Live Deliberately, Stay Woke: Thoreau’s Influence on William Melvin Kelley

In: Thoreau in an Age of Crisis
Mark Gallagher
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Mark Gallagher’s “Live Deliberately, Stay Woke: Thoreau’s Influence on William Melvin Kelley” discusses the work of a twentieth-century Black writer who is only now gaining the recognition he deserves. Gallagher conveys how Kelley’s novel A Different Drummer (1962) engages Thoreauvian themes. While a graduate student at Harvard, Kelley became conversant with the overwhelmingly white American literary canon, including the critical discourses enveloping it, while fully aware of their limitations and blinkers when it came to the experiences and perspectives of people of color. In A Different Drummer, the eponymous Thoreau quotation is printed on a frontispiece page, but so also—above this—is the one from Walden clarifying that the better part of what Thoreau’s neighbors call good, he believes to be bad. Gallagher proposes that Kelley reappropriates Thoreau as he is found in R.W.B. Lewis’s classic of the myth-and-symbol school of criticism, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955), in devising his at-once reticent and proud protagonist. Kelley’s identification with Thoreau in A Different Drummer betokens an ironic and iconoclastic refashioning of the myth of American individualism in the African-American literary imagination.

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