While The Women of Brewster Place (1982) addressed, for the most part, the plight of black women in a poverty-stricken, and seemingly hopeless, community, Linden Hills critiques the burdens and misguided notions of a well-established, upwardly mobile black community. And though Naylor maintains her focus on the especial frustrations of the black woman, she broadens her approach and also details the psychological pains of the black man. Continuing with her signature style, Naylor relies upon the story cycle to structure the novel. Linden Hills, then, is composed of several stories, and because Naylor models the novel after a section of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, the stories accommodate, in number, the various levels (and stories) highlighted in Dante’s “Inferno” section. With this novel, Naylor begins to take more stylistic and narrative risks, strategies that she will continue to hone in the later novels.
Linden Hills details the various ways in which blacks have exchanged their souls for even the slightest chance to enjoy an improved material life. Naylor questions the extent to which these characters have in fact lost their blackness or, at the very least, that essential part of their individual personalities that makes them unique. With unflagging criticism, Naylor challenges the various forms of elitism, homophobia, chauvinism, intraracial bias (color prejudice within the black community), and the like, which plague a community so desperately trying to be acceptable to the larger white community. In an ironic twist, Naylor creates characters who profess their desire for a solid black community but who in reality shun blackness and snuff out any emergent sign of its development.
Instead of creating a clearly defined plot, in her typical fashion Naylor all but abandons plot in favor of theme, character development, and narrative manipulation. However, to maintain narrative interest, Naylor, adopts the miniplot, as she did in her first novel. Linden Hills, then, is composed of several ministories wherein Naylor explores questions about the black middle class and critiques the misguided value system of that community.
Main characters Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, twenty-year-old amateur poets, spend five days in December walking through Linden Hills seeking work at odd jobs to earn money for Christmas gifts. As they proceed through the community, they encounter residents who maintain quietly distressed lives while attempting to appear happy and fulfilled. Lester, who ironically lives in Linden Hills, serves as guide for Willie in an effort to prove to Willie that life in this upscale neighborhood is fraught with despair, pain, spiritlessness. Willie, who hails from the lower-class Putney Wayne community, observes not only with awestricken wonder the apparent spiritual void of Linden Hills but also with relative pride the accomplishments of these same citizens in creating lives free of the economic insecurity that has forever plagued his own life.
As the two continue on their journey, Willie will ponder his own existence and begin to question, with anticipated regret, his former decision to abandon high school prior to graduation. Periodically throughout the novel, Willie challenges Lester, who has been afforded more advantages than has Willie, to re-think his negative opinion about Linden Hills. It is this journey, then, that holds together the structure of the novel. In short, the discoveries attained by both men provide the only plot movement. The standard plot question of “what will happen next?” becomes “what will they discover next?”
In addition to the plot movement provided by Willie and Lester’s journey, Naylor employs yet another journey that serves as subplot. Willa Prescott Nedeed, the wife of Linden Hills’ most prominent citizen Luther Nedeed, has been locked in the basement of the Nedeed home, along with her five-year-old son Sinclair, for several weeks because her husband believes that someone else fathered the boy. Just days before Willie and Lester begin working in Linden Hills, Sinclair dies, leaving Willa to mourn and to harbor hatred for Luther.
The Willie/Lester narrative is interspersed with excerpts from Willa’s life in the basement with her son’s corpse. While thus incarcerated, Willa, riffling through old trunks and boxes, discovers the letters, cookbooks, diaries, and other possessions of the Nedeed women who preceded her. In reviewing these materials, Willa learns that these wives and mothers had to suffer emotional hardships when they sacrificed their own happiness for the betterment of the Nedeed legacy. In the course of her reading, particularly over the five days of the Willie/Lester journey, Willa finds peace when she realizes that each of her predecessors, in rejecting the status of victim, found a means of emotional survival, whether it was perfecting recipes, maintaining a journal, or merely reveling in her own beauty. Willa decides that she, too, must regain a measure of control over her life. The plot questions for this narrative become “will she attain such control?” and “how will she reincorporate herself into the Nedeed family?”
The Linden Hills neighborhood is designed such that the farther down the hill one proceeds the more affluent the residents. Lester and Willie are moving in this direction. At the very bottom of the neighborhood is the Nedeed house, situated at the end of a private drive and detached from the other houses on prestigious Tupelo Drive. The Nedeeds have owned the land in Linden Hills for over 160 years, since 1820. The original Luther Nedeed (the direct line of Nedeeds were all named Luther), upon purchasing the land, envisioned the construction of an affluent black community, and all of its would-be inhabitants would have to support that same vision: upward mobility, family values, and a conservative sense of black unity. All residents were financed through the Nedeed-owned Tupelo Realty Corporation, which leased the land to prospective home buyers for 1,000 years with the stipulation that if any Nedeed/Tupelo criteria were defied, the land would revert to the corporation. Every Luther Nedeed, or every generation, prided himself on maintaining this vision and legacy, not the least of which was marrying a woman who supported the same vision and who honored the Nedeed name by reproducing a dark-skinned male heir. Willa Nedeed made the unforgivable error of producing a light-complexioned son.
The dysfunction of the present-day Nedeed household represents the generic tensions of the larger Linden Hills community. To some degree,the farther down Lester and Willie journey and the richer the residents are, the more heightened these tensions become. Before the two men begin their five-day work marathon, they visit their two closest friends, a married couple who in fact suggest that they seek work in Linden Hills. Ruth and Norman are financially strapped as are Willie and Lester; their presence in the novel serves as sharp contrast to the other minor characters whom Willie and Lester will encounter. A former Linden Hills resident, Ruth abandoned those roots for her husband, and while it might be both financially and emotionally feasible for her to return to Linden, she does not. Norman is plagued with an emotional disorder that prevents him from maintaining a job for any measurable length of time. Every two years, usually for three months, he suffers from hallucinations that result in his mutilating his body because he thinks he sees pink organisms overtaking his skin. For over six years, Ruth has remained committed to Norman despite the financial burden and realization that they may never enjoy a better life. The Ruth/Norman ministory preserves a level of humanity that seems lost in Linden Hills. While those residents sacrifice all for financial stability and social status, Ruth sacrifices the latter for her love of Norman. And even though she has told herself to leave every year, she honors her vows and remains. Ruth and Norman’s six-year marriage serves as a foil to Luther and Willa’s. Just because Luther suspects that his wife has been unfaithful, he endangers her life and allows a child to die, whereas Ruth, whose material life is in shambles, remains constant in her devotion. Even when Norman promises Ruth that they will live one day in Linden Hills, Ruth replies that she will never go back there. Each of the poor characters, Lester, Willie, Norman, and Ruth, are presented as more humane, more compassionate than are the wealthy.
