William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer (1962) is a fascinating book, not just for the story it tells but for the way Kelley presents that story. The novel’s plot is pretty straight forward, on the surface. An African American, Tucker Caliban, buys some land from the white family that him and has ancestors have worked for since the Civil War. After he buys the land, Tucker precedes to destroy it by placing salt all over it, killing his livestock, then burning his house down, all in front of the white townspeople. Tucker then leaves, with his family, for parts unknown. Spurred on by Tucker’s actions, other African Americans in the community and in the fictitious Southern state light out for the North and elsewhere, migrating away. The plot appears similar to Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 play Day of Abscence (1965), and the two should be read together.
Today, though, I want to focus on one aspect of Kelley’s novel that stands out, particularly the point of view. Pulling from Faulkner in his aesthetics, Kelley presents Tucker’s story through the voices of white characters, switching perspectives with each chapter. Poor whites like the Lelands narrate some chapters and the wealthy Willsons, who Tucker and his family worked for, narrate other sections. What is the purpose of Kelley presenting the story of an African American, Tucker, in this way? Kelley is not the only author who does this. Ernest J. Gaines does it in A Gathering of Old Men (1982) when he creates chapters from the point of view of the African Americans in the quarters and the whites who come to try to mediate the situation. Sherley Anne Williams does it in Dessa Rose (1986) when she has a white editor and white woman portray part of Dessa’s story.
In his Foreword to the 1989 edition of the novel, David Bradley argues, partly, for the need to do away with literary terms for genres such as African American literature years before Kenneth Warren made his propositions. As part of this, he discusses the problematic nature some find when encountering Kelley’s novel and the author’s choice to present Tucker’ story, and that of those who leave with him, through the eyes of whites in the community. Bradley writes,
This vantage point has caused a great many troublesome questions for contemporary critics. Why, some wonder, would he write this way? Why did he not tell us of a black sharecropper hearing of Tucker’s action, or black folk gathering, debating, wondering, struggling with the awful existential questions of what to take and what to leave behind. He could have done these things instead. He could also have done them in addition. (xxiii)
For me, Kelley’s decision comes partly from his upbringing, attending Harvard in the 1950s and existing in the Northeast. Bradley discusses this in the Foreword as well. However, I think another reason that Kelley chooses this narrative position is partly, as stated earlier, in response to Faulkner. Kelley, like Faulkner, presents the inner psychological workings of whites as they struggle to come to terms with the African Americans leaving the community and with their relationship with them.
Kelley presents multiple interracial friendships throughout the novel and, through focusing the narrative through the white characters, explores how the whites respond to their past and their current circumstances. For example, Mister Leland’s relationship with Tucker gives the young white boy hope for the future. Dewey Willson’s relationship with Tucker highlights the discrepancies that exist between them, especially in regards to the bicycle. Dymphna Willson’s relationship with Bertha, Tucker’s eventual wife, shows her that Bertha and those who work(ed) for her family are real people who feel hurt, pain, and joy just as she does. David Willson’s relationship with Reverend Bradshaw shows him how priveleged he really is and leads him to want to change the situation in his home state and the nation.
A couple of examples of how Kelley achieves this in the novel appear pertinent. One occurs when Dymphna listens to Bertha about her relationship with her husband Tucker. While listening to her, Dymphna thinks, “I was really surprised; I’d always seen her when she was string and knew exactly what to do when something went wrong, but this was completely different from anything that had ever happened. I put my arms around her and patted her back” (107). Unlike Faulkner’s Dilsey who endured and never appears vulnerable, Dymphna sees vulnerability in Bertha and views her in her humanity, not just as a worker in her family’s home.
Another example appears in David Willson’s section when he writes in his journal about starting school at Harvad. Here, David sounds like Quentin Compson; however, unlike Quentin, David wants to change the society he comes from. In his first entry for September 22, 1931, David writes, “I look around the South and all I can see is poverty, misery, inequality, and unhappiness. I love the South so dearly and even though it sounds sentimental as all hell, I feel like crying whenever I see what it is and compare it to my concept of what it could be” (154). Here, David sounds just like Quentin who struggles to convince himself at the end of Absalom, Absalom! that he truly loves the South. Later, he declares, “We must get away from the patterns, must stop worshiping the past and turn to the future” (154). David does this with his relationship with Bradshaw and through the newspaper pieces he writes. With this relationship, Kelley rewrites Faulkner’s construction of Shreve and Quentin.
As usual, this is not everything that could be discussed. There is a lot more in this novel that needs to be explored further, and I would like to know what you think in the comments below.
Kelley, William Melvin. A Different Drummer. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.