by Randall Heath
At the same time that James Baldwin was completing his now famous Blues for Mister Charlie, Hal Bennett began work on his first novel, A Wilderness of Vines. And while Baldwin has gone on to find his place in the canon of American writers, Bennett has languished in maddening obscurity. With the exception of Lord of Dark Places, any one of Bennett's many novels could be categorized as "Widely Unavailable," as virtually his entire body of work has been scandalously deleted from print.
Published in 1966, A Wilderness of Vines tells the story of Burnside, Virginia, a mostly black town with deep internal divisions. The story opens in 1919 as Janus Manning rescues Neva Stapleton from the orphanage by taking her as his bride. Both characters are the product of bi-racial parents and, by virtue of the lightness of their skin, place themselves above their darker skinned neighbors in town. Establishing the characters' obsession with whiteness as the embodiment of all that is good, Bennett goes to great lengths to show how the effects of racism have infiltrated the community, creating an atmosphere of systemic self-loathing where the town's inhabitants are "just as prejudiced against black people as some of you white people are." Internalized hatred is passed on through the generations, creating a powderkeg of hostility that literally explodes at the end of the novel. "The madness of Burnside mirrored the madness of America. But here it was open, unashamed, vital. It could be depended upon to compound itself until finally, like the surging growth of vines brought down by their own weight, madness would destroy itself."
Bennett uses satire and hyperbole to great effect. His explication of the myth of the hyper-sexualized African American male unflinchingly confronts racial and sexual stereotypes head-on. Fueled by an almost apocalyptic fervor, Bennett's approach in A Wilderness of Vines can be best summed up in the words of his character, Charlie Hooker. "Why not show our vices then? Three hundred and fifty years of parroting virtues at the white man had had no meritorious effect. Why not show him our sin, our insanity, our unreality?"
It will surely be only a matter of time before the works of this important writer are restored to their rightful place in literary history. Until that time there remains a glaring gap not only in the recent Norton Anthology of African American Literature, but in books-in-print.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998