Lester and Willie’s first job involves cleaning up on the occasion of the social event of the season: the wedding of one of Linden Hills’ most eligible bachelors, Winston Alcott. The two are to work in the kitchen and stay clear of the reception party, but they steal moments to observe the behaviors of the wedding party and the bourgeois guests. To Lester and Willie, these blacks are not real; instead, they seem mechanical, stilted, and artificial, fearful that if they laugh too heartily, they might be misconstrued as lower-class people. Everything seems quite unnatural to Lester and Willie, a feeling substantiated when they realize that what has just been passed off as a marriage ceremony is, in fact, a farce. For the best man’s toast, David paraphrases a Walt Whitman poem that expresses homoerotic emotions. Willie, analyzing the subtext of the toast,discovers that Winston and David are, in fact, lovers and that David is indicating his dismay at what he considers a fake marriage. This exchange clarifies for Willie, and for Lester once Willie explains, that survival in Linden Hills requires people to lie not only to others, but also to themselves; residents must sacrifice a part of their souls (their natural selves) in order to be accepted in this community. Later, the novel reveals that it was, indeed, Luther Nedeed who orchestrated this entire fiasco when he anonymously alerted Winston Alcott’s father that his son just might be gay, threatening as well to forward incriminating evidence should the matter be ignored. Willie and Lester are not privy to this information, although the third-person narrative reveals to the reader Luther’s collusion in this affair. And although Winston loves David and wants to share a life with him, he thinks his greater duty is to uphold the traditions of the community, which entail maintaining a heterosexual family and producing offspring.
While there are several ministories strategically placed throughout the novel, the other significant one highlights the frustrations of Laurel Johnson Dumont whose story also serves as a link, albeit tenuous, to the Ruth Anderson and Willa Prescott Nedeed stories. Laurel’s is the only story that encompasses her whole life, roughly from age four to her midthirties. It is the story of a woman who fulfilled practically every childhood dream, only to discover that dreams realized so easily transform into nightmares. Like many of the other characters, Laurel has lost her essence in favor of material gain. As a child Laurel spent her summers in rural Georgia with her paternal grandmother Roberta Johnson, who while exacting in her ways generally acquiesced to Laurel’s every wish. When, at age five, Laurel refuses to steer clear of a water-filled ditch, Roberta provides the girl with swimming lessons. And when Laurel grows up to become a champion swimmer and even wins a scholarship to Berkeley for synchronized swimming, Roberta cashes in her life insurance policy to pay tuition even though she despises everything about the state of California. And when Laurel, at thirty-four, seems to be wasting away in depression (her marriage to Howard is failing, and she is no longer fulfilled in her executive position at IBM), Roberta, now eighty, travels all the way to Linden Hills to rescue, yet again, her granddaughter.
Roberta arrives in mid-December, several days before Lester and Willie begin their journey throughout the neighborhood. After some coaxing Laurel tries to revive some holiday spirit if not for herself, then at least for Roberta. Deciding to call her only two friends, Ruth and Willa, Laurelsets out to put her house in order. Thinking a renewed sister-bond with these women can salvage her rapidly deteriorating emotional state, Roberta is determined to cook and decorate her way back to normalcy. But when she cannot locate Willa (the reader knows that Willa is locked in her basement) and when an ill Ruth cannot visit, Laurel succumbs once again to depression. Her condition worsens when Luther Nedeed alerts her to the fact that since her husband has filed for divorce and has vacated the premises, since they have no children, and since the land was originally leased to the Dumonts, she must leave as well. For Laurel, her whole adult life in Linden Hills has been a complete farce. The anxiety she has felt about her very existence grows deeper, and she relinquishes her hold in a final act of suicide. On a snow-laden December day Laurel dives headfirst into her empty Olympic-size pool while Lester and Willie are shoveling snow in her front yard. Laurel’s tragic end exposes the potential horrors that await anyone who lives in Linden Hills.
Finally, on Christmas Eve Willie and Lester descend to the Nedeed estate to assist Luther in holiday preparations. Having explained that his wife and son are away visiting relatives, Luther indicates to the two men that he would like to enjoy some holiday cheer in their absence. Willie, visibly shaken whenever in Luther’s presence, voices reservations about accepting the task, but Lester insists that they fulfill their obligation, especially since Luther has agreed to double whatever they have earned at the other houses.
Lester and Willie are asked to assist Luther in decorating the tree with various family heirlooms. The men are surprised to discover that a man as strange as Luther would be this sentimental, but for Luther, anything associated with the Nedeed name is to be admired if not completely worshiped. While the three men are busy dressing the tree, Willa is downstairs making preparations to return upstairs and to put her life back in order, even if she must break down the door leading to the basement. In this final chapter the main plot and the subplot converge when Willie, completely unaware, unlatches this door and thus gives Willa access once again to the house. Throughout the novel, Willa has been a nameless and practically faceless character. Not until minutes before she emerges is she named, a narrative ploy that would suggest her return to the main house is also a reclamation of identity. Prior to ascending the basement stairs, Willa furiously cleans the downstairs area and fully intends to do likewise in the other areas of the house, in an effort to cleanse their lives of all past wrongs while reestablishing herselfas Mrs. Luther Nedeed. It is her simple attempt to regain the power of choice in her life.
