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THE talent of Mr. Bontemps is considerable. He has the authentic skill of the novelist in choosing a theme likely to interest readers, in telling a story not in propria persona but through the words and actions of characters; in fact he has every gift to commend him to the reader's respect except greatness. The lack of that quality in Mr. Bontemps is serious, for he has chosen for the motif of his novel the events of a slave insurrection in Virginia in 1800, and such a theme requires greatness. It is beside the point that greatness is still to seek nowadays, since the long-awaited and long-heralded "great American novel" is in abeyance, and there is scarcely a critic who has not called "Wolf!" too many times, once again in the case of the author who fathered 'Of Time and the River.' Nevertheless, when one considers what William Faulkner could have done with one incident in Mr. Bontemp's novel--the pursuit of the leader of the revolt, the slave Gabriel, through the forests and swamps--one begins to sigh for Faulkner and Hemingway.
Mr. Bontemps can sketch convincing characters, to use an overworked expression. His negroes are authentic, and so are his "planter" aristocrats. Ben, the loyal old slave, who betrays the insurgents; Melody, the mulatto mistress of the white rascals; Juba, the slave girl who is in love with the hero; Mr. Moseley Sheppard, Ben's master; Pharaoh, the other traitor--all these characters remain fixed in the memory some time after one has finished reading the book. Gabriel, the hero, who had pondered on the exploits of Toussainat L'Ouverture, the Haitian patriot, is not so forceful as a better novelist would have made him, but he is strong enough to make some impression even on the minds of those who "read history not with their eyes but with their prejudices," to use the words of Wendell Phillips. The novel is full of the large air of Thomas Jefferson, the Amis des Noirs, the Philadelphia Democrats, the Rights of Man, the French Revolution, and the distant rumble of the full Napoleonic area. Yet the novelist's personality is too weak for these high and mighty personages and events; it reveals itself as equable where it should assume the "saeva indignatio" of Swift. We have a right to expect vigor, because the historical period with which it deals has long been the "moment" of vigorous writers like Stendahl, Lamartine, Thackeray, and very recently the Russian Vinogradoff. Compare "Black Thunder" with "The Black Consul" and you will have a contemporary measure of Mr. Bontemps.
The insurrection fails because of the negroes' superstitions. Rain and lightning and thunder are responsible for the loss of many of Gabriel's followers, as well as (partly) for the defection of Ben. Against superstition and treachery even the gods contend in vain, and when Gabriel goes down in defeat he goes down with an undeniable grandeur which even Mr. Bontemps can impart to the reader.
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