A Different Drummer

Publishers are always looking for the next big thing, but ‘next’ does not necessarily imply ‘new’. John Williams’ Stoner is only one example of the ‘rediscovered classic’, albeit an example so successful that it has become shorthand for the phenomenon. Not only did Stoner sell remarkable well for a novel by a previously unheralded writer originally published in 1965, but it brought his other three novels back into circulation. ‘This year’s Stoner’ may have become something of a gimmick since, but any reader knows that there are thousands of wonderful novels slowly drifting towards obscurity across the decades, as deserving of our attentions as those thrown ceaselessly back by the tides of literary taste to the printers.

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is the latest candidate for this accolade. Originally published in 1962 and much praised at the time, both the novel and Kelley himself soon fell out of fashion. Three further novels and a collection of short stories followed, the final novel in 1970, but, though Kelley continued to write, no further books were published. In an interview in 2012 he commented:

“My name just kind of faded away. There are still people today who say to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were dead.’”

A Different Drummer, set in a fictional state in the American South, is based on a premise which is both ordinary and other-worldly. One day, without obvious cause or provocation, a black farmer, Tucker Caliban, begins to throw salt onto his land. He then shoots his horse and cow before setting fire to his house:

“Orange flame climbed the white curtain in the centre section of the house, moved on slowly to the other windows like someone inspecting then house to buy it, burst through the roof with the sound of paper tearing, and lit the faces of the men, the sides of the wagons, and the faces of the Negros.”

As his home burns he leaves with his pregnant wife and child, and, in the days which follow, the entire African-American population of the state depart.

The novel may be predicated on Tucker’s actions, but, though its author was black, it is told entirely from the point of view of its white characters. As Kelley correctly pointed out, this disconcerted critics, forcing them to consider his work without reflexively reaching for another black writer to compare it to:

“There was a literary ghetto — certainly at that time and it still exists today — where African-American writers are really only compared to other African-American writers. But (the white critics) had to compare me to Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Penn Warren.”

More importantly, rather than asserting that it is the duty of black characters to somehow free themselves from the constraints imposed by racism (or fail to free themselves and assume the status of victim), it turns the focus onto the root of the problem, the psychology of the white characters. This would not work unless Kelley was able to convince us he understands these characters but luckily, though the novel’s premise is arresting, it is its characterisation which is its greatest strength.

Kelley focuses in particular on two families, the Lelands and the Willsons. The Lelands are poor and the Willsons rich, descendant from a Confederate General, but both are to some extent sympathetic to state’s black population. Leland forbids his son, somewhat confusingly known as Mister Leland, to use the word ‘nigger’:

“I don’t think no word starts out being bad. It’s just a word and then folks give it a meaning… But if you call a coloured person a nigger he thinks you saying he’s bad, and maybe you don’t even mean it that way, you see?”

In David Willson’s back story we discover a close friendship with a black student, Bennett Bradshaw, at college:

“It is the first time in my life I carried on an intelligent conversation with a negro, and the first time I felt intellectually inferior to a negro.”

His mother is appalled when he tells his family he is going to room with Bennett, but his father agrees when he discovers David’s reasons: “it’s mostly that I like him.” Kelley perhaps picks these more sympathetic characters because their incomprehension over Tucker’s actions is as great as anyone’s. For them, for the other white characters, and for the reader, the novel becomes a puzzle with Tucker at its centre.

In this way the novel can be read as a series of clues, beginning with the story of Tucker’s ancestor, known only as the African, who escapes (carrying a baby) on arrival in the United States and proceeds to free slaves throughout the state before being eventually betrayed and killed. The baby is taken into slavery by the Willson family, and Tucker is his great-grandson:

“I can see whatever was in his blood just a-laying there sleeping, waiting, and then one day waking up, making Tucker do what he did.”

The novel moves backwards and forwards in time, through the experiences of the Lelands and the Willsons, creating a picture of Tucker, though one which never quite comes into focus. This ranges from a comment Tucker makes to Mr Leland as he walks away from the burning house (“you ain’t lost nothing, has you?”) to an outburst at his father’s funeral (“Sacrifice? Is THAT all? Is that really all?”) to his refusal to lend his wife a dollar for the National Society for Colored Affairs:

“Ain’t none of my battles being fought in no courts. I’m fighting all my battles myself.”

A Different Drummer is a novel which poses questions rather than giving answers, its provocative scenario allowing unexpected insight into an issue which writers continue to explore to this day. The one questions it does answer, however, is whether its rediscovery is justified, and it’s a whole-hearted yes.

Quotations by William Kelley from an interview by Steve Kemme for Mosaic magazine.

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2 Responses to “A Different Drummer”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    How interesting. I have to admit that as I was reading your review, the writer who immediately came to mind was Faulkner, probably as a consequence of the nature of the story. Also James Baldwin, but that might be because he’s still relatively fresh in my mind after reading Beale Street.

    Anyway, the novel sounds excellent – powerful stuff. Could be a good one for literary book groups, especially given its ability to throw up more questions than answers.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think it would be ideal for book groups – it’s bound to generate a good discussion. I also though of Faulkner, especially the different viewpoints.

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