But once she enters the house carrying her son’s corpse, everything goes awry. Luther, after dismissing Willie and Lester, defiantly attempts to block Willa’s path, a gesture that she takes as a challenge; consequently, she strikes out at Luther. During this struggle the lace material covering the corpse catches an ember in the fireplace, and quickly the three bodies—Luther’s, Willa’s, and Sinclair’s—are consumed in an inferno that ultimately destroys the house. Willie and Lester look on with horror, initially at the roaring fire, but then at the windows of other houses on Tupelo Drive where residents just watch the house burn without offering the least bit of assistance. The novel ends with Willie and Lester left to ponder what has just occurred, and they are left with the ultimate task of deciding how to conduct their own lives.
In Linden Hills four characters are developed more fully than all others: Lester, Willie, Laurel, and Willa. The reader witnesses most events from the perspective of Willie and Lester. Their changing opinions during their five-day trek through the neighborhood provide ample opportunity for the reader to observe their relative growth and maturity.
Both Willie and Lester disdain everything about Linden Hills, from its bourgeois mores to its pristine lawns. As a true outsider, living in the nearby Putney Wayne community, Willie, also a junior high school dropout, believes that anyone living in Linden Hills looks down on him and considers him less than human. As a consequence, he has conducted his life in complete opposition to everything that Linden Hills represents. Instead of embracing the principles of upward mobility, which include proudly gaining a formal education, Willie has rejected even a modicum of success—his ability to read at a junior high level. Willie believes that to participate in the dreams espoused by Linden Hills is tantamount to effecting one’s own intellectual and psychological death. Refusing to document his own poetic creations by writing them down, Willie instead commits them to memory in an effort to preserve the purity of his thoughts. For him, “the written word dulls the mind, and since most of what’s written is by white men, it’s positively poisonous” (29). And since Willie considers Linden Hills a live minstrel show (in this case, whiteAmerican attitudes presented in “black” face), it, and all it represents, is “positively poisonous.”
Lester’s disgust with Linden Hills stems from a personal conflict. As a resident of the neighborhood, he is supposed to shoulder the responsibility of preserving the unwritten tenets of the community. But at age twenty, Lester finds achieving success, Linden Hills–style, at best daunting, at worst completely impossible. Soured by the fact that he watched his father drive himself to an early grave in an attempt to provide the family with a confirmed middle-class standing, Lester is determined to follow a different path. Or at the very least, he is determined to make his mother, who wants Lester to be more aggressive and take initiative, suffer in her embarrassment for Lester, mainly because he blames her and her social demands for his father’s untimely death. In short, Lester’s lack of initiative is grounded in part by a determined rebellion. While criticizing his Linden Hills neighbors for losing their souls, Lester tries to excuse himself from achieving success and independence, implying that if he were to accomplish some goals, he might risk becoming yet another resident devoid of spiritual or intellectual substance.
Willie and Lester serve as mentors for each other, helping each other along in their discoveries about Linden Hills and in their self-discoveries. Early in the novel Willie tries to convince Lester that perhaps life in Linden Hills is not as detrimental as Lester would argue it is. On the night before he and Lester begin their journey through the neighborhood in search of work, Willie spends the night at Lester’s house, which he shares with his mother Mrs. Tilson and sister Roxanne. And because he has never enjoyed such a comfortable living environment, Willie, in a sudden appreciation of African-American material success, softens his attitude about Mrs. Tilson and the neighborhood in general. When Lester scoffs at Willie’s slight transformation, Willie reminds him that, in all of his condemnation of Linden Hills, he has not chosen to leave. For all of his ostensible disgust with the people and the neighborhood, Lester still harbors some respect for what they have achieved. By the end of the novel, Lester’s self-righteous attitude has subsided significantly. And much later in the novel, just prior to the climactic end, when Willie balks at the idea of working for Luther Nedeed, Lester, in a moment of maturity, urges Willie to honor his promise to fulfill this last work obligation. And though Willie still feels ill at ease in Luther’s presence, he, at the very least, is awed by Luther’s achievements. Throughout the novel one may observe scenes in which these two assist each other in their emotional development. In this regard they serve as foil characters for each other, one always supplying the strength or push when the other is lacking. This sustained brotherhood provides the brief resolution presented at the end: “Each with his own thoughts, they approached the chain fence. . . . Hand anchored to hand, one helped the other to scale the open links” (304).
It is vitally important that they have come to appreciate their interdependence by the end of the novel, because without the strength and support of the other, neither would cope as easily as they will now with the cataclysmic climax, the destruction of the Nedeed estate. When they realize that the Nedeed house is burning, and with Luther, Willa, and Sinclair inside, they attempt to alert nearby Tupelo Drive neighbors, all of whom ignore the repeated requests for assistance. Helplessly watching the house burn to complete destruction, Willie and Lester are dumbfounded at what they have just witnessed: the total abandonment and inhumanity of Linden Hills residents in regard to the Nedeed plight. In several of the last lines of the novel, both a stunned Lester and a baffled Willie repeat, “They let it burn” (304). Neither will fully understand the reaction (or lack of reaction) of the neighbors, whether they are rebuking Luther specifically, or whether their Linden Hills–sponsored inhumanity has gotten the better of them. As a result, both men will feel some responsibility for the future of the neighborhood, and each of them has developed enough to realize their new roles.
