- Reviewed by
Since most African American novels have urban settings, it seems surprising that we have had to wait so long for a substantial critical study of the role of the city in this rich body of fiction. Charles Scruggs has now amply rewarded our patience by treating fully, learnedly, perceptively the imaginary as well as actual cityscapes in four key works of the black novelistic tradition—Native Son, Invisible Man, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Beloved —while mentioning numerous other novels and, perhaps most importantly, establishing the intellectual as well as historical context needed to consider his complex theme. Readers expecting an encyclopedic survey will be disappointed to find only passing reference to Frank Webb or Chester Himes or Gloria Naylor and no mention at all of Cyrus Colter or John A. Williams or Nathan Heard, to cite only a few. Nor does Scruggs examine foreign settings, though Wright's and Baldwin's Paris, Claude McKay's Marseilles, Nella Larsen's Copenhagen, and William Gardner Smith's Berlin might yield fruitful comparisons to Chicago, New York, and nineteenth-century Cincinnati. But the author deliberately avoids "the shotgun approach—half a page for this novel, half a page for that one." The resulting depth of treatment in Sweet Home more than compensates for lack of scope, especially since Scruggs wisely accepts the responsibility of enriching his discussion with "all the [relevant] information—historical, political, sociological, psychological, philosophical—that the scholar can bring to bear on the texts."
Such information in Sweet Home includes, in addition to the usual historical sources, numerous biblical passages, Augustinian theology in The City of God, the urban sociology of The Philadelphia Negro of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Chicago School of Robert Park and Louis Wirth, Alain Locke and The New Negro, the criticism of Kenneth Burke, and the cultural commentary of Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford. On this foundation Scruggs constructs an argument focusing on the contrast between the visionary "City on a Hill" or "Beloved Community" of utopian expectations and the grim dystopian actuality of the South Side, Harlem, or the raw outskirts of Cincinnati. The tensions generated by this contrast pervade and animate [End Page 364] much of the best African American fiction. It is certainly central in the four novels to which Scruggs devotes a chapter each. Chapter Three on Native Son takes its place immediately as one of the best things ever written on that much discussed novel, and the following three chapters are also impressive interpretations. Beloved does not fall neatly into the Wright-Ellison-Baldwin triad, but its dissonance with the black male tradition is itself instructive.
The research and writing of this book are so careful that errors are scarce indeed. One might note, though, that The South Side Boys' Club appearing in Native Son actually existed—Wright worked there in the mid-thirties—and was not "a veiled reference to the YMCAs." Seville's Giralda, the model for the Wrigley Building in Chicago, was the minaret for a mosque built at the end of the twelfth century, not the cathedral incorporating it that was started more than two centuries later. But these slips and two or three typos are the only minor blemishes that this reviewer could find in this excellent book. Sweet Home begins with an epigraph from "Sweet Home Chicago" of Robert Johnson and B. B. King fame and ends with Toni Morrison's antebellum plantation named Sweet Home. In between any student of modern fiction will find much to admire and almost nothing to criticize. African Americanists will find it indispensable.