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Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis

Kingsblood Royal (1947)

by Sinclair Lewis

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While not entirely successful as a narrative, Kingsblood Royal is fascinating as a timely meditation on race in America. Though many things have changed, some for the better, the sad reality is that many elements of this book read as if they could have been written in the quite recent past. Neil Kingsblood suffers dismissal from his bank job and attitudes ranging from rude to terroristic in his all-white neighborhood after "coming out" as part African American. There is now de jure protection against restrictive neighborhood racial covenants and discrimination in hiring, but we know that in practice many African Americans are not truly protected by these legal safeguards.

Throughout the book Lewis uses high satire to get his point across, and many of the actions and thoughts of the characters demonstrate these extremes of satirical depiction. But the awakening that Neil comes to over the course of the book is still quite interesting, despite my doubts about its plausibility. Lewis brings a sensitive racial consciousness to the novel and the character of Neil, but in the end it is more a novel about white privilege and its unraveling than a truly genuine depiction of the African American community in the 1940s. Still, I was quite astonished by the boldness of this book for its time period, daring to speak aloud about the racism that still haunts this country even in the supposedly enlightened north. Lewis's craft elevates what sometimes shaded over into a polemic into a touching and nuanced portrayal of one man's growing self-awareness. ( )
  sansmerci | Nov 13, 2015 |
I can't recall the last time I read a farce or satire that slapped so hard, right from the start. I enjoyed the book to a certain extent, and rolled my eyes numerous times, but the lampooning here turns it up to eleven. I do think it went on too long and things were laid on very thick. The points would have been made and this would have been quite serviceable at a shorter length. It got a little boring.

This was published in 1947 and I think it is set in 1944 when it opens. Neil Kingsblood works at a bank following a term in the service where he was badly injured fighting in Italy. The fictional town of Grand Republic Michigan where he resides is a war industry town and although I wouldn't say Kingsblood is regarded as a local hero, he is referred to with respect as "Captain Kingsblood". He is a handsome man admired for who he is, and he has married above his class (before WW2) in what seems to be a very class conscious environment. His wife and four year old daughter benefit with him from Kingsblood's well-off in-laws and they live in a neighborhood that he would not be able to afford on his bank teller salary. He is not long back from the war and is reasonably ambitious.

Kingsblood does some family history research at the prompting of his father to find the "king's blood" connection to Henry VIII. They could be the legitimate royal family of England maybe! Capt Kingsblood instead discovers when given the name of a several times great supposed ancestor, that he is 1/32 black and at least that amount of Chippewa Indian. Kingsblood has some perhaps typical for the time racial views - all men are equal but some are more equal than others comes to my mind, to riff on 'Animal Farm'. He views blacks as inferior whereas he may have had some more liberal views beforehand. Still, there are all sorts of hierarchies of this white blood is better than that white blood, and here he was thinking he had the good white blood although there is that French bit supposedly, and now he is tainted with black. Indian blood he could live with, but black blood throws him into despair. The historian points out to him that in many states just "one drop" of negro blood renders him black. (I felt at times like I was watching an old silent movie with all the overacting going on)

Well, the story is a satire in the extreme. Just about every form of class and racial prejudice and crazy ideas that you can think of gets a sendup here. The story starts with the high class New Yorkers looking down on the hicks who live in Michigan. They contrast grain elevators with their glorious Empire State. Nothing is spared.

As I said at the beginning I think this goes on too long. The point is gotten across well but I would have slimmed this novel down by a 4th, and the author is really teetering with the absurd finale. Still, this all "works" in a way, because it hits all kinds of truth buttons. The novel is at it's best when it shows the reader how black people live and what they must live with in the supposedly unsegregated North. There are some poignant moments here. 1947 is well before my time so I can't know how it was then, but we have all seen class and racial prejudice, and we see it everyday with a U.S. President who was a white mother and a black father, as well as the class and racial strife across America.