Willa Prescott Nedeed’s development is easily charted in her narrative movement from victim (or object) to agent (or subject). Early in the novel, even before she is formally introduced, Willa is presented as a suffering victim in a most horrific circumstance. On at least two occasions prior to beginning their search for work, Willie and Lester overhear what seems to be the plaintive wail of an injured animal echoing from the depths of Linden Hills. Not until later does the reader realize that it was Willa Nedeed’s cries upon discovering the untimely death of her son, some days after she and he are forcefully banned to the basement. But as her subtextual narrative develops, Willa emerges, not as an object to be shuttled about at Luther’s whim but as a willing and capable agent determined to control her own fate. Willa’s growth is brought about in part by her daily ritual of “reading” (interpreting) the lives of three of the Nedeed wives who preceded her. Scanning the letters of one, the recipe ledgers of another, and the photographic journal of yet another, Willa comes to understand that perhaps she has not suffered nearly as much as these other women, yet somehow they cultivated enough strength and resolve to survive the emotional assaults leveled by theirrespective Luther Nedeed. For example, Luwana Packerville Nedeed married the first Luther Nedeed in 1837 only to discover that she was also his slave, that in fact he had purchased her and that she had absolutely no rights as a free woman. Her days are spent writing imaginary letters to an imaginary sister she also names Luwana. Nevertheless, in writing to herself and engaging in introspection, she manages to remain relatively stable. And then there is Evelyn Creton Nedeed who, according to the narrator, “must have been a bewildered woman.” In order to cope she is “[d]riven by the need to spend so much time in that kitchen. To be sure that she never ran out of ingredients for the excuse to keep large round bowls between her thighs and long wooden spoons in her hand all day” (188), Evelyn always maintained a stockpile of supplies. Or in the case of Priscilla McGuire Nedeed, survival means reconstructing her role in life once her former role is denied to her. When Willa initially begins perusing Priscilla’s photo album, the early pictures (always of Priscilla, husband Luther, and son Luther—the men are always named Luther) suggest a charmed life for the woman. As the son ages and grows in each successive photograph, Priscilla becomes less and less noticeable. As the narrator finally observes, Priscilla “was no longer recording the growth of a child; the only thing growing in these pictures was her absence” (209). As a result, Priscilla pursues gardening, focusing her attention on the growth of plants instead of the growth of her son.
In “reading” these stories Willa ultimately emerges as a composite of these three women. She takes their stories and makes them her own, but like her namesake Willie, Willa does not record any of her thoughts. She preserves them for herself as tools to assist her in preparing for her future: “No, she could no longer blame Luther. Willa now marveled at the beauty and simplicity of something so small it had lived unrecognized within her for most of her life. She gained strength and a sense of power from its possession. . . . Shewas sitting there now, filthy, cold, and hungry, because she, Willa Prescott Nedeed, had walked down twelve concrete steps. And since that was the truth . . . whenever she was good and ready, she could walk back up” (280). It is with this renewed sense of determination that Willa does in fact mount the steps, with her dead son in her arms, and attempts a return to her life as Mrs. Luther Nedeed. That she dies at the end, along with Luther and son Sinclair, is less significant (at least when considering only Willa) than is her transformation from beginning to end, as one who formerly saw herself as helpless but who ultimately sees herself as capable indeed.
Laurel Dumont’s story, as highlighted in the Plot Development section, serves as a tragic reminder that material success is not always accompanied by happiness. But this character is developed to shed light on other narrative concerns as well. For one, Laurel’s story serves as contrast for Willa Nedeed’s story. As the reader learns during Laurel’s tale, Laurel and Willa, prior to the novel’s opening, had formed a friendship, not an equal sisterhood per se, but one whereby Willa seemed awestruck by Laurel’s confidence, poise, and sheer independence in the face of all odds. And Laurel enjoyed the fact that she was the envy of the unofficial first lady of Linden Hills. However, as the novel reveals, each woman’s life would take a different turn. Even though both will die by novel’s end, it is Laurel who falters in her struggle while Willa ascends, both literally and figuratively, the steps toward redeeming herself and shedding the weak persona that formerly identified her. In addition, Laurel’s story helps to foreground the theme of fragmentation. As Linden Hills resident historian Daniel Braithwaite, in a brief analysis of Laurel’s suicide, suggests to Willie and Lester, “[T]hat personal tragedy today was just a minute part of a greater tragedy that has afflicted this community for decades” (257), a community, also according to Braithwaite, “as broken and disjointed—as faceless—as Laurel Dumont’s body” (261). Laurel’s confusion, then, underscores the increased confusion, for the past thirty or so years, of Linden Hills residents who have aspired to attain a black power without white encroachment, only to discover that to sustain their community even minimally, most of them would have to enter the white world and, ironically, invite (if only unwittingly) the white world into theirs while each day just a bit more of their blackness, and thus purpose, is stripped away. (See Thematic Issues section.)
Even those like Laurel who, unlike Winston Alcott, willingly accept the mores of this small society are forced to become tragic heroes when they cannot rise above its petty demands. Though Ruth Anderson’s former friends like Laurel might pity her for her present circumstances with Norman, Ruth has been saved from the insanity of this maddening environment. Even Laurel once recalled that whenever she and Ruth conversed on the phone, she could detect pity in Ruth’s voice for her instead of vice versa. Strangely enough Willa Nedeed, the erstwhile first lady of Linden Hills, longed to be like Laurel, while Laurel longed to possess Ruth’s strength. Ironically, those who live in Linden Hills do not seem to have the stamina to survive Linden Hills.
The novel also presents minor characters whose purpose is to highlight the detrimental effect of living in Linden Hills. For example, Xavier Donnell and Maxwell Smyth are automobile industry executives who havelost, or are in the process of losing, a sense of themselves. Xavier sees Maxwell as the perfect mentor, given the fact that Maxwell has succeeded so well in the corporate world. However, Maxwell has done so at the expense of his cultural grounding. Not necessarily wanting to be white, Maxwell takes pride in being “no color at all” (106). Maxwell chides Xavier for dating Lester’s sister Roxanne because, according to Maxwell, “that family has one foot in the ghetto and the other on a watermelon rind” (116). Maxwell has denied himself the privilege of marrying because he cannot find the proper woman to “accessorize” his accomplishments. A robot rather than a human being, Maxwell, whose dehumanization is intensified by living in Linden Hills, attempts to transform Xavier into a similarly emotionless vessel.
