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William Demby
With an afterword by James C. Hall
Copyright Date: 1998
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    After several years of silence and seclusion in Beetlecreek's black quarter, a carnival worker named Bill Trapp befriends Johnny Johnson, a Pittsburgh teenager living with relatives in Beetlecreek. Bill is white. Johnny is black. Both are searching for acceptance, something that will give meaning to their lives. Bill tries to find it through good will in the community. Johnny finds it in the Nightriders, a local gang. David Diggs, the boy's dispirited uncle, aspires to be an artist but has to settle for sign painting. David and Johnny's new friendship with Bill kindles hope that their lives will get better. David's marriage has failed; his wife's shallow faith serves as her outlet from racial and financial oppression. David's unhappy routine is broken by Edith Johnson's return to Beetlecreek, but this relationship will be no better than his loveless marriage. Bill's attempts to unify black and white children with a community picnic is a disaster. A rumor scapegoats him as a child molester, and Beetlecreek is titillated by the imagined crimes.

    This novel portraying race relations in a remote West Virginia town has been termed an existential classic. It would be hard, saidThe New Yorker, to give Mr. Demby too much praise for the skill with which he has maneuvered the relationships in this book. During the 1960s Arna Bontemps wrote, "Demby's troubled townsfolk of the West Virginia mining region foreshadow present dilemmas. The pressing and resisting social forces in this season of our discontent and the fatal paralysis of those of us unable or unwilling to act are clearly anticipated with the dependable second sight of a true artist."

    First published in 1950,Beetlecreekstands as a moving condemnation of provincialism and fundamentalism. Both a critique of racial hypocrisy and a new direction for the African-American novel, it occupies fresh territory that is neither the ghetto realism of Richard Wright nor the ironic modernism of Ralph Ellison. Even after fifty years, more or less, William Demby said in 1998, "It still seems to me thatBeetlecreekis about the absence of symmetry in human affairs, the imperfectibility of justice the tragic inevitability of mankind's inhumanity to mankind."

    William Demby is the author ofThe CatacombsandLove Story: Black. He lives in Sag Harbor, N. Y. James C. Hall, a professor of African-American Studies and English at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is the author of the forthcoming book,Mercy, Mercy, Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties, and editor ofLangston Hughes: A Collection of Poems.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-086-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)

      (pp. 7-13)

      Always when he looked in the mirror his eyes were different. Sometimes they peered from out of the broken glass asking an unanswerable question, sometimes they were angry and damning, sometimes they were sullen and brooding—too often they were the eyes of a dead man, jellied and blank. This ritual of looking at himself went on every day as soon as he got out of bed. His thick, blunt fingers would clutch at each other, moving back and forth slowly like the antennae of insects. His long, fleshy nose with its countless red pin pricks would expand and contract...

      (pp. 14-21)

      Johnny Johnson, completely undressed except for his underwear, lay across the bed.A Doctor Zorro and the Dope Smugglerslay unopened across his stomach. He had wanted to go outside where he knew the boys were waiting to hear what happened at Bill Trapp’s, but, because he had been caught, his Aunt Mary had been very strict with him. He could hear them whooping and laughing and every once in a while he could hear the Leader calling his dog.

      He looked around at the pink-rosed wallpaper. Everything was strange here, he decided. From the time when his cousin put...

      (pp. 22-24)

      Though outdoors it was wet cold, her window was wide open. The curtain reached inward toward the bed where Mary was crouched under the blankets warming her hands between her thighs. She no longer was frightened. Her whole body was exhausted, not so much by the housecleaning at Pinkerton’s as by the quarreling and crying. Now she waited calmly for the time when the room would be filled with the smell of onions and beer, and her husband, mumbling drunkenly to himself, would crush against her in sleep.

      She had never been inside the Italian’s café, but she knew everything...


      (pp. 25-37)

      A brisk cold wind blew down the street from the creek chasing leaves and candy wrappers before it. Frantic birds flocked above and behind the wind, riding the violent currents, screaming, overloading trees. A fat tomcat, sooty gray like the sky was sitting on the steps of the barbershop when Johnny arrived. It didn’t flee or move aside but sat looking at him brazenly as if to question his right to enter. Although it was already after nine o’clock, the weak morning light made it seem much earlier.

      Opening the door of the shop (which was really a builtover streetcar...

