Mphahlele used The Wanderers to complete the requirements for his Ph.D. from the University of Denver, and as an autobiographical account of the exile of an articulate black South African, it is a sociologically important work. Yet the author has called The Wanderers a novel, suggesting that its contrived beginning and end, specifically the fictional death of his son, distinguish it from his earlier autobiography, Down Second Avenue. Classification of The Wanderers is further complicated by Mphahlele’s mix of factual and fictional references to places and people as well as his use of multiple points of view.
Whether accepted as a novel or read as autobiography, The Wanderers, like most of Mphahlele’s works, has provoked critical controversy. Some critics complain that it lacks coherence, that it has insufficient plot to support its length, that its characters remain two-dimensional, that its love scenes are inhibited and clumsy, and that it lacks a clear sense of place. Several suggest that its flaws are a direct result of Mphahlele’s long separation from home.
Others have criticized Mphahlele’s conservatism, seeing his integrationist ideal of harmonious coexistence of different ethnic groups in South Africa and his humanistic belief in a brotherhood that does not compromise men’s freedom as examples of his political naivete. The South African government, however, does not share this view: Mphahlele’s work has been banned in his native land since 1961.
In later novels such as Chirundu (1981), the story of a bigamous cabinet minister torn between his country wife and his city wife, Mphahlele has continued to explore the tensions between tribal values and Western urban culture in contemporary African society.