Some characters are beholden to the social codes and expectations of Linden Hills, while others seek to defy the system. Chester Parker subverts the Linden Hills social order when he hires Willie and Lester to assist in redecorating his deceased wife’s room. Lycentia Parker has not even been buried when Chester asks the two to remove the wallpaper so that he can prepare to welcome his mistress into the house. Because Lycentia has been one of the most rigid of Linden Hills residents, Chester’s desire to “cleanse” his house of any signs of her underscores his rejection of the propriety so tenaciously maintained in Linden Hills. A particular example of Chester’s defiance is his insistence that Lester and Willie perform their work while Lycentia’s wake is being held downstairs. Chester’s rejection of Lycentia and all that she represented is also a reclamation of himself and his ideals. His actions offend the social code, but they are true to his own wishes.
Another character who defies the Linden Hills system is Rev. Michael Hollis. Ever since his wife left him eight years earlier as a result of his infidelity, Hollis has been confused and unfocused, a circumstance made worse by his alcoholism. Hollis also feels as though he has lost much of the passion he formerly brought to the ministry, partly as a result of his own failings but partly as a result of having become voluntarily constrained by the rigid and emotionless atmosphere of Linden Hills. In order to regain his passion, Hollis decides to preach a rousing sermon for Lycentia’s funeral, regardless of what Luther Nedeed, funeral director and resident dictator, thinks. Fully aware that Linden Hills expects a sedate ceremony, Hollis decides instead to stun the community out of its passivity. And even though he is unsuccessful (the only person he stirs is Chester), and even though Luther takes control by restoring order upon delivering the eulogy, Hollis at least takes comfort in the act ofdefiance. Instead of blindly accepting the social dictates of Linden Hills, Hollis begins to govern himself.
While some characters embrace sterile Linden Hills and others try to resist its influence, those like Willie and Lester attempt a detached objectivity. Assisting them in this regard is Daniel Braithwaite, resident historian. Though he is a rather minor character, his significance is undeniable. On the one hand, Braithwaite seems like a weak character and an ineffectual human being. On the other, he emerges as a wise counselor. For several years, Braithwaite has compiled revealing data about the unique culture of Linden Hills, good and bad, yet he refuses to use the information in an effort to remedy some of the ills of the neighborhood. When Lester asks the historian why he will not “use [his] work to help save people” (262), Braithwaite responds that people will continue to live in Linden Hills no matter what he does. As an objective observer Braithwaite emphasizes the fact that ultimately human beings are responsible for their own lives. As a neutral party, he appreciates both the negative and the positive aspects of a Linden Hills residency.
Linden Hills examines the destructive effects on, and the fragmentation of, the black psyche when, at the expense of everything humane, African Americans focus entirely on re-creating a black version of the American dream. In this novel the dream becomes a nightmare. For several generations the Nedeed family has attempted to counteract the effects of institutional racism by constructing a neighborhood so well maintained and envied that even some whites want their adjacent communities associated with Linden Hills. Ever since the original Luther Nedeed purchased in 1820 the extensive parcel of land that would become Linden Hills, the Nedeed family has carefully and methodically chosen the various residents who would make up this planned community. And every generation of Nedeeds has stamped out any perceived threat to this vision: removing any black family who defies the dream; registering Linden Hills as a historical landmark to protect it from encroachment by the white neighborhood nearby; and in the case of every Luther Nedeed since 1837, seizing full control for raising the next heir (the next Luther) to the Nedeed fortune as well as, for the most part, severing emotional ties between mother and son.
Naylor addresses this theme of psychological fragmentation in its full complexity, never reducing it to simplistic or convenient explanations. On the one hand, it would seem that everything connected to the Nedeeds is evil and insidious and that the residents of Linden Hills are misguided pawns in one family’s psychotic game of domination. On the other hand, the Nedeed dream is presented as an appropriate response to institutional white racism in its attempt to provide blacks with a sense of security, self-definition, and purpose. The paradox implied here is the focus of the text. If blacks succumb to racism, they are doomed; yet when they resist oppression they are fated for pain as well. Very subtly Naylor suggests that when fighting the evil of racism, by whatever means, one is destined to partake of a measure of that evil, especially when one loses focus on the purpose of the fight.
As the Linden Hills historian Dr. Daniel Braithwaite explains, the current generation of Linden Hills residents has lost “a sense of purpose about their history and their being” (260). The former generations understood the need to enforce a sense of black dignity and to defy the low expectations for black success; the simple act of attaining something previously beyond reach was sufficient in this effort, because the achievement was reward enough in creating a sense of pride. The neighborhood was to be made up of “black homes with black aspirations and histories— for good or evil” (261). For the former generations, moving into Linden Hills, establishing a cohesive black community, and then maintaining the sanctity of the community was that achievement. However, the latter generations lost sight of that dream in exchange for more and more material success, an obsession brought on in large measure, according to Braithwaite, by their having to go into the white world, or white corporate structure, to earn a living. Instead of selling their souls for Linden Hills as Lester seems to think, bits and bits of their souls (of their essence) have been taken away every time they enter that white world and attempt success on its terms, a success that is always just beyond their reach. In Braithwaite’s estimation, then, dream turned nightmare is the result of transformed motivations on the part of residents. Instead of defining their residency in Linden Hills as a means of continued black cooperation, the inhabitants consider it simply “the thing to do.” It is the place to be, but in the words of Braithwaite, “to be what?” (260). So fragmented now in their very beings, residents in Linden Hills have lost their humanity, a crucial and natural part of themselves.
