Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Like William Faulkner and many other southern writers, Randall Kenan seems to be obsessed with history. His characters struggle in a web of history and usually fail to extricate themselves. A Visitation of Spirits is a story about homosexual conflicts, but it is also a story about the conflict between the young and the old, between the new generation of African Americans and their ancestors reaching all the way back to the earliest days of slavery. Kenan seems to be suggesting that, sooner or later, a radical change is going to have to take place in the New South. That change will ultimately entail complete racial integration and the forgetting of old grievances. While his young characters struggle to arrive at a new understanding of the present, his old characters cling desperately to the past because of their fear of change.

The deliberate ongoing contrast between the old generation and the new generation is obviously designed to make the reader feel the inexorability and the necessity of change. The characters who represent the old order cause unnecessary pain and confusion by their insistence on clinging to old habits and prejudices. The characters who represent the new order are caught between past and present; they are unable to accept their parents’ and grandparents’ values but, at the same time, are unable to conceptualize the new consciousness that is needed by their society.

Kenan’s principal concern is with the ways in which the South is changing. He demonstrates these changes by illustrating their effects on the lives of his characters. Neither his young nor his old characters can see that their problems are not personal but universal; Kenan, however, manages to present that broader perspective to the reader. His intelligence, sensitivity, and compassion distinguish him as one of the most important writers to emerge from the New South.

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The book’s central themes are memory and communion. These themes merge in the novel’s accounts of hog butchering and tobacco curing, accounts that remind readers of the roots of this novel in people’s rituals of survival and community. These rituals are told in the second person, insistent on remembrance and common ritual: “You’ve seen this [hog killing], haven’t you?” “You’re familiar with this [tobacco curing], aren’t you?” The hog-killing description is entitled “Advent.” The parallel between the hog butchered and Horace dead suggests the community’s role in Horace’s death. Horace as the Christ sacrificed is also suggested in both the title “Advent” and in numerous references to the crucifixion. In a less violent ritual, tobacco curing again draws attention to remembrance: “[I]t is good to remember that people were bound by this strange activity . . . bound by the necessity, the responsibility, the humanity.” The repetition and hard work apparent in the task parallel the life of Jimmy Greene as he lives in 1985, rising at five every morning to work on his sermon, always arriving at the elementary school by seven, and leaving school late in the evening. Jimmy Greene and Horace Cross live the rhythms of their respective rituals, yearning for true community and belonging.

Another theme evident in the story of Horace Cross is the powerful need for transformation. Horace seeks through magic to change himself into a hawk...

(The entire section is 474 words.)