Blog Post

First Lines of 6 Novels

Today, I have chosen to identify the first lines of six books in our “100 Novels Collection.” Extending the week’s posts “word play” in African American literature, I have identified these specific lines to point out the similar and dissimilar ways in which black writers open their novels.

 

Specifically, I want to call attention to how the first lines of each novel set the tone of the events to follow by foreshadowing the identity crisis of each protagonist. Given the tragic history of slavery and the complex social and political relationships black people have endured in America, possibly, these writers opening lines are one possible way in which writers authenticate their fictive lives of black people.  Surveying a wide body of literature reveals other commonalities between black writers.

Alice Walker—The ColorPurple

 

Dear God,

 

I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me. 

 

 

 

James Baldwin—Go TellIt on the Mountain

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.

 

Ralph Ellison—InvisibleMan

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

 

 

Richard Wright—NativeSon

Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!

An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman’s voice sang out impatiently:

“Bigger, shut that thing off!”

 

Toni Morrison—Song ofSolomon

The North Carolina Mutual Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock. Two days before the event was to take place he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:

At 3 p.m. on Wednesday the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all.

(signed) Robert Smith

Ins. Agent.

 

 

Zora Neale Hurston—Their Eyes Were Watching God

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For some they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. 

[Related: 30 Days of 100 Novels]

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2 comments

Hi Kenton,

The novels you chose to quote in this post are among my favorites, and I admire your 100 novel project as a whole. I hope you don't mind if I add to your list and the conversation. After reading those first lines, I pulled off my book shelf James McBride's Song Yet Sung (2008). Here's the first line:

"On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreaed of the future. And it was not pleasant."

What strikes me about this line, is that it, like the others, engages time, particularly the future. From Bigger's ringing alarm clock, to the insurance agent's notice about his impending death (or redemption), to the Invisible Man's obliteration of time (though he's a "flesh and bone" human, he's not necessarily subject to the tyranny of time. All the lights he keeps on in his basement apartment abolishes signs of time's passage--time, in this case, is another feature of oppressive, white American society). Each of these books begins in some way with anxieties over an uncertain future or a future certain to be just as bad, if not worse, than the present.

 

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Hi Elizabeth,

Thanks so much for adding to the discussion. Your observations are very unique when discussing the "anxieities" that each character acknowledges at the beginning of each novel. Also, I find it interesting how the endings--even though most may end in death-- signify an awakening. In other words, there is a physical death, but also a birth of consciousness.

With that being said, I'm more so curious to think about how each writers nuanced representations of these anxieties compliment different time-periods, demographisc, and age groups?

Again, thanks so much for the feedback. I look forward to continuing this discussion.

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