Sinclair Lewis’ fascinating but flawed race-parable is a frustrating novel, rewarding in places, but often unsatisfying. It fails in terms of plotting and a massively, wildly unresolved ending that any editor should have sent back for a re-draft. While Kingsblood Royal succeeds in recreating the bewildering Alice in Wonderland world of race relations in America immediately after the Second World War, it fails to carry the story beyond a naive construction. Yet it is a novel which lingers in the memory long after the reader finishes it.
The action takes place in Lewis’s fictional town of Grand Republic, Minnesota. Unlike Lewis’s earlier fictional town of Zenith, in the invented state of Winnemac (Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, The Man Who Knew Coolidge, and Dodsworth take place in part or in full there), Grand Republic is the setting of many later Lewis novels. There, Neil Kingsblood has returned from the Second World War as a decorated Army veteran, wounded during the fighting in Europe. He sets about trying to rebuild his civilian life. Kingsblood has a good job in a bank, a pretty wife and a young daughter. His father idly sets him a challenge to investigate the family’s origins, because it is suspected by some that they are descended from the kings and queens of England. Instead, Neil finds, quite by chance, that a distant relative called Xavier Pic was in fact a full-blooded Afro-Caribbean man, from the West Indies, who married a Native American woman. Although it was five generations before, making Neil only one-thirty-second “black,” that is enough – as it were – by the standards of the time, even in Minnesota, to drastically change his status.
Neil’s world is subsequently turned upside down as he wrestles with this news, which he initially keeps a secret. He gives no external physical indication of his heritage, and indeed, this showed readers then – and now – of just how stupid and random the standards of “race” were. But in a bewildering plot twist – perhaps because Lewis wanted to highlight Neil’s desire for “honesty in the face of reality” – Neil reveals his heritage publicly, and is subsequently ostracised and treated just as the other blacks in Grand Republic, although previously he had been the equal of every other white citizen in town.
As Kingsblood’s standing goes from bad to worse, and he allies him self with the “colored” population of Grand Republic, he encounters suspicion and mistrust from all sides. The black community don’t understand why he didn’t continue to “pass,” that is, get by with seeming to be white. And the whites, unfortunately and predictably, drive him out of his job, his community, and threaten to burn down his home if he and his wife and child don’t move.
There is something sophomoric about Lewis’ plotting, as is often the case, but his prose writing remains as vibrant and upbeat as ever, evoking the speech of the day with stunning accuracy, and the racial epithets which are used in the course of the book are commensurately brutal. One could be forgiven for thinking that Lewis had a list of what are now highly-offensive but generally rarely-heard terms (with the exception of the “n-word”, most of these I have not heard used since childhood), which were nevertheless common at the time, and used them in rotation.
I’ve thought about this book for quite a while now, and I keep coming back to the simple idea which I think was at the heart of Sinclair Lewis’ narrative: what people look like doesn’t change who they are. Neil Kingsblood didn’t stop being the same person that everyone thought he was after he found out that his ancestry wasn’t purely anglo-saxon. What changed was how those around him decided that they must treat him. I would like to think that, slowly, the world is growing beyond that crippling stupidity, but following the news of late it’s easy to despair. As a quintessential white, anglo-saxon (non-religious) protestant, I’m not qualified to offer views on racism, apart from the fact that I can abhor and revile it. I can only imagine, especially in light of recent American history, what it is to grow up and live your life as a “minority” in the United States, and my imaginings are probably not anything akin to the reality.
All in all, Kingsblood Royal is a strange, and strangely compelling book, which should merit a re-examination of Lewis’ Grand Republic novels, in which old friends like Judge Cass Timberlane make re-appearances. But if it fails narratively, and in believability, it remains an important book on the subject of race in America in the post-war, pre-Civil Rights years, and almost certainly deserves to be read far more widely, particularly as an aid to understanding the experiences of people other than yourself and your immediate peer group. 4/5 stars.
Originally reviewed 6 December 2013.
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