living.” Black history is oral history, but Great Momma Sweetie Reed, spurning a tape recorder, makes Nathaniel take down her story in longhand so that he will remember it better—in effect, to sear it on his soul. To keep his aged grandmother’s attention focused and to stimulate her expressive tongue and gift for language, Nathaniel gives her periodically a jigger of scotch dashed over boiling sassafras leaves. Thinking of himself as Sweetie’s Boswell, Nathaniel wonders about his role in the storytelling. He does not view himself as a mere recorder. He must be true to her words, but he must also be a great illuminator, “spinning” out the story and thus transforming it into an “eternal goal beyond the radiance of the here and the now.” For Nathaniel, Sweetie is not only a bard but also an actress who has often rehearsed the promised story long into the nights and pursued pieces of it into her dreams.

Forrest’s emphasis on storytelling and the method of transcription is tied to the fact that much history never gets told. Sweetie’s insistence on telling the story suggests an ultimate dissatisfaction with print and lack of trust because of what has not been printed. The emphasis in the novel on Sweetie’s learning to read and her skills with words, on her mother’s gift for language, on the muteness of her half sister, along with all the stories told by various people throughout the narrative and all the references to writers both black and white, past and present, parallels language with mysteries to be resolved, blanks to be filled in. The method of accretion of detail as the novel progresses also underlines this theme. Constructed from bits and fragments, the novel is an elaborate maze through which readers must, with Nathaniel, make their way. Essential images and details are established and then repeated with additional details augmenting the story, extending it to include not only Nathaniel but also all readers whose history has somewhere in it hidden facts, blank spaces.

For Nathaniel, Sweetie has been both queen and priest. She is the reigning matriarch of the family. When he helped her as a boy, he was more altar boy than when he served at Mass. The food which she dispenses to the poor is, in Nathaniel’s mind, a sacrament. The biscuits, dripping in butter and honey, which she feeds to Nathaniel are closer to being Host than the wafers served at the Mass.

As he sits by her bed during the times when she is sleeping, waiting for her to awaken to continue her story, Nathaniel reflects not only on his role in the storytelling process and on his relationship to his grandmother but also on his relationship to his grandfather Witherspoon, on the occasion of his grandfather’s death, and on his own relationship to a young woman, Candy Cummings. These reflections on Candy are much briefer than Nathaniel’s reflections on his grandfather, beginning with a few details at the beginning of the novel, accumulating details as the novel progresses, and ending...

(The entire section is 2193 words.)


(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 suggests 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.

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 Forrest’s texts.

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.