This focus on the natural introduces yet another important theme: the natural versus the unnatural. There is much that is unnatural about Linden Hills. Family relationships are stilted and forced. Neighborliness isborne out of obligation, not altruism. And marital relationships are founded on assets, not love or passion. Anything that makes most residents human has been systematically “cultivated, or cultured” out of them. Serving textually as the best example of this dilemma is Maxwell Smyth, the personification of the unnatural. As the novel describes, “To even the most careful observer, this man seemed to have made the very elements disappear, while it was no more than the psychological sleight-of-hand that he used to make his blackness disappear”. That Maxwell could seem to make the elements (natural entities) disappear would suggest his doing the impossible, the unnatural. And if he can make his blackness (the most natural trait he possesses) seem to disappear, he has indeed risen to the height of abnormality, or the unnatural. It is also important to note that Maxwell is presented as the epitome of Linden Hills success. But as Daniel Braithwaite has noted, this success in corporate America has cost Maxwell to strip himself of all that makes him a unique individual, including his blackness. The selfimposed stress under which Maxwell functions destroys Laurel Dumont, and given the meticulousness with which executives like these two must conduct their lives, it is no surprise. For example, Maxwell gave as much consideration to the decision when and if to smile as he did to the purchase of a new car. Conducting one’s life with such precision would have to sap one of humanity bit by bit, especially one like Maxwell who has taken this battle with the natural to an extreme: he resists physical intimacy because he is uncomfortable with the heat and erratic motion of sex. In addition, he has regulated his food and liquid intake such that disposal of bodily solids is odor-free and inconsequential; in short, any act that would suggest he is human has been eliminated. The question that emerges, then, is “At what cost has Maxwell gained success in the white world?” Answer: he has lost his humanity.
This search for success, with the attendant results of fragmentation and the pursuit of the unnatural, also engenders domestic abuse of women, a theme addressed in The Women of Brewster Place. Here Naylor grapples with the notion that black women ultimately become sacrificial lambs when black men battle the demons of white racism outside the home; they receive the brunt of the anger that black men, for various reasons, cannot vent on white men and a larger racist society. In Linden Hills, even when the black man has achieved a level of success, sustaining that success renders him, in his own estimation, more vulnerable to the punishments of racism, and his concern becomes obsession that expresses itself negatively in a decided detachment from, or even anger toward(an internal anger projected on), the black woman. The bizarre nature of this emotional disturbance is made poignant in the Nedeed men’s choice for wives. Every generation chooses a light-complexioned woman, yet each man wants her to produce a dark-skinned male like him. To be sure, the Nedeed men want to prove the potency of blackness over any complexion less than black, but at the same time, they are placing the women in the position for blame if this potency is not proven. The woman finds herself in an impossible situation, harkening back to slavery days. When Willa Prescott Nedeed produces a light-skinned son, her husband accuses her of adultery (and perhaps with a white man), but if she, like the other Nedeed brides, is of light hue, then a lighter strain is coursing through her veins and could easily reveal itself. That such has not occurred in previous generations is no guarantee that it cannot happen in the present day. But the present-day Luther will not consider that fact. So just like black women during slavery, Willa is doomed to criticism and/or abuse no matter her action. In the slave woman’s case, if she tries to reject the sexual overtures of her white owner, she is beaten and/or raped; then if and when she produces a child as a result of the attack, she is victimized again by her black husband/companion when he deems her blameworthy. It is this history of black female victimization that Naylor addresses here, a history that always has at its core white male machinations or the machinations of the larger white patriarchal society.
Linden Hills focuses, to some degree, on the historical migratory practices of blacks from the antebellum days and beyond. Even before the Great Migration of the post–World War I period blacks looked to the North as a haven from the harsh realities of physical and emotional abuse they suffered in slavery. Instead of working unrewarded within the “peculiar institution” they sought a life wherein their efforts would benefit them and improve their way of life. Part of this migration before and after the Civil War would entail blacks’ establishing their own towns, much like author Zora Neale Hurston’s Eatonville, Florida; or other towns peppered throughout Oklahoma (later to be fictionalized in Toni Morrison’s Paradise) and Kansas (particularly Nicodemus). In other towns blacks established businesses that thrived, ironically because blacks had no alternative but to support them since segregation often prevented them from patronizing white businesses. And in the case of Tulsa, Oklahoma, blacks built what was ultimately called the “Black Wall Street,” because the black business district in that city boasted several successful businesses that served as a veritable national clearinghouse for networking with other black businesses throughout the country. Unfortunately, this thriving area was bombed in the 1920s because it offered too much competition with the white establishment. Even today, economic historians ponder what might have been, in the annals of black economic history, had the Oklahoma project lasted.
This novel traces, from 1820 to the early 1980s, the development of a carefully planned black community that would prove not only to white America but also to black America itself the potential of black people to succeed despite historical impediments. And though the community flourishes for several generations, it ultimately suffers once its inhabitants must leave the community in order to earn a living. In this way, the novel records the fate of typical black communities, ironically on the heels of the perceived success of integration. Once blacks could enter and then patronize previously all-white establishments, black businesses suffered. Likewise, when Linden Hills residents enter the white world to work, to trade, and subsequently to define themselves, they lose their original purpose for sustaining their own community: to maintain a comfortable way of life without immediate white intrusion and with the peace of mind and pride of having achieved the goal despite the former and continued opposition of racism. The ultimate horror is that the community of Linden Hills may perish as a result of such neglect.
In focusing on a successful middle- and upper middle-class black community, Naylor employs an important literary prototype that has come to define African-American literature: the concept of “inversion,” initiated by slave narrator Olaudah Equiano (one of the few to chronicle a bondman’s life in Africa before his enslavement). Rejecting the notion that black is equated automatically with savagery, evil, or bestiality, or that blacks/Africans are nothing more than objects, Vassa instead highlights in the first chapter of his autobiography a well-maintained, perfectly ordered African society wherein the inhabitants practice religion, fidelity to family, obedience to law, cleanliness, and modesty. The perception of African, or black, culture is “inverted.
