Rediscovering William Kelley

Book clubs come in many shapes and serve many purposes. Some are purely social, an excuse to get together and catch up on life, and, oh, by the way, what did you think of this month’s book. Others are dead serious, brought together by interest in a specific subject or genre. Sometimes friendships develop, sometimes not. Other clubs are some mix of the above. Women are far more likely to be in book clubs then men, but I know of a few that are men-only. (One high school reader once told me, it’s not that boys don’t read, we just don’t like to talk about it.)

Whatever the type or format, one big advantage is that they often introduce us to books we might never have met otherwise, especially when members of the club are open and willing to break out of their comfort zone, ignore critics, or reach well beyond bestsellers. That’s why I appreciate a club hosted by my local independent bookstore (Politics and Prose). In the five years I’ve been a member, I’ve met new people with a wide range of backgrounds and points of view. And the moderator who selects the books does a wonderful job of picking a wide variety of gems (mostly).

That’s a long introduction to how I came to read A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley. Kelley was only 24 when the book was published in 1962 to instant acclaim. He published four more novels in the next decade, increasingly experimental in style and format, but then fell into obscurity for reasons hard to understand, and he spent the bulk of his life teaching, mostly at Sarah Lawrence, before his death in 2017.

Kelley was born in Staten Island in 1937 and went to Harvard, one of only ten blacks in his class, with the intention of becoming a lawyer to help with the civil rights movement. But he soon discovered his real love was literature and writing. He studied under novelist John Hawkes (who coached him as he began work on A Different Drummer) and poet Archibald MacLeish, and he won the Dana Reed Prize for the best writing by a Harvard undergraduate. But he struggled, he later said, because his reading speed was half that of his prep school white classmates. His years at Harvard were troubled—he changed majors four times, his mother died when he was a sophomore, and his father died when he was senior. He left a few months shy of graduation to take care of his younger siblings.

Kelley is seldom read today because his books deal with uncomfortable subjects, but as Americans become more determined to understand, and hopefully address, racial equality, that ought to change.

A Different Drummer is set in 1957, in a small fictional town in an imaginary southern state wedged between Mississippi and Alabama. Though technically free, the majority Black population remains severely oppressed. One Black man, Tucker Caliban, gets fed up with his job as a chauffeur and buys seven acres of land from his employer—choosing the same land that his forefathers were enslaved on even though better farming land is available. Within a short time and for reasons not explicitly explained, Caliban  decides that’s not enough. He salts his fields, slaughters his horse and cow, burns down his house, and departs the state—whereupon its entire Black population follows in a matter of days even though most have no destination in mind other than somewhere else. Caliban’s unspoken message is that Blacks must take action themselves if they are to escape from their bondage. His move stuns and angers the Whites, who despite claiming they’ll be better off, know they can’t survive without the Black workers they depend upon.

The novel is told through the points of view of several characters – all of them White, which means we never get inside the head of the Black characters—we only know them as the Whites see them. It’s a daring approach for a Black novelist, especially one who never lived in the South, but except for an occasional false note, Kelley pulls it off.

There’s nothing preachy or heavy handed about the novel. Several of the Whites have good intentions but are unable to follow through on them, either because they are too weak to resist peer pressure or powerless to change the system. Though the novel deals with events and attitudes that were prevalent six decades ago, it’s depressing to realize how little has changed and how much farther we have to go.

You’ll find a more in-depth look at Kelley’s life and works in an excellent article that appeared in The New Yorker in 2018. But you don’t really need to know Kelley’s life story to appreciate this remarkable novel.

(Note: If you’ll allow me a personal aside, I’d like to invite you to explore the other blogs on this site, most of which are book reviews. And if you find them interesting, please sign up for the email list. You’ll get a short note whenever a new blog is posted.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mark Willen