Interesting read, but I wouldn't really recommend it. An odd book. This didn't make me a Sinclair Lewis fan, but I am glad to have sampled him. ( )
  RBeffa | May 5, 2015 |
This book...is both amusing and infuriating. Amusing because of Lewis's humorously ironic storytelling, and infuriating because of the injustices suffered by some of the characters in the book. Of course that's a given, with it being about racism.

A really interesting look into the times and issues. ( )
  broccolima | Jan 26, 2014 |
Lewis' fascinating but flawed race-parable is a frustrating novel, rewarding in places, but ultimately unsatisfying. It fails in terms of plotting and a massively, wildly unresolved ending that any editor should have sent back for a re-draft. It succeeds in recreating the bewildering Alice in Wonderland world of race relations in America immediately after the Second World War, in Lewis' pet fictional-experimental town of Grand Republic, Minnesota.

Neil Kingsblood is a decorated Army veteran, returned wounded from the fighting in Europe, trying to rebuild his civilian life. His father idly sets him a challenge to investigate the family's origins, because it is suspected by some that they are descended from the kings and queens of England. Instead, Neil finds, quite by chance, that a distant relative called Xavier Pic was in fact a full-blooded Negro, from the West Indies, who married a Native American. Although it was five generations before, making Neil only one-thirty-second Negro, that is enough - as it were - under the laws of the time.

Neil's world is subsequently turned upside down as he wrestles with this news, which he initially keeps a secret. He gives no external physical indication of his heritage, and indeed, this showed readers then - and now - of just how stupid and random the standards of "race" were. But in a bewildering plot twist - perhaps because Lewis wanted to highlight Neil's desire for "honesty in the face of reality" - Neil reveals his heritage publicly, and is subsequently ostracised and treated just as the other blacks in GR, whom he looks nothing like.

There is something sophomoric about Lewis' plotting, but his prose writing remains as vibrant and upbeat as ever, evoking the speech of the day with stunning accuracy, and the racial epithets. One could be forgiven for thinking that Lewis had a list of what are now highly-offensive and rarely-heard terms (with the exception of the "n-word", most of these I have not heard since childhood) which were nevertheless common at the time, and used them in rotation.

All-in-all, a strange, yet strangely compelling book, which should merit a re-examination of Lewis' Grand Republic novels, in which old friends like Judge Cass Timberlane make re-appearances. Continued, presumably, in The God-Seeker, which is up next for me to read, if I don't go back to Cass Timberlane first. But if it fails narratively, and in believability, it remains an important book on the subject of race in America in the post-war years. 3.5/5 stars. ( )
1 vote Bill_Bibliomane | Dec 6, 2013 |
I had an English teacher in high school who spoke highly of this book in the late 60's, explaining that it was far ahead of its time in understanding race relations and anticipating their deterioration. I read it years afterward and agreed with her entirely. Lewis, who understood and portrayed the shallow materialism of American culture, also had insights into racial problems, which are sharply dramatized in Kingsblood Royal. There is fine use of irony throughout, starting from the title. ( )
1 vote bkinetic | Oct 13, 2010 |
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Mr. Blingham, and may he fry in his own cooking oil, was assistant treasurer of the Flaver-Saver Company.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375756868, Paperback)

A neglected tour de force by the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Kingsblood Royal is a stirring and wickedly funny portrait of a man who resigns from the white race. When Neil Kingsblood a typical middle-American banker with a comfortable life makes the shocking discovery that he has African-American blood, the odyssey that ensues creates an unforgettable portrayal of two Americas, one black, one white.

As timely as when it was first published in 1947, one need only open today's newspaper to see the same issues passionately being discussed between blacks and whites that we find in Kingsblood Royal, says Charles Johnson. Perhaps only now can we fully appreciate Sinclair Lewis's astonishing achievement.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:39 -0400)

"When Neil Kingsblood--a typical middle-American banker with a comfortable life--makes the shocking discovery that he has African-American blood, the odyssey that ensues creates an unforgettable portrayal of two Americas, one black, one white." --Back cover.… (more)

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