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Kingsblood Royal

If you want my opinion (and if you don’t why are you reading my blog?!) I think that Sinclair Lewis is probably the most insightful author ever to come out of the USA.

Probably four years ago or so, I read my first Lewis book, “Babbitt” on the strength of the prudish, boorish, racist Upson family in Auntie Mame having been described as “Babbitty.” I figured by this brief reference, that this would be an interesting dissection of the ultra-conventional upper-middle-class WASP type…which it was. But it was also a surprisingly prescient look at urban/suburban development. Lewis fairly accurately predicted the spread, sprawl, and subsequent degradation that would come of streetcar suburbs and automobile dependence. As did one of my other favorite Dead White Guys, Booth Tarkington in The Magnificent Ambersons. In fact, BT placed a magnificent and amazingly premonitory anti-car rant in that book that I will sometime later post in its entirety for some analysis/discussion.

Anyway, back to Sinclair Lewis. Shortly after I read Babbit I motored through Main Street, recognizing much of the society airs that are still trotted out in provincial communities in the midwest.

I wish I’d been aware of Tarkington at the time I read Dodsworth, as I think the contrast of a story written from the industrialist’s point of view would have been fascinating read in conjunction with Ambersons, where an automobile maker is cast as a mild antagonist.

Of Lewis’s other books, I’d only read “Cass Timberlane,” which is a study of the delicate and easily upset balance of class and how it affects men’s and women’s relationships with one another. In this story, a well-respected judge marries a younger, frivolous but very beautiful working-class girl who finds adaptation into the Judge’s stuffy social set a difficult (and nearly disastrous) transition.

Anyway, I went into Kingsblood Royal knowing nothing about the story. From the title, it sounded like it might be another story criticizing exploitative real-estate development, for “Kingsblood Royal” sounds like the sort of pretentious name that real-estate developers like to give to subdivisions. Imagine my surprise (and gratification) to learn that it’s a nuanced, and introspective tale about race perceptions and relations in mid-century America.

Neil Kingsblood is a WWII vet, sent home from the front with a debilitating injury to one of his legs. As he settles back into civilian life as a low-ranking banking official, he is persuaded by his father to undertake an amateur genealogy project to determine whether or not their family can trace their roots back to some putative shirttail relation of Henry VIII. What he discovers is that he is, in fact, descended from a renowned trapper and wilderness guide of Martinique birth and African descent.

Previous to this discovery he’d always considered Black people with impatience and contempt and unselfconsciously participated in the casual racist speech that was common in his time. As he accepts the reality that in some parts of the country, he, pale-skinned, and red-headed, WASP-looking though he was, would be considered “colored,” he starts to realize that the stereotypes might not be altogether true. He begins to reach out to the black community in his town to learn more about his newfound racial status. He goes to a black church and re-unites with a black classmate whose intellectual family give him a pretty straight-shooting introduction to the prospects and experiences of African Americans in their time.

I’ve only gotten about halfway through the book so far, so I can’t say whether or not Neil Kingsblood manages to help Ash Davis fund de-mob services for returning black veterans, or how Neil’s family and friends will take the revelation of his racial heritage, but if the so-far frank tenor of the book carries through, it should be one hell of a ride.

I know I’ve written before about how I’m dumbfounded by some of the books that become canon and some of the ones that are left to molder in obscurity, and I’m feeling another such rant coming on. This is a book that ought to be included in the canon of books dealing with race relations in this country. Sure, a lot of the language is very coarse – slurs that were in common parlance at the time are used freely…by people of whom one is supposed to get a bad impression. I know schools are (rightly) squeamish about “The ‘N’ Word” and others, but I think that especially at the college level, students ought to be able to distance themselves from the text and take it in context of its time. Especially when, in a case like this, the author is directly criticizing free and malicious use of slurs and insulting language.

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