Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Race and Citizenship in Sinclair Lewis's Kingsblood Royal

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Race and Citizenship in Sinclair Lewis's Kingsblood Royal

Article excerpt

A prominent concern of American "passing" novels before the mid-twentieth century is especially evident in James Weldon Johnson's preface for the first edition of his The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: "These pages also reveal the unsuspected fact that prejudice against the Negro is exerting pressure which, in New York and other large cities where the opportunity is open, is actually and constantly forcing an unascertainable number of fair-complexioned colored people over into the white race" (xxxiv). (1) Unless, that is, a social space is created in which African Americans can lead meaningful lives free from oppression, they will "invade" the white world and in the process collapse the racial categories on which American culture relies. (Indeed, this concern accounts for the trope of contagion through sexual reproduction common in "passing" novels.) In this reading, Sinclair Lewis's 1947 novel of passing, Kingsblood Royal, can be seen as the obverse of earlier such novels. Rightly called "Lewis's finest post-1920s novel" (McLaughlin 7), it is the story, written by a middleclass, Midwestern white man, of a middle-class, Midwestern white man named Neil Kingsblood who is at thirty-one a well-liked, respected citizen, a wounded veteran of World War II, headed for the vice-presidency of a local bank. Doing some genealogical research for his father, however, he accidentally discovers that he is one-thirty-second part black. This family secret eventually comes out and, because of this "one drop" of blackness, he "becomes" black and suffers all of the indignities and injustices to which that community is routinely subjected. Neil's ordinariness--his blandly universal "whiteness"--might tempt us to read the subtext here as: be nice to blacks, because you might be one yourself. The novel's solution to the "race problem," in this reading, thus mirrors the logic of self-interest central to earlier passing novels in its as equally unsatisfying kind of solution--namely, the self-interested kind.

Kingsblood Royal, however, departs from the traditional approaches to the passing genre. Throughout, Neil doesn't fear being revealed by others, he fears revealing himself; he flirts with but ultimately rejects the idea of leaving his white wife for a more compatible and sympathetic African American woman; most prominently, the decision to come out as black occurs not as the novel's climax but as its middle portion. (2) In other words, though Kingsblood Royal invokes many of the ideas and tropes of the passing novel, this is not a novel about passing. Two relatively recent critics have recognized its somewhat different ambitions. Robert McLaughlin sees in the novel Lewis's understanding of the white/black opposition as rooted in "the societal power it supports" (8): "Lewis makes clear that money and power are what is really at stake in the White Supremacy racket" (14).Jennifer Delton has argued that the novel is less about racial boundaries per se than about how race issues bear on Lewis's usual primary target of middle class banality; she suggests that "for Lewis whiteness was Babbittry," and so the novel's main concern "was not so much black people attaining their civil rights, ... but rather white people liberating themselves from the bleak horrors of whiteness" (327). (3) In these analyses, passing is important in Kingsblood Royal for how it points to other concerns.

Other critics have read the novel as interested primarily in the deconstruction of the logic of racial boundaries. Seen (merely) in this light, it does indeed appear--as many have argued--flat and unconvincing, and critics have found the virulent racism of the white citizens of Lewis's otherwise mild Midwestern town of Grand Republic wildly extreme and implausible. In his well-known dismissal of the novel (and the talents of Lewis himself), for example, Warren Beck found the racial attitudes in the novel to be "broad," "melodramatic," and "farcical" (176). …

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