LITERARY DEVICE AND GENRE
Naylor uses, and to some degree lampoons, this tradition of “inversion.” In Linden Hills almost every physical or philosophical concept is reversed. To the outside world everything black (i.e., everything in Linden Hills) is to be envied, because these blacks have made themselves central to all external entities, including some whites who want to be associated with the community. Also, the route to social and economic prominence in Linden Hills is not upward, but downward; the most influential in the community, including Luther Nedeed, live at the bottom of the hill. And Luther, who ostensibly epitomizes civility and gentility, has, in an act of unprecedented barbarity, incarcerated his wife in a downstairs dungeon. With these examples, Naylor seems to suggest that merely supplanting white with black is not sufficient when neither the rules nor the game has truly changed; the paradigm of oppressed versus oppressor is still active.
Besides the African-American tradition of inversion Naylor also uses well-established European traditions. Traces of the Gothic novel are evident in Linden Hills. From the mysterious and anachronistic Luther Nedeed (a mortician, he is consistently described as seeming to hail from another century), to the winding and rambling neighborhood (replacing in this case the usual sprawling mansion with its inexplicable occurrences and haunting noises), and culminating in the stock “crazy woman in the attic” character (in this novel, Willa Nedeed is locked away in the basement), Linden Hills succeeds as a modern Gothic work. And like her American predecessor Edgar Allan Poe, Naylor combines physical Gothic horror with psychological horror as she explores the impact of frustration, or thwarted desires, on the psyche. For example, Lester and Willie’s friend Norman Anderson suffers from a strange disorder that results in hallucinations; he thinks that his skin is being consumed by a mysterious pink growth. No origin is given for the mental illness, nor is any remedy offered. The inexplicable ailment simply exists. Of course, Norman’s malady symbolizes the various ailments plaguing residents throughout Linden Hills, and inasmuch as Norman’s problem has no specific or immediate cause, neither do theirs.
Naylor also borrows from the picaresque tradition. In this novel, however, Naylor modifies the picaro, using two characters, Lester and Willie, to serve in this role. Each of the menembodies different aspects of a low-life character. Willie serves as a “geographical” rogue (he resides in poverty-stricken Putney Wayne and thus requires Lester’s guidance throughout Linden Hills), while Lester serves as an “intellectual and emotional” rogue (though he is a resident of Linden Hills he has neither the intellectual nor the emotional maturity of Willie and thus requires Willie’s guidance). Neither Willie nor Lester is gainfully employed; instead they are poets who spend much of their time honing their craft and reciting their creative wares in coffeehouses. Lester lives off the kindnesses begrudgingly of his mother and sister, while Willie periodically assumes menial jobs whenever he requires money. As they sojourn throughout Linden Hills, they encounter persons from different walks of life but who each have a stake in the maintenance of the community; their very lifelines are connected to the survival of this neighborhood. With Willie and Lester serving as careful observers, Naylor makes commentary on the foibles of an otherwise unsuspecting community.
To a lesser degree Naylor applies concepts from the epistolary novel, while also using the photograph and the ledger as narrative models. Each genre is used as a kind of substitute diary from the lives of the Nedeed women. In the Willa Nedeed sections of the novel, Willa plods through the writings of the Nedeed wives and mothers who preceded her. Luwana Packerville Nedeed wrote letters to herself as she tried to retain her sanity once she realized that she had no power in the Nedeed house. Evelyn Creton Nedeed recorded every food purchase needed for the many recipes she perfected in order to add structure to her otherwise empty life. Priscilla McGuire Nedeed kept a photograph album to record, and extract some meaning from, her life with the Nedeeds. With each of these characters, Naylor explores how history is recorded (what methods are used), who is recording it (and why), and most importantly, who is interpreting it (and with what agenda). Clearly, the person who has the opportunity to leave a written record enjoys a level of power unavailable to someone who is denied the chance.
It is obvious that Naylor challenges the reader with these concepts, especially given the descriptions of Lester and Willie, the main characters. While both are poets, Lester writes his creations, but Willie only commits his to memory. His devotion to the oral tradition seems to be key to his retaining a sense of himself. Though to write is to assume some power, to write is also to relinquish power when one exposes the creative product for the interpretation of others. So while Naylor acknowledges the significance of the written word, she also pays homage to the primacy of the spoken word.
While the narrative is propelled by the daily encounters of Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, neither of these main characters narrates. Instead, Naylor relies, in her typical fashion, on the omniscient third-person narrator (an omniscient narrator has insight into the thoughts and feelings of characters). This perspective allows the reader to penetrate the thoughts of the many characters who people the novel. Naylor opens the novel with an extended prologue that foregrounds the history not only of Linden Hills but also, at least tangentially, of America. In its totality the novel encompasses over 150 years, from roughly 1820 to the very early 1980s. The novel is then divided into six chapters, the headings of which are the six days of December just prior to Christmas, from December 19 (the first chapter) to December 24 (the last chapter). On each day self-fashioned handymen Willie and Lester set out to earn money while also observing the behaviors, critiquing the mores, and exposing the foibles of an otherwise unsuspecting Linden Hills. Unlike The Women of Brewster Place, in which Naylor focused on a particular character per chapter, the Linden Hills chapters detail the stories of a host of characters. This technique serves the work well, especially since Naylor also crafts a well-developed subplot, the details of which must also be peppered throughout the main narrative.
In her inimitable style, Naylor ignores both linear structure and prescribed boundaries. Even though the reader can trace Lester and Willie’s movements chronologically, as indicated in the chapter headings, Naylor disrupts this structure by interposing throughout the main narrative the subplot details of the Willa Nedeed story. And within the Willa story, Naylor uses the flashback to present the lives of ancestral Nedeed women. In short, the Willa history disrupts the linear movement of the Willie and Lester escapade. In terms of resisting prescribed boundaries (that is, developing only one genre), Naylor relies not just on one narrative mode, but on several. In addition to the straight-line narrative of the third person, Naylor uses, if only briefly, the epistolary format, poetry, biblical reference, diary, and stream of consciousness (a point of view that seeks to capture the unorganized, random flow of the mind). In this way, Naylor uses narrative structure to underscore one of theissues that recurs not only in Linden Hills but also in her subsequent works: the necessity of questioning and then rejecting the imposition of arbitrary boundaries. In an eloquent exchange early in Linden Hills, Willie and Lester discuss the idiocy of enclosing, for example, a university campus with a fence, while the gate remains open. Lester points out that its only function is “To get you used to the idea that what they have in there is different, special”(45). Lester then questions why an individual, one for example who wants to be a doctor, cannot simply enter a library, read all he can, and then sit for an qualifying exam. But because society needs a system of “them and us” (a way of segregating humanity), it must establish boundaries that ultimately have nothing to do with reality. Lester’s questioning this need merely reinforces the broader question that Naylor is raising not only in narrative content, but also in narrative structure.