      (pp. 38-46)

      They pretended they didn’t see him when he walked over to the railing of the bridge. They were standing slouched and posed with their hands in their pockets, smoking in rotation a short, wet cigarette butt.

      “Hiya, Pittsburgh Kid!” Baby Boy was the first one to speak. He put his arm around Johnny’s shoulder and steered him toward the rest of the boys. Johnny was grateful for Baby Boy’s attention.

      The Leader had his back toward Johnny and was busy chipping hunks of wood from the railing.

      “Hello, fellows,” Johnny said. He tried to make himself sound casual, but he...

      (pp. 47-60)

      Now the days were long; time moved slowly for Bill Trapp. Every morning found him up and about long before dawn. He was restless and spent his time doing unnecessary things; he mended traps and pruned trees, working always near the road, hoping to see the colored boy, hoping to see any human walking toward his place. One day, a colored lady pushing a wheelbarrow of ashes passed on the road. He stopped working to watch her broad behind disappear around the bend of the road. Every evening as soon as the sun had set he would begin drinking. This...

      (pp. 61-66)

      Still wearing the red, gold, and green fringed apron she had put on to serve Mrs. Pinkerton’s Literary Club, Mary ran to the back door to answer the insistent knocking. It was Helen Perkins whose face was blown way up with heavy breathing.

      “Mrs. Johnson’s dead,” she panted, “died this afternoon and Baily Brothers’ is doing the arrangements.”

      The very first thing Mary thought about was of how Mrs. Johnson’s death would affect the arrangements for the festival. Would the ladies have to postpone it for another month? she asked herself. They wouldn’t, couldn’t . . . ! There were...

      (pp. 67-80)

      For three days after what happened at the shanty, Johnny wouldn’t leave the house. He told his aunt and uncle that he was sick and stayed locked up in his room, throwing himself across the bed every time he heard them coming up the steps. On the table beside his bed was a Bible which from time to time he tried to read, but the strange words printed in finicky type which he couldn’t pronounce anyway, all ran together, causing him to give up reading the whole book from the beginning to the end. Many times during the day he...


      (pp. 81-91)

      When Edith Johnson entered Telrico’s that night, everyone stopped talking to turn around and watch. The way she walked was big city—slowly, dragging the hind foot a little, swinging the hips gently, holding onto her purse with both hands. Her head was held high, but not so high she didn’t make everyone feel she was looking right at them. She was dressed big city, too; she wore a black suit, the narrow skirt of which wasn’t tight or short enough to be called cheap. But it was short and tight enough. She wasn’t brown colored or yellow colored, Edith...

      (pp. 92-100)

      The funeral was over and David stood with his back to the gay whispering. They still hadn’t brought the casket out and people had already lined the walk waiting for the procession. Mary had wanted him to volunteer as a pallbearer but he had refused, saying that his dark suit was too raggedy. But that had been only partly true. The real reason, he knew, was that he was afraid to come too close to the coffin. Once his mother had made him kiss a dying aunt who suffered from a disease that prevented her from being washed. And it...

      (pp. 101-115)

      He found Bill Trapp seated under a tree repairing a wheelbarrow. It was the first time David had seen him since the night at Telrico’s. Already, entering the gate, he felt freed from the cloudy fears that had choked him inside the church. Unmindful of the muddy ground he stretched out under the tree.

      “I’ve been to Mrs. Johnson’s funeral,” he said, when he saw the old man staring at his clothes.

      “I seen the hearse and all passing.”

      Bill Trapp started to go into the shanty to get something for them to drink but David stopped him. He didn’t...

      (pp. 116-131)

      Ever since the funeral, Johnny had felt restless and look-for-something. It was a continuation of the way he had felt when he was on the bus coming to Beetlecreek for the first time. It was a very strange feeling—a kind of stuffed up tickling inside that wouldn’t let him sit still or be satisfied doing anything.

      For one thing, he felt entirely alone, entirely separated from everything—his life, Beetlecreek, the boys, Bill Trapp, his mother, Pittsburgh, that bird—everything. He was entirely alone. It was as though his whole life, everything that had ever meant anything, everything he...

      (pp. 132-146)

      All during the meal, Mary was so excited that she could hardly swallow her food. David had finally painted the signs and they were safe in her bedroom where she had placed them beside the dresser earlier in the afternoon. She had made a special trip home that afternoon just to make sure they were still there and to look at them. Just before dinner, too, she had run up the stairs to look at them, holding them up to the sunset light, opening the window so the colors would shine. David had been acting so funny lately, she had...

