Peter Waller writes a love letter…
This is not quite a love letter to a favourite book. More perhaps a sudden infatuation with a book I only read two months ago — Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis — and which I believe should be far better known. Sadly it only has two reviews on Amazon’s UK site.
Sinclair Lewis was an American author famous for his novels between the two world wars — during which he received the Nobel prize for literature.
I read Babbitt and Elmer Gantry earlier this year and discovered a deeply satirical author, exposing hypocrisy in American small city life. In Foyles earlier this autumn, I picked up Kingsblood Royal, in an American edition. It is a later work, published in 1947, at a point where he was well on the way to his alcohol-fuelled death in 1951.
Kingsblood Royal begins conventionally. Its hero, Neil Kingsblood is a 30 year old, recently invalided out of the Army with a minor injury and living the American good life in a small city in Minnesota. He has a wife and small child and a new home with a black live-in maid. His career is developing surely and steadily in a local bank. All is good and all is prosperous with echoes of George Bailey in the then recently released film It’s a Wonderful Life.
Neil’s father has a fanciful notion that the “Kingsblood” name derives from the English royal family and asks Neil to research the connection. This draws a blank but, during his research, Neil discovers that several generations back on his mother’s side, one of his ancestors, Xavier Pic, had been pure black. It is this discovery that changes Neil’s life. It might seem fanciful now but, at that time in America, the prevailing view was that one black ancestor made a man irredeemably black. So Neil, though red haired, is now black, as was his mother and as is his daughter.
At first, Neil keeps the information to himself. But he cannot escape his own view that he is now black and decides that he needs to understand more about black people — a race he has only encountered up to that point in the form of maids, waiters and rail car attendants. He goes to a black church and discovers the reality of life for blacks at the time in the northern states — states which prided themselves on having legislated for complete equality between the races but which systematically treated blacks as inferior beings, suitable for menial jobs but not people whom white people would ever get to know. He befriends educated blacks and discovers how they are kept well away from any jobs which might utilise their abilities. And eventually he decides he can no longer live the lie — and starts to tell family, friends and employers that he isn’t the solid middle-class white American they thought he was.
Their reaction to this is the core of the book — and I want others to read the book, not my summary.
Suffice to say that all those whom Neil tells react with horror. But once they accept the story, they treat Neil at his word and regard him as being black. His life disintegrates. Neil has a heroic dignity, but there is no happy ending.
So why did the novel have such an impact on me? And why did I find it a much more powerful analysis of American racism than To Kill a Mockingbird, even though the latter is taught in every secondary school while Kingsblood Royal rests in obscurity?
The distinction for me is that To Kill a Mockingbird always felt like a fairy tale, set in the deep south amongst people with whom I could feel no real connection. In contrast, Kingsblood Royal is set in a prosperous northern city, peopled by well-recognised model American citizens. The racism is different, because the whites regard themselves as liberal and even feel proud of the way they treat the black population of the city. But the underlying attitudes — as evidenced by the social stigma faced by Neil once he announces his discovery — are every bit as stark. Lewis made me feel personally uncomfortable in a way that Harper Lee never quite managed.
I am not sure it is a great work of literature. Lewis always commented on the action in his books as the action unfolded; and in Kingsblood Royal, there are long passages where he makes clear at length his own strong views against racism, in ways which reduce the narrative force. But it is certainly memorable.
Wikipedia also tells me that it was instantly hailed by black Americans on publication as reflecting the reality of their everyday life — while a group of whites tried to get the book banned and Lewis charged with sedition. Any book which provokes such reactions deserves to be far better known.
About the author of this love letter
Peter Waller is a retired civil servant with an eclectic taste in reading, including plenty of crime, but also classics. He says he has read every P G Wodehouse novel at least once. Plus lots of history.
Many thanks to Peter from the Libertà hive. He has introduced us to a novel we have not read and his love letter has convinced us that we should. We hope that other visitors will also be intrigued enough to have a go at Kingsblood Royal.