Willard Motley Robert Bone - Essay

Robert Bone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Motley's fiction … studiously avoids Negro life as a matter of principle…. Motley peoples his novels with second-generation Italians, Jews, and Poles. Second-generation assimilationism is his theme, and there is no reason to doubt that it is a projection of his own inner conflict….

The presentation [of Knock on Any Door] is naturalistic, panoramic, often redundant. For ninety-two chapters Motley piles episode on whirling episode, overwhelming the reader with evidence of society's guilt in producing the likes of Nick. The style is journalistic, and occasionally brilliant. It is corrupted, however, by that dead-pan, pulled-punch, pseudo-Hemingway technique which plays all human emotion in a single key. This monotone, one suspects, is a product of the fact that Motley is more interested in the emotions of his readers than of his characters. What there is of psychological insight depends on a school of analysis best described as Hollywood Freud.

On the strength of sheer narrative power, the novel might have transcended these limitations, except for its lack of originality. The truth is that in its main outlines it leans so heavily on Native Son as to border on plagiarism…. The difference is that where Wright's treatment is condensed and selective, Motley's is detailed and exhaustive. In effect, Motley has borrowed terse symbolic episodes from Native Son and inflated them to naturalistic proportions. (pp. 178-79)

A competent naturalistic novel, when Knock on Any Door appeared it was greeted with extravagant critical acclaim. Comparisons to the work of Dreiser and Farrell were not uncommon. Such illusions will be quickly dispelled by a second reading: deprived of the element of suspense, the novel reveals its essential formlessness. If this should not suffice, Motley's second novel, We Fished All Night (1951), will amply demonstrate the limitations of his talent. It is a rambling tract which deals with such matters as GI disillusionment with the war, political corruption in Chicago, and the struggle between the People and the Interests. (pp. 179-80)

Robert Bone, "Raceless Novels," in his The Negro Novel in America (copyright © 1965 by Yale University), revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 178-84.∗