Analysis of Arna Bontemps’s Novels

Arna Bontemps (1902 – 1973) was a prolific author, editor and a noted member of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote or cowrote many children’s books, biographies, and histories. He edited or coedited more than a dozen works, including African American poetry anthologies, histories, slave narratives, and a folklore collection. His short stories were collected in The Old South (1973), and his poetry collection, Personals, appeared in 1963. Bontemps’s finely honed poems quietly reflect his lifelong Christian beliefs.

Though he lived and taught in many parts of America, Bontemps always identified with the South and set most of his fictional works there. Bontemps greatly valued his African American inheritance and tried to increase both racial pride and understanding through his many books about African American figures, life, and culture.

God Sends Sunday 

In God Sends Sunday, set during the 1890’s, Bontemps depicts a diminutive black jockey, Little Augie, who lives on a Red River plantation in Louisiana with his older sister. Because he was born with a caul over his face, he is thought to be lucky. He discovers a talent for riding horses, which serves him well when he escapes to New Orleans on a steamboat and becomes a jockey. Augie grows rich, arrogant, and ostentatious. He falls in love with a beautiful young mulatto, Florence Desseau, but learns, to his sorrow, that she is the mistress of his rich white patron. Going to St. Louis to find a woman like Florence, Augie falls in with a crowd of prostitutes, gamblers, and “sugar daddies,” one of whom he murders when the man bothers Augie’s woman. Returning to New Orleans, Augie at last has Florence as his lover. However, she deserts him, taking his money and possessions. Augie’s luck fades, and he declines rapidly into penury and alcoholism. In California, Augie commits another “passion murder” and escapes to Mexico.

The novel exhibits a remarkable joie de vivre among its black characters, but they are primarily caricatures within a melodramatic plot. Bontemps uses black dialect and folklore effectively, however, especially the blues, for which Augie has a great affection.

Black Thunder 

Bontemps’s second novel, first published in 1936, was reissued in 1968 with a valuable introduction by Bontemps. In this essay, he describes finding a treasured store of slave narratives in the Fisk Library; he read the stories of slave insurrectionists Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser. Bontemps identified Prosser as the slave rebel-hero whose yearning for freedom most greatly resembled his own.

Black Thunder is generally acknowledged by readers and critics alike to be Bontemps’s best novel; it has even been called the best African American historical novel. The French Revolution and the slave rebellion in Santo Domingo are a significant background; the story dramatizes an enslaved people’s long-restrained desire for freedom. Bundy, an old black peasant, longs for the freedom that the legend of Haitian liberator Toussaint-Louverture has inspired in many slaves. When Bundy is viciously flogged to death, Gabriel Prosser, a strong young coachman, feels driven to seek freedom for himself and his people. This feeling is even held by already-freed slaves, such as Mingo, a leather worker, who plays a major role in the rebellion effort. The white Virginians, both patricians and common folk, hold Creuzot, a French painter, and Biddenhurst, a British lawyer, responsible for the slaves’ disquiet. Moreover, the white population does not believe the slaves to be human; thus, they cannot understand why they would want freedom. The whites’ interpretation of the Bible supports their racial beliefs.

Gabriel too is deeply religious, though not fanatical, and often echoes scripture, believing that God will free his people because Armageddon is at hand. He plans, with the assistance of free blacks, slaves, and a few sympathetic whites, to capture the arsenal at Richmond in order to seize the weapons and overpower the city. However, a monsoonlike rainstorm on the night of the rebellion causes a delay in the insurrection. Bontemps’s powers as a prose artist are especially strong as he describes, in haunting cadences, the revolt’s defeat by nature’s wrath. The slaves believe that it was ill luck and fateful weather that led to the revolt’s collapse, though in actuality two elderly, spoiled house servants betrayed the cause. The collapse of the rebellion marks the climax of the story; what follows tells of the insurrectionists’ capture and execution. Bontemps makes astute use of court records as he dramatizes Gabriel’s trial.