      (pp. 147-156)

      The shallow, mud water of the Beetle Creek, the ever-so-gently creaking swinging bridge, and the mainline railroad tracks, all separated Beetlecreek from uptown. The creek curled around itself to make almost an island of Beetlecreek. The swinging bridge was narrow and made out of ancient, tarpitched planks. The Streamliner between Washington and Cincinnati whooshed through the valley twice a day without stopping, a silver streak with a new style train whistle—not really a whistle at all, but a long, amplified sigh. All this separated uptown from Beetlecreek.

      Uptown they were talking about Bill Trapp. Uptown, especially in the pink-roofed...

      (pp. 157-169)

      Johnny sat on the railing of the swinging bridge looking down toward the creek. He leaned over and spit, watching the curved path the white blob took before hitting the water. The cold wind pushed the bridge back and forth, back and forth very gently and the greased cables strained against the big holes in the planks.

      He rattled the buckeyes he had in his pocket and decided he would make a buckeye pipe. He looked for a nail with which to clean out the pulp. If he waited until the gang came by from school, he could borrow the...

      (pp. 170-174)

      Bill Trapp was a man who was dead, had brought himself back to life again, who once more longed for the known groove of death. These thoughts in different shapes came to him as slowly he walked through an alley on his way back from the store in Ridgeville. It was a narrow alley, full of overflowing ashcans and puddles. The roofs of the houses slanted uniformly and each well-kept back fence was painted white. There were groups of small children playing marbles in those places where the ground was dry. They were white children who did not know him...

      (pp. 175-186)

      Nor did David know what to make of the talk about Bill Trapp. Somehow, he couldn’t get himself into a frame of mind to think about the thing clearly. Of course he didn’t believe what they were saying. Yet, the whole wheel of rumor, the freak summer, and the complete disorganization of his own life with the girl, kept him from distinguishing that which was real from that which escaped from his nightmares to tear down the walls separating sleep from wakefulness.

      Those first days after he heard what they were saying, he went about as in a dream. He...


      (pp. 187-203)

      All up and down the street, there was an awareness of the festival. For that early evening hour, there were more people than usual crossing back and forth across the swinging bridge. Ladies, coming back to the village from uptown kitchens, carried mysterious pans covered with gleaming white tablecloths, and they walked faster, nervously like birds in the early morning. On their faces, were stretched rubber-band smiles.

      On the street there was a steady stream of traffic; important kids pulling toy wagons loaded with fifty pound blocks of ice and streaked, marble-green watermelons, and men, home early from work, carrying...

      (pp. 204-215)

      There were many moths about, all of them fuzzy and made of gray-brown powder. In and out of the shadows they flitted, between lanterns and under the booths, appearing momentarily in patches of light, casting bat shadows on the ground. One of them flew in Mary’s pan of gingercake.

      “My goodness, these moths!” she exclaimed, as if talking to someone beside her. But she was all alone. Johnny, who had helped her carry the heavy pans to the church grass, had seemed preoccupied and left as soon as he set the pans down in her booth.

      The church grass was...

      (pp. 216-224)

      Only a handful of people were waiting for the eleven-fifteen northbound to arrive from Munstor. Most of them were hillbillies riding as far as Tulip where they would take the shuttle bus to National Park. David thought they looked pitifully ill at ease standing motionless and open mouthed in the very middle of the floor inside the flashy blue and nickel bus station.

      He straightened his tie and pulled down the back of his blue suit jacket and walked boldly past them, feeling very smug and contented, knowing he had a long strip of yellow ticket with full insurance in...

  6. Afterword
    (pp. 225-236)

    While much critical attention has been directed towards the outpouring of African American creativity in the 1920s and 1960s, the Harlem Renaissance and Black Aesthetic Movement respectively, a strong argument can certainly be made that, for the African American novel in particular, the first half of the 1950s is a striking watershed. Ralph Ellison’s seminalInvisible Man(1952) immediately comes to mind, but other books make important contributions to the development of a tradition. The publication of Saunders Redding’sStranger and Alone(1950), William Gardner Smith’sAnger at Innocence(1951), Lloyd Brown’sIron City(1951), Gwendolyn Brooks’sMaud Martha(1953),...