Friday, January 20, 2012

Great Novellas: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

I'm really eager to introduce this next novella in the series because it's less known than most of the other ones.  In fact, it might be the most obscure one I've discussed so far, but I really love it.  The book is The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson.  It was originally published anonymously in 1912, a time when few African-American writers were publishing their work.  But during the Harlem Renaissance, a publisher reproduced the work, and it gained some momentum and popularity.

Despite the title, this is actually a fictional story, though Johnson may have based the characters on people from his life.  The protagonist, who is never named, was born of a white father and black mother.  His skin tone was light enough that he could feasibly "pass" as white without garnering suspicion.  I am sorry to admit that I was unfamiliar with this concept before reading this book and a similar (and also very good) book called Passing by Nella Larsen.  I can hardly imagine how difficult it would be to feel torn between cultures and yet uncomfortable in both.  I can only imagine the temptation to pass for the privileged ethnicity but the intense guilt that would accompany that.  Because this is so far outside of my experience, I think it is important to read stories like this that expose another aspect of the human condition and struggle.  This is the power of fiction - we are able to put ourselves in another person's shoes and take insight from his or her experience.  But I digress...

I find it very powerful when a protagonist is never named in the story.  Immediately, I think of Inivisible Man by Ellison, but there are a handful of others who incorporate this in their stories.  It subtly represents the identity struggle of the narrator, who is able to share his/her story and yet cannot establish a concrete identity.  However, I do not want to overdo the "identity crisis" interpretation because I don't think that is the central component of his story.  Instead, I think that the narrator is a keen observer of his environments and the people in them.  The entire piece is a close observation of human interaction, cultural differences, and social impressions.  Clearly, the narrator is highly intelligent and delivers some very interesting insights.  In addition, he also makes countless allusions to literature, music, and history which were important in the time this was written.

One of his more notable observations is the class division among African-Americans.  Before Johnson wrote this novella, people didn't usually distinguish between the various cultures within African-Americans but clumped them all in one category.  Yet the narrator, who grew up in a wealthier environment, discusses the significant differences in the various cultures he experiences.  In particular, he focuses on their various dialects and explores how their language affects their interactions.  His observations are so astute that they are still very relevant 100 years later.  The narrator is interested in language in general, taking time to learn Spanish and French as well, and I really like his linguistic analyses.  This is something I didn't appreciate the first time I read the story, but it has lately intrigued me.

In the story, the narrator transitions from a wide variety of environments, including suburban life, warehouse work, New York jazz club, and world-traveling musician.  Although he was impacted by each of these settings, he experiences two particular life-changing moments.  The first one inspires him to dedicate himself to his African-American heritage and contribute to the betterment of those people.  The second one reverses this decision and causes him to choose to deny that heritage for the rest of his life.  I think you must read the book to really understand how this is possible, how he became an "Ex-Colored Man."  His reasoning is sensible, but he cannot shake his guilt.  Because we are aware of his intellectual capabilities, we understand that he wouldn't make a decision like this without a great deal of thought.  But I think the story illustrates that the most significant decisions we make in our lives are rarely easy ones.  Life is not clearly separated into black and white.

I reread this novella while I was preparing to write about it in this blog post, and I was reminded all over again why I had such a good impression of it.  I really think it is a gem, and though it is small, it contains vast insight.  There are a number of ways to interpret the story, and yet it doesn't offer clear answers.  This perfectly illustrates the purpose of focusing on novellas, because it shows that authors do not necessarily need length in order to portray fascinating stories with thoughtful messages.  So I really want to encourage you to read it, and it won't even take you very long!


Julia Hones said...

Interesting review. I wrote this review of Tolstoy's novellas. I think you may have an interest in it:

skavanaw said...

Nice blog. Thanks for your thoughtful post--I enjoyed it.

I first read the book in a course on the Harlem Renaissance. Though it was first pub in 1912, it was reissued during the height of the movement in the 1920s. Taught it for the first time this past fall in a course called Alienated Hero I teach to high school seniors. They liked the book. Was perfect for the focus of the course. I do a number of novels and films, but in terms of novellas, we also did Heart of Darkness, The Dead (in fact we did all of Dubliners) and Bartleby the Scrivener, which I consider a novella, but others have argued it is a short story.

Came upon your page after a spirited discussion within my department about the novella, itself--what constitutes one and why. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. One especially useful link for me that you've probably already seen is to a piece by Ian McEwan in The New Yorker:

Amy said...

Thanks for the feedback! I very much enjoyed reading the link you sent from the New Yorker. McEwan very eloquently expressed my feelings that prompted me to do a series on the novella. The brevity of the form requires the author to be more purposed in his/her words and to brightly illuminate the picture without waste. I think this is a great challenge, and since I tend to be rather verbose, it is one I admire when expertly done.

I would have loved to talk an "Alienated Hero" class - what a great idea! There are so many great works to choose from, and these are often my favorite stories.

What constitutes a novella? I'm afraid I don't have a set of guidelines that could clearly define one. There should be some requirement of length, though I only have a general idea and not a formula. In addition, I think a novella must pick one theme to fully explore, without diverting to too many subplots. However, it must be long enough to allow for some character development and climax change as well. It ought to be heading toward an identifiable direction; short stories have more freedom to just hover over an image or a moment. What do you think?