Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books, March 22, 2013

 KINGSBLOOD ROYAL by Sinclair Lewis
(Review by Deb)
When Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal was originally published in 1947, its subject matter was considered so controversial that the first edition’s dust jacket contained no endnotes and not a single inkling about the plot.  Some 66 years on, as we enter the second term of America’s first black president, a novel about a white man whose comfortable existence is upended when he discovers that a distant ancestor was black might seem little more than quaint; but it is a good reminder that for several centuries our country was shaped by a notion that “one drop of black blood makes you black” and all the pernicious psychological, legal, social, and cultural baggage that went with that concept.

Books like Robert Penn Warren’s Band of Angels—involving females who are (or think they might be) of mixed-race ancestry—flourished in the early and mid-20th century.  In countless novels, the theme of the “beautiful, tragic mulatto” was played out for all its taboo-teasing, sexual, and sentimental worth, usually ending with the heroine’s death.  Sinclair Lewis turns this trope on its head—because the main character of Kingsblood Royal is a man and one who, until he learns the truth about his ancestry, has lived the life of entitlement that came to white middle-class American males in the years immediately following World War II.

Neil Kingsblood is a veteran of that war, one who walks with a limp due to injuries sustained in the fighting.  He works in a bank and has married the bank president’s daughter, the aptly-named Vestal.  The couple have a young daughter and live in a house in a new development in the city of Grand Republic, Minnesota.  There’s plenty of Main Street/Babbitt material here and Lewis makes good use of it (although, to say that Lewis’s satire here is a little heavy-handed is putting it mildly), introducing us to the leading lights of the town, all of whom are obvious buffoons, hypocrites, lechers, drinkers, and philistines of the first order.

Lewis first describes Neil in a way that makes him seem similar to his fellow citizens:  a bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met type whose mind is too clumsy to analyze his occasional discontent with the outwardly happy life he has chosen (or has it been chosen for him by virtue of his race, gender, class, and upwardly-mobile marriage?).  The book leisurely develops Neil’s story—we meet his family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, bank customers, and how Neil interacts with all of them.  We are almost 100 pages into the book before Neil, at his father’s urging, begins to research a family legend: could it possibly be true that the Kingsbloods are descended from Henry VIII?  Of course, that story has no basis in fact, but while looking into his family’s roots, Neil discovers that one of his ancestors was a black man born in Martinique.  The fact that this makes Neil all of 1/32 black seems utterly irrelevant to the modern reader, but in the strictly-segregated world of the late 1940s, Neil’s life is changed irrevocably by his discovery.

At this point, we understand why Lewis has spent 100 pages leading up to the moment of discovery; why early in the book there were long passages in the book detailing the Kingsbloods’ fraught relationship with their live-in black housekeeper and her flashy boyfriend or why Neil has spent quite a bit of time wondering about the interior life of the black porter who greets all of the train passengers by name; or even why the book contains a anecdote (presumably one that would have been considered funny in 1947) about the then-common practice of giving black dogs the name “Nigger” and the unsuccessful attempts the Kingsbloods make to rechristen their dog “Bandit.”  Neil has been looking at racial prejudice from the lofty vantage point of someone uninvolved by its real, cruel consequences; but in the space of a few hours, Neil has moved from one side of the racial divide to the other. In his mind, he is now part of the world that includes housekeepers, porters, shoe-shiners, and even the quiet black doctor he has met through his work at the bank securing loans for veterans.

Lewis cleverly communicates Neil’s shock at his discovery:  while Neil travels on the train back home after learning about his ancestry, his half-formed thoughts dart hither and yon in complete confusion and contradiction for several pages.  At first he pledges he will never tell a soul; then he decides he will admit the truth; then he worries about what Vestal will do once she knows (in many parts of the United States at this time it would have been illegal for Vestal to be married to a man of mixed race).  Neil’s outward appearance—red-headed, blue-eyed—has not changed; neither has his daughter’s blond and pink coloring altered, but Neil’s perception of himself and his child has changed utterly.  He has so internalized the insidious indoctrination of his society—that being non-white is to be inferior and being any fraction non-white ancestry makes a person inferior—that he can no longer see himself living as a white man—although he realizes that to remain silent and continue to be white would be the “safe” thing to do.  Neil also believes that his fellow citizens will be able to “see” that he is now black as he carefully examines the texture of his curly red hair and checks his fingernails for what he has been told are tell-tale bluish cuticles.  The fact that nobody has previously been able to determine Neil’s ancestry does not change Neil’s belief that now he knows the truth, others will be able to discern it also.

I found the book palled to a certain degree after Neil decides to publicly admit his heritage.  A number of predictable things happen:  job loss, social ostracism, family anger (none of Neil’s siblings want to acknowledge their heritage), a divorce, a broken engagement, the death of Neil’s father being blamed on the stress of the situation, a mob gathering to try to force Neil to leave his home in an all-white suburb.  I felt that Lewis had initially painted Neil too much as a “get along to go along” type to make his transformation into a courageous civil rights crusader completely believable.  I also had a little bit of The Help déjà-vu:  why is a white character always given more credit for doing things that the black characters have been doing, under far more onerous circumstances, for their entire lives?  On the other hand, even if Lewis’s intentions outstripped his execution when he wrote this book, when we look at the long, complicated history of race in our nation’s history and consider how far we’ve come in just over half a century, this book is less a curiosity than an important time capsule that has perhaps been unjustly forgotten.