AN INTERTEXTUAL ANALYSIS
An intertextual critique assesses the similarity between two works of literature. Generally the text being analyzed is compared to a more established, or classical, text. Often the writer of the second work is either paying homage to the established writer or parodying some aspect of the writer’s work. The task of the critic is to highlight the extent to which such modeling supports the aesthetic, philosophical, or thematic quality of the work being analyzed; and to what extent the association succeeds. For example, if a twentieth-century novelist borrows creatively from Shakespeare, does the novelist appropriate Shakespeare’s material merely for aesthetic purposes, or is the writer drawing a comparison between the time setting of the Shakespearean play and the setting of the novel? Or is the writer merely comparing character types, a novel’s protagonist with a Shakespearean hero? The intertextual analysis encourages the critic to become even more familiar with the established text and to further appreciate the primacy of that work.
Naylor loosely bases Linden Hills on Part I of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy (1321), entitled “The Inferno.” In this section of the work the Italian poet Dante is guided through hell by Virgil, the great classical poet whom Dante considers the embodiment of the highest knowledge attainable by the human mind. After passing through the anteroom, housed by those who did nothing in life good or bad, the two travelers begin to descend throughout the nine levels of hell, encountering alongthe way such derelicts as unbaptized spirits (first level), carnal sinners (second level), gluttons (third level), misers (fourth level), the wrathful (fifth level), heretics (sixth level), the violent (seventh level), the fraudulent (eighth level), traitors (an ice-locked ninth level), and then ultimately Lucifer, who is manifested in a three-headed figure. Upon entering the sixth level (and thereafter), the poets witness the horrible, and generally fiery, torments of the City of Dis.
To accommodate this Dantean structure, Naylor, in addition to presenting two poets, constructs Linden Hills as a nine-tiered neighborhood, with street names extending from First Crescent Drive (at the top of Linden Hills) to Fifth Crescent Drive. Then, due to a long-ago conflict in the neighborhood, Tupelo Drive begins at what would have been Sixth Crescent and extends through the next four tiers. Once entering what would have been Sixth Crescent Drive, then, one is entering the most horrific levels in the neighborhood (as in the sixth level of hell noted above). Each of Naylor’s major story lines occurs on one of the nine Linden Hills tiers. The Laurel Dumont suicide story (on what would have been Sixth Crescent Drive) introduces the reader to Tupelo Drive, the street that ends at Luther Nedeed’s estate. The most affluent area of Linden Hills is, of course, at the bottom; and it is therefore the most spiritually bankrupt dimension. At the very bottom of the hill is Luther Nedeed, the Lucifer-like character, whose ultimate betrayal of his wife and son will lead to the fiery climax at the end. Re-creating Dante’s threeheaded figure, Naylor collapses Luther, Willa, and Sinclair into one massive burning bulk that must be carted out whole in the final scene of the novel.
Just as Dante and Vergil survive at the end of “The Inferno” by escaping through a tunnel surrounded by water left to journey through “Purgatory” (Part II) and ultimately “Paradise” (Part III), Willie and Lester escape over the moat around the Nedeed estate and land in the adjacent snow-laden cemetery. And like Dante, each of these young poets is left to ponder the lessons of the journey, perhaps to gain insight into human foibles or undergo a significant revelation, as does Dante.
Yet another intertextual reading is applicable between Linden Hills and Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic tale “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This story chronicles the events attendant to the visit of an unnamed narrator to the mansion of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. Upon his arrival the narrator begins both to recall, and to notice in the present moment, strange attributes of his friend and the family. For instance, the entire Usher family line, for several generations, has maintained only a directline of descent. And Roderick Usher seems to suffer from an inexplicable malady whereby all of his senses are heightened to such an extent that he can withstand only the dullest stimuli. In addition, his twin sister Madeleine is catatonic, and when in the course of the story she dies, the narrator and Roderick bury her in the cellar below. At the end of the story Madeleine returns from the dead and collapses on her brother, at which time the narrator flees from the house just seconds before it implodes, in an inferno-like occurrence, into an adjacent tarn.
The final scene of Linden Hills clearly bows to this story. Willa, much like Madeleine, is practically buried alive in the basement, prevented by Luther from returning upstairs until she forces her way, with the help of Willie, to the main level of the house. Like the Ushers, the Nedeeds, in a psychotic need for both biological and ultimately social control, allow only a direct line of descent. And like the Ushers, the Nedeeds perish in their own towering inferno, while Poe’s narrator, like Willie and Lester (and Virgil and Dante), escapes via water (the moat surrounding the Usher house). Clearly, many of the Gothic elements in Linden Hills are grounded in the Poe tradition.
Linden Hills. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. Rpt. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Callaloo 8 (1985): 484–88.
Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1985: B1.
Commonweal, May 3, 1985: 283–85.
Crisis 92 (1985): 13, 47–48.
Freedomways 25 (1985): 227.
Library Journal, April 15, 1985: 86.
London Review of Books, August 1, 1985: 26.
Ms., June 1985: 69–71.
New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1985: 11.
Publishers Weekly, February 14, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1985: 572.
Washington Post Book World, March 24, 1985: 7.
Women’s Review of Books, August 1985: 7–8.
Source: Wilson, C. E. (2001). Gloria Naylor: A critical companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.