I have been reading Sinclair Lewis, one of the American writers I idolize, again. The novel is something special even coming from one of the most observant voices ever to see print in this country. Kingsblood Royal, published in 1945, is one of the first novels by a white writer to take an honest look at race relations between whites and African-Americans in the United States.
The novel adopts one of the typical literary devices of early writing about race — passing. It resembles James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) in that regard. The main character, Neil Kingsblood, physically resembles Walter White, the famous leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during that era. Lewis knew both Johnson and White. However, the novel is original in both its writing and its secondary theme — the banality of much of white middle-class life. Though that life is held up as a standard the world over, Lewis dares ask if it deserves emulation.
Neil Kingsblood discovers he has a smidgen of West African ancestry through a black ancestor from Martinique while researching his family’s genealogy in hope of supporting his father’s belief the Kingbloods are the real heirs to the British throne. To his surprise, Xavier Pic is everything a person would want in an ancestor — intelligent, resourceful and brave — but he is also a Negro. Kingsblood is the kind of person who can’t just hold information in his head, he feels compelled to act on it. So, he begins a series of acts that will result in the white friends and family he has never questioned the values of before ostracizing him by the end of the novel. Along with the ostracism comes joblessness, humilation and ultimately, a violent effort to deprive him of home and hearth. The first step on that journey? Kingsblood claims his black ancestry.
There are compensations for the protagonist. In his peregrination toward becoming a person instead of just a white man, he meets people who truly impress him for the first time in his life — on the ‘wrong’ side of the color line. Kingsblood also discovers strengths in himself and his wife he would not have known existed otherwise. No one, including hypocritical white liberals , escapes his new ability to probe deeply and analyze correctly.
With the race talk, which was as resistless to them as a ball of paper with a kitten, started all over again, Neil learned that whenever a well-meaning white asks, “Wouldn’t the Negroes be satisfied with–?” the answer is No. He learned that a Southern liberal is a man who explains to a Northern liberal that Beale Street has been rechristened Beale Avenue.
The question I find myself asking over and over again is: How did Lewis know all of this? Yes, he was a notorious researcher and historian of any topic he wrote about. And, the author of more than a score of complex, literary novels, most written in a year or less, he was obviously brilliant. But, how does a person of relative privilege come to know as much about human nature and the lies our country is built-on as those born on the outside looking in?
Lewis wrote about the genesis of Kingsblood Royal in an essay in 1953.
I don’t think the Negro problem is insoluble because I don’t think there is a Negro Problem. . . . There are no distinctive colored persons. The mad, picture-puzzle idiocy of the whole theory of races is beautifully betrayed when you get down to the question of “Negroes” who are white enough to pass as Caucasians. . . . There was a time in our history, an ever so short time ago, when the Scotch-Irish in New England thought all of the Irish were fundamentally different and fundamentally inferior. And then those same conceited Yanks (my own people) moved on to the Middle West and went through the same psychological monkey-shines with the Scandinavians and the Bohemians and the Poles. None of the profound and convincing nonsense of race difference can be made into sense.
I am not saying Kingsblood Royal is not a flawed novel. As critics have noted, it is polemical, barely able to contain its disdain for racism. But, in my opinion, the author makes good use of polemics. Sinclair Lewis is not one to pull his punches, and the subject matter benefits from that.
Another stumbling block a reader may encounter in deciding to read a novel on a ‘topical’ matter published before most of us were born is the thought it will be dated. Don’t even think it. Racial bigotry is a topic that, unfortunately, has not become passe. You will recognize the characters in Kingsblood Royal despite the passage of time. They are still very much with us.
If you consider yourself a person sincerely interested in race relations and the growing multiracial reality of this country, this is a novel you must read.