A book Phil was reading about Pat Nixon mentioned this story and I had to pull this collection out again. Peter Taylor was a terrific writer who wrote mostly short stories although I well remember reading his novel,  A SUMMON TO MEMPHIS. And this story, THE OLD FOREST takes place in Memphis too. Taylor has an interesting way of framing the story: he looks back on it from old age and by doing this he deprives the story of a certain tension, but instead focuses the reader on the elements he wants to emphasize. Class, gender, culture.

Nat is a recent college graduate, now working for his father, and also recently engaged to a very nice girl--the kind of girl Memphis society expects him to make his wife. In Memphis in the late thirties, rich boys often had dalliances of various depths with town girls, even while engaged to others. The town girls were not necessarily loose girls but rather just not debutantes. Often they were smarter and more fun than the girls the boys eventually married. Nat invites one he has a relationship of sorts with to accompany him on a trip to his Latin class. They get into an accident and Lee Ann disappears. Everyone wonders what Nat's part in her disappearance is, including his fiance, of course. It is she who eventually takes the situation in hand. Nat comes across as a callow youth, unequal to either woman, who between them straighten things out. 

This is an interesting look at class and gender in the late thirties in Memphis. There is a mystery of sorts but the real mystery is why people married people who were their social equals rather than the ones who they desired, found interesting, loved. Well worth reading Taylor to discover the social norms of the time.

This collection includes several other short stories as well. 

Sergio Angelini, THE CASE OF THE LATE PIG, Margery Allingham
Joe Barone, DEATH OF A COZY WRITER, G. M. Malliet
Bill Crider, I'LL FIND YOU, Richard Himmel
Scott Cupp, THE SORCERER'S HOUSE, Gene Wolfe
Martin Edwards, THE CASK, Freeman Wills Croft
Ed Gorman, THE BIRTHDAY MURDER, Lange Lewis
Randy Johnson, COPP FOR HIRE, Don Pendleton
Nick Jones, MY ENEMY'S ENEMY, Kingsley Amis
George Kelley, CHECKPOINT CHARLIE, Gerard de Villiers
Margot Kinberg, THE MYSTERY OF A BUTCHER'S SHOP, Gladys Mitchell
Rob Kitchin THE BIG GOLD DREAM, Chester Himes
B.V. Lawson. THE GREAT MILL STREET MYSTERY, Adeline Sergeant
Evan Lewis, PASSING STRANGE, Richard Sale
Steve Lewis, SHOOT TO KILL, Wade Miller
J. F. Norris, VANISHING MEN, G. McLeod Winsor
David Rachels, BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL, Elliott Chaze
James Reasoner, SLETTERY'S HURRICANE, Herman Wouk
Ron Scheer, THE HEART OF THE NIGHT WIND, Vingie E. Roe
Michael Slind, LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE, Robert B. Parker
Kerrie Smith, MAIGRET'S SPECIAL MURDER, Georges Simenon
Kevin Tipple, OF ALL THE SAD WORDS, Bill Crider

TODD MASON WILL COLLECT LINKS NEXT FRIDAY. To celebrate five years of forgotten books, I invite anyone who can make the time to write about a forgotten book. I will either post the link or post the review. Let's call Friday, April 19th the date. 


George said...

Deb, I went through a huge Sinclair Lewis phase when I was a teenager. I read one of Lewis's books after another. I remember feigning illness to stay home from school to finish reading ELMER GANTRY. His later works (perhaps because of his alcoholism) are weak. But Lewis's early works are classics! Nice review!

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't read this one by Lewis, although I do enjoy his work.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think I read every Sinclair Lewis book too. BABBITT stands out particularly as a portrait of a type and also MAIN STREET.
Those names are all but gone now sadly. Sometimes I think that crime fiction writers have a better chance of being rediscovered since they are not so tied to a time.

Todd Mason said...

A somewhat expanded (to include THE SAINT MYSTERY LIBRARY...and CAR LIFE!) version of my Great American Publications in 1960 post is this week's FFB from me...bring 'em on, next week, folks!

Todd Mason said...

Self-conscious audiences, for which there is a great one for crime and fantastic fiction, a voracious but sometimes rather author-blind one for romance, and a rather weak one for historical and contemporary mimetic fiction beyond some "brand-names", help sustain reprints...when the publishers get around to them or finally get them out...

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks for including me Patti - I think the link to my review has gone missing though - here it is:

J F Norris said...

I'm ready to hang up my reviewer hat. Deb once again impresses me to no end with another literate dissection of a truly forgotten book. And I thought I knew all of Lewis' books. Excellent piece!

Anonymous said...

ARROWSMITH is the Lewis book I remember. Nice review, Deb.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words, Jeff and John. This was Lewis's second-to-last book published while he was alive--and, as George points out, his alcoholism may finally have caught up with him. I liked the lead-up to Neil's discovery, but after he "comes out," so to speak, the book seemed to lose a lot of steam; or, possibly, living in our much more multi-cultural country, I felt some if the things that happened were fairly predictable--but maybe that's the benefit if hindsight.


Anonymous said...

Of, of, of

I hate this keypad!!


Gerard said...

Deb's piece was very well done.

Anonymous said...

Patti - So kind of you as always to include my post. Thanks