Bontemps is in firmer control of his literary material in Black Thunder than in his other novels. All his characters—white planter-aristocrats, free blacks, and French zealots—are drawn with objectivity and restraint. Profreedom views are not praised at the expense of antifreedom beliefs. Furthermore, Bontemps’s characters, even minor ones, are richly complex. For example, Ben and Pharoah, the betrayers of the rebellion, evidence conflicting loyalties both to their aristocratic masters and to their African American brothers. In a memorable interior monologue, Ben condemns himself for the narcissism that made his own survival more important to him than that of his fellow slaves. His ironic curse is that he must live under the threat of a horrible revenge at the hands of his own people.

Bontemps’s special achievement in Black Thunder is the skill with which he integrates Gabriel’s revolt into the fabric of Virginian, and American, life by using a documentary style of exposition. While Virginia legislators debate further segregation of African Americans as a way of dealing with race issues, quoted reports from Federalist newspapers oppose the liberal ideas of former president Thomas Jefferson and attribute Gabriel’s revolt to his evil influence. These same newspapers support John Quincy Adams’s presidential campaign.

Even more impressive is Bontemps’s use of interior monologues and passages that present the point of view of several individual characters, Caucasian and African American. First-and third-person perspectives are blended in order to present both objective and subjective forces. Bontemps’s careful synthesis of history and imagination helps him demonstrate the universal, age-old struggles of humankind to surmount barriers of race, class, and caste and gain equality, liberty, respect, and security. Because Bontemps allows Gabriel to maintain and even increase his integrity, he becomes a truly tragic figure for whom, at the end of the novel, “excellent is strength, the first for freedom of the blacks . . . [he is] perplexed but unafraid, waiting for the dignity of death.”

Drums at Dusk 

Drums at Dusk, like Black Thunder, is a historical novel in which Bontemps makes use of slave narratives and legal records to establish background for the black rebellion leading to Haiti’s independence and Toussaint-Louverture’s ascendancy. Bontemps centers the story around a young girl of French ancestry, Celeste Juvet, and Diron de Sautels, an aristocratic young Frenchman who claims membership in Les Amis des Noirs, embraces enthusiastically the ideas of writers of the French Revolution, and works as an abolitionist. Celeste and her grandmother reside on a large plantation where the owner’s cousin, Count Armand de Sacy, abuses ailing slaves and mistreats his mistresses, abandoning them at his uncle’s. De Sacy is deeply disliked, and when several slaves foment an insurrection, the aristocrats are overturned and rebel leaders successfully seize power.

Diron de Sautels’s radical opinions influence young black people, and they fight with three other groups for political control of Santo Domingo: rich aristocrats, poor whites, and free mulattos. Drums at Dusk describes with melodramatic sensationalism the sybaritic lives of the wealthy and their sexual exploitation of light-skinned black women. Moreover, the novel describes graphically the heinous conditions on the slave ships and on many of the plantations. The patricians’ cruelty and abuse lead to a rapid spread of liberal ideology and the rise of such leaders as Toussaint- Louverture.

In spite of its faults, Bontemps’s last novel, like his second one, emphasizes the universal need and desire for freedom, which he intimates is as necessary for the survival of human beings as water, air, food, and shelter.

 Other major works

Short fiction: The Old South, 1973.
Play: St. Louis Woman, pr. 1946 (with Countée Cullen).
Poetry: Personals, 1963.
Nonfiction: Father of the Blues, 1941 (with W. C. Handy; biography); They Seek a City, 1945 (with Jack Conroy; revised as Anyplace but Here, 1966); One Hundred Years of Negro Freedom, 1961 (history); Free at Last: The Life of Frederick Douglass, 1971; Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters: 1925-1967, 1980.
Children’s literature: Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, 1932 (with Langston Hughes); You Can’t Pet a Possum, 1934; Sad-Faced Boy, 1937; The Fast Sooner Hound, 1942 (with Jack Conroy); We Have Tomorrow, 1945; Slappy Hooper: The Wonderful Sign Painter, 1946 (with Conroy); The Story of the Negro, 1948; Chariot in the Sky: A Story of the Jubilee Singers, 1951; Sam Patch, 1951 (with Conroy); The Story of George Washington Carver, 1954; Lonesome Boy, 1955; Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman, 1959; Famous Negro Athletes, 1964; Mr. Kelso’s Lion, 1970; Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days, 1972; The Pasteboard Bandit, 1997 (with Hughes); Bubber Goes to Heaven,

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: African Literature, American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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