The Lonesome Boy Theme as Emblem for Arna Bontemps's Children's Literature

Article excerpt

In a letter dated March 2, 1955, Langston Hughes wrote his longtime friend Arna Bontemps to congratulate him on the publication of Bontemps's latest children's book: "Lonesome Boy is a perfectly charming and unusual book. I read it right off[;] it came in the mail today. I LOVE books that short and easy and pretty to read. It ought to make a wonderful gift book" (Nichols 330). Bontemps himself had written Hughes about the book a little more than a year earlier (on December 10, 1953): "This is the book I enjoyed writing, perhaps because I did it impulsively for myself, while editors hounded me for my misdeeds and threatened me if I did not deliver manuscripts I had contracted for. So I closed the door for two days and had myself a time" (Nichols 319). Another, perhaps more valid, reason he wrote this particular story about Bubber, a boy so lonesome he plays his trumpet whenever and wherever he can - ending up, as his grandfather subsequently explains, at a devil's ball - stems from Bontemps's own nostalgic feelings about his Louisiana heritage and, more specifically, about his own sense of being a lonesome boy.

A careful look at Bontemps's work shows the lonesome boy theme appearing over several years and in different forms. For example, Bontemps wrote a version of the story, "Lonesome Boy, Silver Trumpet," in the 1930s, but it was not published until his collection of short fiction The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties appeared a few weeks after his death in 1973. And on May 5, 1966, he delivered a speech at the New York Public Library which was published in December of that year as "The Lonesome Boy Theme" in The Horn Book magazine. There, he states that he has often used the theme, particularly to reflect on himself, since he began writing fiction:

With me the lonesome-boy theme has persisted. Consciously or unconsciously, it too reflects influences. I used to avoid the first[-]person[-]singular in my writing; for some reason or other it embarrassed me. But despite my efforts - despite careful stratagems - I am afraid I did not always avoid autobiography. Born in Louisiana, carried by my parents to California at a very early age, I suspect that it is myself I see as I look back in each of the guises in which the lonesome boy has appeared since I introduced him in God Sends Sunday, my first book. (674)

Bontemps's use of the lonesome boy theme applies mainly to his children's literature, even though he clearly wrote God Sends Sunday for adult audiences.

While it would be facile to claim that all of his works - either for adults or children - reveal this autobiographical theme, his use of the theme suggests a reason behind the author's interest in writing for the young. A close examination of Bontemps's Lonesome Boy, therefore, can help explain his motivation to become one of the first authors of the twentieth century to write books for young African Americans. It can also explain some of his disillusionment with adult books and with the economics of the publishing world, which was still dominated by white publishers and white readers during the 1930s, even though the Harlem Renaissance would usher in permanent change.

Bontemps, at least temporarily, was shown to a bad seat during the 1930s. All three of his adult novels - God Sends Sunday (1931), Black Thunder (1936), and Drums at Dusk (1939) - appeared during the Great Depression; none sold well. And even though he proposed several other novels and wrote at least one full-length, unpublished novel between 1939 and 1973, when he died, he did not publish an adult novel after Drums at Dusk. Chariot in the Sky (1951), Bontemps's semi-fictional account of the famous Fisk University Jubilee Singers, straddles the line between adolescent and adult material, although it was published as a book for older adolescents. As we shall see, economics as well as politics and autobiographical impulses motivated Bontemps to write for juvenile readers. …