Toni Morrison. Alice Walker. James Baldwin. Alex Haley. Lately, Colson Whitehead. All are writers recognized for their signal contributions to the literary interpretation of the African-American experience, well enough known to have their names figure in crossword puzzles and on quiz shows. But what of Leon Forrest? Not so much, as the kids say—a shame, that, since Forrest crafted a saga of the Great Migration that stands alongside the story cycles of Gabriel García Márquez and William Faulkner for its multidimensional treatment of place and character, to say nothing of the complexity of its plotline.
Forrest was born 80 years ago, on Jan. 8, 1937, in Chicago. His mother, a Catholic from New Orleans, married into a Baptist clan from the Delta country recently established in Illinois. There was the original difference in his writing, that of religion (though a practicing Catholic, for a time Forrest edited Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam), guaranteed to be a source of incomprehension, especially in the hands of huckster practitioners.
In 1973, Forrest published his first novel, There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, the first in a trilogy set in Forest County, a place as imaginatively populated as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Descendants of the Witherspoon and Bloodworth families have made their way upriver from the South and settled in the teeming city, a place of lively streets, jazz clubs, and thundering churches. One, young Nathaniel Witherspoon, our Ulysses, explores a landscape peopled by immigrants and their descendants, who in turn trace a lineage to the ancestral Bloodworth, a white slaveholder of a century past. Nathaniel seeks out stories, learning sometimes more than he might wish about those tangles of alliance and union.
Therein lies another vast difference, that of race itself; as one preacherly reverie late in the second volume, The Bloodworth Orphans, has it, “The land, whatever so be it, in its genius and His wisdom decreed that you are the child of the black people, even though your blood-mother was three-quarters Indian to one part black, and I’m of the race of the white settlers and pioneers, absolutely.” Bloodlines are one thing, elective affinities another, and much of the saga is spent teasing out buried seams of relation and interrelation against the background of a country riven by the struggle for civil rights. “What happens to a nation,” Forrest writes searchingly, “when it has lost its soul and doesn’t realize its downward, tobogganing wreckage?”
What indeed? Taking his inspiration from Joyce and Melville as well as Faulkner, Forrest’s trilogy charts the events of a century leading from slavery to the assassination of Martin Luther King and beyond. He wrote with none of our contemporary illusions about living in a post-racial society. His Chicago, like his South, is a place of endless divisions and differences, of people looking in bewilderment across gulfs of custom and experience, all striving for better lives. Confidently asserting that African-American lives do not lie at the edges of America but are at its very heart, those novels deserve our attention today, 20 years after Forrest’s death, a time when differences seem ever greater, divisions ever deeper, and understanding ever rarer.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.