William Melvin Kelley Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Critics often fix on the interrelatedness of William Melvin Kelley’s four novels (and his short stories), and, indeed, though each novel is different in style, setting, characters, and even language, the ideas that spawned them are related and grow from each other. Critic Jill Weyant sees Kelley’s work as a saga, in that the purpose of writing a serious sagais to depict impressionistically a large, crowded portrait, each individual novel presenting enlarged details of the whole, each complete in itself, yet evoking a more universal picture than is possible in a single volume.

Kelley admits to the possible influence of other great writers of sagas, telling Roy Newquist in an interview, Perhaps I’m trying to follow the Faulknerian pattern—although I guess it’s really Balzacian when you connect everything. I’d like to be eighty years old and look up at the shelf and see that all of my books are really one big book.

A Different Drummer

A Different Drummer is Kelley’s first and finest work, an enduring classic of African American literature. Kelley took his literary inspiration from American writer Henry David Thoreau’s resounding celebration of individuality: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Kelley then adapted this idea to the plight of African Americans in a fictional narrative built on a foundation of mythic imagination, American history all the way back to the slave trade, and the racial strife of the 1960’s. The black experience of being perceived as different, as a despised people with trenchantly stereotyped racial characteristics, has been anything but positive. It is here, on this ground, that Kelley develops his narrative from two basic questions rooted deeply in the history of American race relations: What would whites do without the black people they so abuse and denigrate, but to whom they are so tied? Also, who might white people be without the prison of their own prejudice?

The novel takes place in the small town of Sutton, in a nameless, imaginary southern state, in June, 1957, when, mysteriously for the white citizens, “all the state’s Negro inhabitants departed.” The exodus is unconsciously led by the child-sized Tucker Caliban, who, like Rosa Parks (a black woman who refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man in 1955), simply decided one day that he could no longer comply with the way things had always been in the South. The course of history, or at least his own family history, had to be changed. For four generations the Calibans were defined and limited by their service to the Willsons, and Tucker knows that he cannot reach his full human potential living in the template of the southern racial past. Thus he salts his land, kills his farm animals, axes the grandfather clock that symbolizes all the years of his family’s servitude, sets fire to his house, and walks off into the sunset with his pregnant wife and his child. This peaceful, though revolutionary, act of individual initiative and vision is a direct outgrowth of and complement to the rebellion and flight of the massive legendary African whose story begins the novel. This African prince, Tucker’s great-grandfather, refused to be enslaved, and it is perhaps his spirit that propels Tucker’s quiet self-reliance generations later. Ironically, it is old white Mr. Harper who keeps the memory of the African alive for the white men of Sutton, telling the story on the porch of Thomason’s store as often as anyone will listen.

Kelley mixes his multiple points of view between first- and third-person narration, using flashbacks to take his readers inside the heads of the southern whites, not the blacks, who occupy the small southern town of Sutton. The whites who interest Kelley are of two classes. Harry Leland and his young son, Mister Leland, represent the poor-white southerners who wish to break with the past, who wish to know black people as individuals and not as a subjugated mass. The Willsons represent the southern aristocracy, bound by the past and the money they made from slavery, but who are also educated and...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)