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New England White: A Novel
New England White: A Novel
Stephen L. Carter
Borzoi / Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
556 pp., 26.95

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By Gerald L. Early

Secrets of the Talented Tenth Revealed

Stephen Carter's second novel returns to the world of black élites.

Possibly inspired in part by the old Broadway adage that if they liked it once, they'll love it twice, New England White bears a great deal of resemblance to Stephen Carter's first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002). Both feature as protagonists highly professional, upper–middle–class blacks in high places in the white world; both are built around murder mysteries revealing corruption among the rich and requiring the decoding of elaborately intricate clues and messages for their solution; and both are too long by a good deal, a common sin in book–writing generally these days (publishing seems to be the industry where editors go to die, not to work).

Carter, a law professor at Yale, has never been afraid of taking on large themes, as his books Integrity (1996) and Civility (1998) attest. In that sense, his turning to fiction—announced with great fanfare and very much anticipated by the reading public—was not really surprising, and can best be seen as an extension of his role as a public intellectual. He first came to prominence in 1991 as a skeptic of affirmative action and a chronicler of the black élite with his autobiographical Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. The book appeared at a time when some noted black thinkers were expressing reservations about the stigma of affirmative action, about the civil rights movement and integration, and about the post–King world of black politics, most notoriously exemplified by the case of Clarence Thomas. Carter was by no means a product of the right nor an apologist for it but rather something of a black centrist, as his later books showed, particularly his most popular, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (1993), a book President Clinton publicly praised.

On the one hand, Carter supports prayer in public school and feels that religion has been an important force for social change (abolition, the civil rights movement, temperance). On the other hand, he strongly endorses dissent as essential for a democratic society and something our courts should encourage instead of stifle—and he further acknowledges that a good deal of our dissent has its origins in religious faith. (That religious orthodoxy of any stripe feels it must by necessity be against the very liberalism that Carter supports; that state–sanctioned temperance in the form of Prohibition turned out to be a hideously inept attempt at social reform, as were welfare programs for the poor: these are other matters. Right–wing religious orthodoxy has become the world's most remarkable expression of dissent today.) In short, it is probably the case that everything which one can believe is good about religion is also what one can reasonably think is bad about faith and the faithful. And if this is true, religion must be the greatest expression of irony in human life, as Carter himself recognizes in some measure with his account of the fictional Kepler Divinity School in New England White.

Some have called Carter the Theodore Dreiser of the black American educated class—which, considering Dreiser's uneven reputation, may be something of a left–handed compliment or even a downright insult. Besides, while Dreiser wrote about murder, he never wrote murder mysteries. Still, Carter resembles Dreiser in his ability to capture the material world of a certain stratum of American society: not just the possessions and lifeways of upper–middle–class and professional blacks, their clothes, their vacations, their cars, their houses, but the stuff that structures their understanding of reality, the stuff that reveals the fragility of their egos, the status creep of their possessions as the source of their identity. (Perhaps this is the actual message of declension in the novel: things, instead of ideas, have become the essential underpinnings of the African American identity, although as the authorial voice of New England White, Carter seems enamored of things himself, as most novelists are.) No one since E. Franklin Frazier has looked at the black professional in such a penetrating light. (And unlike Frazier, Carter displays much affection and understanding in his portraits.)

Moreover, Carter has some capital as a novelist, comparable to that enjoyed by Chaim Potok when he set out to write about Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn: Carter's chosen people are quite exotic to most American readers. But Carter does not capture—as well as Dreiser did for his slice of life in novels such as Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy—the desire of this class to want what it wants, its ferocious hunger for respectability and control. In his portrait of master manipulator Lemaster Carlyle, the black president of a university that sounds very much like Yale, Carter at least touches on this hunger. What he cannot do with full literary conviction is dramatize the compulsion of the black parvenu. He can describe black gatecrashers' trappings and their attitudes with deadly, sometimes, hilarious, accuracy, but he has yet to dramatize the emotional interior of this group successfully. And beneath the bestseller veneer, overwrought and over–plotted (sometimes New England White brings to mind a sort of high–falutin' Peyton Place with its revelations of corruption in old families), dramatizing is one of the things that Carter, like any ambitious novelist, wants in principle to achieve.

New England White is the story of the very bright, highly educated Julia Carlyle, wife of Lemaster and dean of the university's Divinity School. The murder of her former flame, brilliant economics professor Kellen Zant, sets the story in motion. (The police are forced by the nefarious power élite to quit investigating the case, so Julia has must proceed with her amateur sleuthing.) Kellen's death is ultimately tied to the murder of the daughter of a prominent white faculty member that occurred thirty years earlier. It was believed she was murdered by a black teenager who was himself murdered by the police.

With the help of conspiracy theorist Mary Mallard and former cop–turned–head–of–campus–safety Bruce Vallely, Julia is able to figure it all out at the end. Along the way she gradually discovers the byzantine influence of a black secret society called the Empyreals (which rather put me in the mind of an R&B singing group of the 1950s), a black version of Skull and Bones or the Masons as anti–Masons have come to think of them. This mysterious group ferrets out the secrets of powerful whites in order to secure their cooperation to help blacks as a group: civil rights by blackmail.

We learn too of Julia's insecurities as a privileged black; her problems as a mother of exceptional children, one of whom figures prominently in this mystery; her struggles with her religious faith; and the burdens of being married to an overachieving and overbearing man, obsessed with both power and tradition. There is a great deal of arcane talk about mirrors in this novel, figuring in the procession of clues but also, I assume, meant to make Julia's journey something like Alice's adventures through the looking glass. And all of this is wrapped in Tom Wolfe–type satire, for the most part highly readable and entertaining, despite being repetitious at times and overly drawn out. Indeed, it's precisely because the characters are more types than truly people that the novel is fun to read: one is never looking at the characters for what they are but for whom they represent. (The book is an overstuffed confection of character types, particularly enjoyable for readers who have ever worked at a private university.)

The predecessor that New England White finally brings to mind is W. E. B. Du Bois—not only because Du Bois, America's leading black intellectual of the 20th century and African America's more strenuous propagandist, was a believer in the leadership of a black élite, the Talented Tenth, the very black folk that Carter writes about, but also because there is in Carter's novels an unabashed appreciation of the irony of so–called colored striving, of the complexity of racial uplift, that is almost tender in its regard and, at moments, even inspiring. Thinking of Carter in relation to Du Bois brings to mind two black novels about the imaginative appeal of black conspiracy: Ishmael Reed's satiric Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Sutton Griggs's utopian Imperium in Imperio (1899). I am of the mind that, directly or indirectly, Carter sees his novels as part of a literary tradition "of the darker nation," to use his phrase. The fantasy of organized, secret dissent against white hegemony has been of long–standing attraction to blacks, and why not? In the real world of politics, the meek will almost certainly not inherit the earth, but the dissemblers of meekness might.

Gerald L. Early is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes about baseball, boxing, jazz, literature, and other matters.

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