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279 7 Returning to Milton’s Hell with Weapons of Perfect Passivity in Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio In 1899, the last year of what is known as the long nineteenth century, Sutton E. Griggs brought the tradition of early African American engagement with Milton to a fitting satanic close. His novel, Imperium in Imperio, or State within a State, focuses on warring black politics that pits ideologies of black nationalism and accommodationalism against each other relative to the mounting acts of terrorism perpetrated against blacks on the cusp of a new century. In this novel, Griggs tropes with Satan in double vision. Developing a double plot that presents readers with two race leaders of contrasting political persuasions, Griggs combines artistic modes of characterization and setting to herald the second coming of a new messianic rebel whom the author re-creates in stark contrast to Satan’s militant spirit. The Miltonic tenor of both characters ’ political differences is especially evident in the climax and denouement stages of plot structure, where Griggs intertextually revisits Paradise Lost by returning to the demonic grounds of hell. This revisitation of Milton’s epic coupled with Griggs’s return to hell brings the tradition of Miltonic engagement in early African American literature to a satanic close. For these reasons, Imperium in Imperio represents a climax of intertextual tradition relative 280 Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt to early African American writers’ interpoetic engagements with Milton. Its satanic politics with Milton chart new intertextual lines for subsequent members of Milton’s black sisterhood and brotherhood to extend and enrich in the centuries that follow. Literary criticism has only recently begun to pay renewed interest in Griggs who has fallen outside of literary history as a result of his unpopular political views concerning race and the problem of the color line. An accomplished writer, preacher, and activist of the African American nadir, Griggs has fallen into a virtual hellspace of forgotten oblivion. A. J. Verdelle, noting “time and criticism have sometimes been harsh” to the author, further explains that Griggs’s work “has been ignored, and when it has been considered or visible, he has often been labeled polemical.” Hugh Gloster, in his assessments of Imperium in Imperio, notes that the novel is “weakened by melodramatic situations, idealized characters, and stilted conversation.” Finnie D. Coleman, one of the most recent critics to present a comprehensive examination of Griggs as an author and literary figure, enriches contemporary understandings of the author’s fallen status in history. For example, in Sutton E. Griggs and the Struggle against White Supremacy, he states: “Widely criticized for its implausible plot, lofty romanticism, and at times heavy-handed didactism, Imperium in Imperio is most often discussed as it complements earlier nineteenth-century Black nationalist literature. Rarely is the text approached as the first of five novels that offered ‘conservative action’ as an alternative to the ‘militant rhetoric’ that pervaded much of Black nationalist literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Coleman’s account of Griggs’s reception in history synthesizes cultural responses to the author’s literary art and political views. Understood from these vantage points, Griggs’s literary aesthetic is found wanting and artistically inferior, and his political ideologies are considered unsuitable for a race struggling to overcome tyrannies such as lynching and voting discrimination.1 Griggs’s literary aesthetic coupled with his racial politics partially explain why Imperium in Imperio and its author “remain at the margins of critical discourse” throughout much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.2 As a result of these cultural responses to his work, Griggs has suffered indignity in a cultural hellspace of Returning to Milton’s Hell 281 darkened (in)visibility. Commenting further on his abject status in literary history, Coleman asserts, “by the time of Griggs’ death in 1933, members of popular literary circles had practically forgotten him and his five novels.”3 In this respect, Griggs stands on equal footing with his heroic protagonist, Belton Piedmont, who returns to Milton’s hell at the site of a black Pandaemonium and dies a noble death for rejecting a racial politics of militant rebellion . Ironically, it is on these demonic grounds of rebellion and literary tradition that Belton and Griggs simultaneously extend Milton’s relevance in African American literary tradition beyond the nineteenth century. Emerging as lords of satanic re-creation, both differentiate themselves from more popular beliefs in black political thought in their times. These acts of satanic re-creation...


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