The main reason why the novel Imperium in Imperio (by Sutton Griggs) is now being commonly referred to as one of the most notable works of the 19th century’s Black-American literature, is that it does represent a great literary value. Among other things, this can be explained by the novel’s intellectually refined and yet easy-to-read writing style. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while also highlighting what can be considered the stylistic shortcomings of Imperium in Imperio.
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What almost instantly comes into sight of those who read Griggs’ novel, is the linear logic of the author’s flow of thoughts – especially when the description of the associative settings is being concerned. For example, while describing the public school for coloured children in Winchester, the narrator states: “The roof was patched, and iron rods were used to hold together the twisting walls… The building was located on the outskirts of the town, and a large open field surrounded it on all sides” (Griggs Ch. 2).
As it can be well seen above, the provided description of this school is straight down to the point – after having been exposed to it, readers will be able to get a better understanding of what were the realities of the main characters’ (Belton and Bernard) early upbringing. Partially, the fact that there is an undeniable clarity to how Griggs proceeded with constructing the novel’s plot can be explained by the author’s unwillingness to indulge in the lengthy self-reflections – something that used to be quite common among the American writers of the era. It is understood, of course, that this contributes to the novel’s literary value rather considerably, in the sense of making it easier for readers to grasp the significance of the novel’s socio-political implications.
Griggs must also be given credit for having succeeded in ensuring the plausibility of the novel’s themes and motifs, by the mean of establishing a close link between them and what happened to be the dynamically transforming emotional states, on the part of the featured characters. To illustrate the soundness of this suggestion, we can well refer to the scene, in which in the aftermath of having been proposed by Bernard, Viola faints: “Viola uttered a loud, piercing scream that dispersed all Bernard’s thoughts…
Bernard drove hurriedly towards Viola’s home, puzzled beyond measure… But happily, the cool air revived Viola, and she awoke trembling violently” (Griggs Ch. 13). Apparently, the author was well aware of the fact that, in order for a particular political cause to prove popular among people, it must be emotionally charged – this explains the well-defined emotional subtleties of how the novel’s plot unravels.
There is another interesting aspect to it. As it can be seen from the above-provided quote, Griggs tended to use a highly metaphorical language (‘piercing scream’, ‘puzzled beyond measure’, ‘trembling violently’), while constructing the novel’s emotional scenes. Thus, it will be fully appropriate, on our part, to assume that readers are likely to regard Griggs’s novel as being not only psychologically plausible but also aesthetically refined. The latter may be well used to explain why, as many literary critics believe, the reading of Imperium in Imperio represents the value of a ‘thing in itself’ (Karafilis 126).
The novel’s yet another stylistic feature is that it, while talking to each other, many of its characters resort to the rhetorical device of an allegorical comparison, in order to make an argumentative point. To exemplify this suggestion, we can refer to Dr Lovejoy’s suggestion that: “The world is like unto a wounded animal that has run a long way and now lies stretched upon the ground, the blood oozing forth from gaping wounds and pains darting through its entire frame” (Griggs Ch. 7).
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It is understood, of course, that this specific novel’s feature can hardly be discussed as such that presupposes that the affiliated text is being thoroughly refined, in the literary sense of this word – especially given the fact that most of the contained allegorical references have to do with Biblical fables. Nevertheless, their deployment in Imperium in Imperio appears fully justified.
The reason for this is that, at the time when Griggs worked on his novel, many people (especially Whites) used to experience a particularly hard time, while trying to grasp the meaning of such notions as interracial tolerance, which in turn meant that readers needed to be provided with the opportunity to ‘visualize’ the novel’s most important ideas. Therefore, there can be only a few doubts that the strongly defined allegorical sounding of Imperium in Imperio can be considered the novel’s yet another value-boosting asset.
What is also utterly notable about the novel, from the stylistic point of view, is that there is the strong spirit of realism to how the author goes about ensuring the spatial integrity of the text. The legitimacy of this suggestion can be confirmed, in regards to what can be considered the novel’s indications that Griggs made a deliberate point in exposing readers to even the ugliest emanations of the surrounding socio-political reality – hence, once again proving himself an intellectually honest writer.
The following graphic account of Black people having been tortured and murdered, contained in the novel, is thoroughly illustrative, in this respect: “A white woman ignited the pile of wood that was to consume the trembling negro… a coloured man named Smith was tortured with a red hot poker, and his eyes gouged out” (Griggs Ch. 18). Given the novel’s historical context, we can say that the simplicity and realism of Griggs’ writing style did prove mutually complementary. One can speculate that the ultimate reason for this was the fact that the novel’s mentioned characteristics correlated with what were the specifics of the socio-cultural discourse in America, at the end of the 19th century.
Among the novel’s stylistic features can also be named the dramatic sounding of the publicly delivered speeches, on the part of many of its characters. For example, while addressing the Congress, Belton pointed out that: “Seven million eyes are riveted upon you (Congress members), hoping that you will be brave and wise enough to take such action as willfully atone for all the horrors of the past” (Griggs Ch. 12). Repeatedly, throughout the novel’s entirety, readers are being exposed to what can be deemed the characters’ masterful deployment of the rhetorical devices. This provides Griggs with yet additional credit because the mentioned stylistic feature of his novel appears fully consistent with the assumption that literature should serve the purpose of helping readers to become ‘better men’.
There are, nevertheless, a few notable stylistic pitfalls to the novel, as well. The foremost of the can be well deemed the fact that the author often uses repetitive verbs – especially when the description of individuals is being concerned. The following passage exemplifies this suggestion: “Antoinette bore her deprivations like a heroine. Though accustomed from her childhood to plenty, she bore her poverty smilingly and cheerfully” (Griggs Ch. 11). It is understood, of course, that the mentioned passage would have sounded much better, had Grigss used the word ‘handled’ instead of ‘bore’.
What also hampers Imperium in Imperio to an extent, in the stylistic sense of this word, is that the author mentions much too many insignificant details about the main characters’ daily routines: “After he (Belton) had read the oration to his wife… he sat with his face buried in his hands… Late in the night, he retired to rest, and the next morning, he awoke” (Griggs Ch. 15). Even though this does help to ensure the plot’s spatial continuity, there is also a negative aspect to it – as a result of Griggs’ persistence in keeping readers thoroughly knowledgeable of how the featured characters used to address the daily challenges life, the novel’s text has grown somewhat ‘semantically cluttered’. This, of course, is something that hardly contributes to the overall literary value of Imperium in Imperio.
I believe that the used line argumentation, as to what can be considered the novel’s most notable stylistic aspects, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good reason to refer to Griggs’ novel as being both: aesthetically refined and yet intellectually stimulating – even despite the fact that, as it was shown earlier, Imperium in Imperio is not 100% stylistically faultless.
Griggs, Sutton 1899, Imperium in Imperio. Web.
Karafilis, Maria. “Oratory, Embodiment, and US Citizenship in Sutton E. Griggs’s ‘Imperium in Imperio’.” African American Review 40.1 (2006): 125-143. Print.