Read at Bookforum
The Great American Novel was a revered concept in the previous century, but few were able to achieve it. Seymour Krim wrote about the hopes of aspiring writers to use their imaginations to create a spiritual payoff. However, the rise of nonfiction novels shifted the paradigm. In the 1960s, young Black bookworms questioned whether a Black novelist could connect with the African American community as effectively as music did at the time.
By the time that essay was written, 'nonfiction novels' like those of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were changing the paradigm into something at once less exalted and even more unreachable.
Despite these doubts, there was one novel published by an African American during that era that captured the edgy melancholy and assertiveness of Black identity. John A. Williams's 1967 masterpiece, 'The Man Who Cried I Am,' was compared to the haunting Motown standard 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.' Both the novel and the song explore themes of broken dreams and the search for peace of mind.
But there was at least one novel published by an African American during that same era that delivered as much edgy melancholy as Ruffin's lament and the same hard-driving assertion of Black identity as Mister Dynamite's vinyl 45-RPM discharges.