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Kingsblood Royal

August 18, 2002

When the Bard of 'Main Street' Turned the Kingsbloods Black

By BRENT STAPLES

Elizabeth Hardwick summed it up wickedly when she likened the novelist Sinclair Lewis to a musical prodigy whose gift was that he played faster than anybody else. Even when traveling, Lewis hammered out 5,000 words a day, turning out books in mere months that would have taken others much longer. His material came less from his imagination than from the voracious research that let him inhale the world, then expel it onto the page.

His most memorable novels were published in the 1920's and built on Lewis's talent for sketching grotesque but instantly familiar caricatures of small-minded, small-town people. His mega-selling "Main Street" focuses on a genteel, college-educated woman doomed to live her life among cigar-chomping boors who resist any and all attempts at cultivation. The novel "Babbitt" focuses on a local real estate man who speaks and thinks in the tone of a chamber of commerce speech. The title has evolved into a synonym for noisy vacuousness. No one could forget the bankrupt preacher Elmer Gantry; sermonizing was the only sound he knew how to make.

The literary sands that buried Lewis's reputation a half-century ago have begun to shift, thanks to Richard Lingeman's hefty biography, "Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street," and the Library of America's decision to reissue several of his better-known novels. This "greatest hits" approach is understandable in market terms. But it will do nothing for those novels that were panned by critics because they were simply ahead of their time.

The book that most fits that case was Lewis's 1947 best seller "Kingsblood Royal," an admittedly melodramatic story with a racial theme that was mauled and quickly forgotten partly because critics were unable to accept a multicultural novel published in the age of Jim Crow.

"Kingsblood Royal" satirizes a self-satisfied town called Grand Republic, whose name makes it a metaphor for the United States. The hero and victim is Neil Kingsblood, a white World War II hero who believes that his family tree is covered with royal ancestors but finds to his distress that he is a direct descendant of a 100 percent Negro adventurer. This comes as a disabling shock because Neil had been brought up to view Negroes as less than human. That view was reinforced during the war, when he viewed black soldiers as lazy and dimwitted because they were denied arms and used primarily as laborers.

The racist notions that Neil embraced in his "white" life become a threat to his humanity after he turns black.

"Kingsblood" was published at a time when black people were mainly invisible in the white news media, except when they appeared as criminals or simple-minded servants. Lewis exploits this fact to great effect, turning up the lights on the faces of the black people in Grand Republic whom Neil had never before noticed. Venturing into the black part of town, he is astounded to encounter a broad array of black characters, some more cultured and literate than himself — a rare achievement for a white writer working in the period between 1940 and the present.

Neil Kingsblood is impulsive, unable to control his tongue. He blurts out the secret and precipitates a dizzying fall for his family and himself.

He loses his job at the bank and ends up working in a sporting-goods shop where the local matrons who suddenly "know" him to be black stare hungrily at his body, seeking signs of the animal sexuality they expect from Negroes. The news of Kingsblood's blackness eventually sends a mob to the family's door.

The Times's book critic, Orville Prescott, expressed the prevailing view when he denounced Kingsblood as "artificial, unconvincing . . . about as subtle as a lynching bee." But the black elite deluged the book with praise, and Ebony magazine, the voice of the black middle class, named "Kingsblood Royal" the most important book of the year.

Among the black luminaries who defended the novel was Walter White, head of the N.A.A.C.P. and the most famous black man in the United States. Walter White was certainly the whitest black man in America. His blue eyes and blond hair allowed him to investigate lynchings and live to tell the tale. His father, a retired mail carrier, was less lucky. Run down by a reckless driver, he was taken to the white wing of a segregated hospital and given excellent care. When the hospital discovered his racial identity, he was dragged through a rainstorm into the rat-infested Negro ward, where he died.

White defended the novel in a column but kept from his readers what we have since found out: the black white man Neil Kingsblood was based almost entirely on the white black man Walter White. White had shared his experiences with Lewis, opened the N.A.A.C.P.'s files and squired him into the homes of influential black people, many of whom had friends and relatives who had slipped across the color line to live as white and would have met the same fate as Kingsblood had they been exposed. The white establishment tended to view the novel as wildly implausible. Black people viewed it as profoundly perceptive.

Neil Kingsblood believes that "God turned me white to save my soul." Lewis did it to expose the theory of racial differences that dominated American life as an arbitrary fiction. Much of the country could not hear the sage of Main Street in 1947, but it can certainly hear him today.


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