Willard Motley C.W.E. Bigsby - Essay

C.W.E. Bigsby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Willard Motley is rooted in the protest tradition and is essentially a hangover from a previous decade. He is an unabashed naturalist and in his final novel, Let Noon Be Fair, published as late as 1963, he offered a defence of naturalistic protest fiction which would not have been out of place thirty years before. "The writer," he insists, "is involved in life…." Motley's novels, which Robert Bone characterizes as raceless, are so only in the most superficial sense. His protagonists are almost invariably hyphenated Americans whose experiences make them close kin to the Negro. In Knock On Any Door and Let No Man Write My Epitaph the plight of the Italian-American protagonist scarcely differs from that of Bigger Thomas; indeed the similarity is painfully close at times. The hero's poverty, his social unacceptability, his helpless situation all serve to underline the relevance of his experiences to the black community. In fact the parallel is pushed still further in a sub-plot.

A similar point can be made with regard to Motley's third novel, We Fished All Night. This chaotic book, which lumps together the impact of the war and the problems of the second and third generation immigrant provides yet another image of the Negro in American society. Moreover, the situation of a Polish Catholic, Chet Kosinski, who tries to pass as a WASP under the name of Don Lockwood, has obvious relevance to the plight of a Negro author himself making a bid to be accepted as an "American" rather than a Negro writer…. What [Motley] took to be a legitimate means of universalizing his personal sense of the racial dilemma seems in the last resort little more than an evasive strategy. This evasiveness, indeed, is mirrored in his style which is a curious mixture … of brutal realism and turgid sentimentality—an amalgam of Wright and Steinbeck. It is as though he were afraid to follow his naturalistic vision to its logical conclusion. His ultimate retreat to Mexico in the final years of his life is thus in many ways an appropriate image of his desire to pursue a sense of personal commitment while apparently avoiding an exclusively racial approach. (pp. 221-22)

C.W.E. Bigsby, "From Protest to Paradox: The Black Writer at Mid Century," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1970 by Warren French), Everett/Edwards, 1970, pp. 217-40.∗