Hidden Mississippi Novels
Ok. These Mississippi novels aren’t exactly hidden. But I didn’t know them. I do now, thanks to the confluence of two things. One, I’ve been intentionally reading African American writers for almost two years now. Second, I thought to myself, Ellen, you’re hoping to publish a Mississippi novel. You need to know the canon of your ambitions. So I went to the Mississippi Writers and Musicians website and identified writers I hadn’t read, specifically Black Mississippi writers. It led me to Chalmers Archer, Jr., a memoirist I reviewed here. Also to William Alexander Attaway (you’ll notice the last names start with A; the site lists authors alphabetically.) Mr. Attaway’s story is a sad one for me.
A Hidden Mississippi Novel: Blood on the Forge
I chose to read Blood on the Forge for Attaway’s entry. Blood on the Forge is a Southern novel not set in the South. Rather, the novel follows half-brothers who leave the South as part of the early 20th Century African American Great Migration north. The novel stuns in its description of the Pittsburgh steel mills where the brothers work. The forges of the title become living beings, breathing fire and demanding sacrifice. I would not wish that existence on my worse enemy, nor the encampment where the brothers live. That the story begins with country life in the South makes the contrast that much more stark. For me, the book’s greatest achievement was finally getting me to understand how unrelenting subjugation makes one join the oppressor in violence against one’s own.
So what’s sad about it? This book is fabulous, and though we I’d never heard of Attaway.
After Blood on the Forge, Attaway quit writing novels (he turned to writing screen plays and songs and co-wrote Day-O for Harry Belafonte.) Maybe the novel’s good but limited reception disappointed him. He wrote this novel in the 1940s, when his good friend Richard Wright was writing. We’ve all heard of Wright, who I review below. I’m not disparaging Wright in any way. It’s just seems white readers and publishers have a limited bandwidth for novels by Black writers. We’ve got Wright on Black migration, so we’re done. According to Wikipedia, Attaway’s Blood on the Forge is gaining new recognition as an exemplary Great Migration novel. I hope so.
A Hidden Novel: The Man Who Lived Underground
Even the genius reputation of Richard Wright couldn’t get his book The Man Who Lived Underground published. The book opens with police officers beating an innocent man. The beating drives Fred Daniels, the protagonist, underground. Imani Perry in her Atlantic article notes that Harper’s reluctance to publish the book might have been due to the graphic nature of the beating. Today, of course, we’re privy to videos of such beatings on a regular basis.
Perry, whose book South to America I reviewed here, suggests we look at Wright with “fresh eyes.” I came to the book ignorant of the literary debate between Wright on one side and Baldwin and Ellison on the other. But I recognize the disagreement on whether an unrelenting portrait of white supremacist violence, rather than a focus on Black excellence, does a disservice to African American literature. Sometimes today I feel white folks who want to address racism get fixated on guilt over our violence at the expense of Black accomplishment, which, ultimately, just leaves white folks on center stage.
Anyway, I experienced the novel as revelatory. As in John the Revelator revelatory (a quick search shows I’m not alone in Fred’s last name reminding me of Daniel in the Lion’s den.) An accompanying essay by Wright explains the origin of the idea for the novel. It was his grandmother’s religious view of the world, which I would never have guessed. So I’m comfortable using Biblical language in this review to tell you we are all living in a surreal world where what we covet enables us to overlook the suffering of humanity around us.
Thank you for reading these book reviews on hidden Mississippi novels. I vowed at the end of last year to share books that I appreciated the author having taking the time to write. These so fit that description.
Blood on the Forge, Imani Perry's review of the Man Who Lived Underground, Little known Mississippi novelists, Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground, William Alexander Attaway
Luanne M. Castle
I marked this book as to-read on Goodreads. It sounds really good. I am a huge Wright fan and an even bigger Ellison fan. I used to teach them both. Invisible Man is such an amazing book. Have you ever read Charles Chesnutt? That’s an interesting historical literary venture. Love that you’re taking the time to read “lesser knowns.”
Ellen Morris Prewitt
It’s good and also relatively short, which I appreciate these days. 🙂
I don’t know Charles Chestnutt. I’ll have to look him up. “Interesting historical literary venture” is enticing. 🙂
Thanks for introducing me to two important books I have notvread or even heard of. I really appreciate this series you are working on
Ellen Morris Prewitt
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Joe. If I’m remembering correctly, Wright’s novel was released decades ago as a truncated short story, but they wouldn’t publish the full-length. Isn’t it strange about Attaway composing Day-O?!?
I just had to tweet this sentence: “Sometimes today I feel white folks who want to address racism get fixated on guilt over our violence at the expense of Black accomplishment, which, ultimately, just leaves white folks on center stage.” I feel the same way … often. I remember decades ago when I was studying American and English literature. Black women writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker were being “discovered” and taught and written about and that was great … except it seemed like all the women writing about Black women writers were White. I always felt a certain unease. It’s not like I thought White female professors shouldn’t be teaching about Morrison and Walker, but they seemed to want to “own” the Black women’s experience, like only they (the White female professors) knew how to interpret it.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
I know what you mean, Marie. I just put down a much-lauded biography of Frederick Douglass because something about the tone of the commentary made me uncomfortable. I looked at the author’s photo, and he’s white (duh! but I hadn’t been focused on that.) So now I’ve got some Douglass bios on my list written by African Americans. It’s all a struggle for me, particularly not to judge others whose shoes I was wearing about 2 weeks ago, but now I’m all like, please, quit talking about your guilt. When in the next breath I’m telling an esteemed Black journalist factoids about Ida B. Wells, because surely he doesn’t know (eye-roll). Thanks for extending the conversation.