American Literature Sutton Griggs
by
Tess Chakkalakal
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0173

Introduction

Sutton Elbert Griggs (b. 1872–d. 1933) was born in Chatfield, Texas, and educated in a public school in Dallas. The son of Emma Hodge and Allen Ralph Griggs (a former slave, Baptist minister, and educator), Griggs was baptized at age thirteen and entered the New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas as assistant to Pastor E. W. D Isaac. In 1890, he graduated from Bishop College, established by the Baptist Home Mission Society in Marshall, Texas. Following his graduation, he became actively involved in organizing one of the first “colored” literary societies established at the New Hope Baptist Church. He eventually served as president of the Dallas Colored Literary Society. His presidency of the society was short-lived, however. In October 1891, he began studying at Richmond Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Following his graduation from the seminary, Griggs served as co-founder and editor of the weekly Virginia Baptist newspaper from 1894 to 1898. As editor, Griggs was deeply involved in the political and religious debates forming among members of Richmond’s thriving black community. Notably, Griggs became embroiled in a public and heated debate with John Mitchell, Jr., the well-known editor of the Richmond Daily Planet. During that time, he began writing his first novel, Imperium in Imperio, which was published by the Editor Publishing Company in 1899. The novel traces the life of Belton Piedmont as he rises from his one-room, ramshackle house in Virginia to become “the spirit of conservatism in the Negro race” (p. 175). Belton is killed by the order of his friend and nemesis, Bernard Belgrave, who embodies a form of political radicalism predicated on violent revolution that Griggs, for much of his life, opposed. Although the novel was “a financial failure,” as Griggs writes in his brief autobiography, it has since become one of the most important novels of literary black nationalism, a genre that critic Wilson J. Moses contends Griggs helped to establish. Griggs would continue his commitment to publish works of original, complex fiction. Following the publication of his first novel, Griggs decided to found his own press, the Orion Publishing Company. Self-published under the imprimatur of the Orion Publishing Company, Overshadowed (1901) continues to explore black political issues of the era, focusing on the role of women in the movement. Griggs would go on to publish three more novels in quick succession—Unfettered (1902), The Hindered Hand (1905), and Pointing the Way (1908). As with Imperium, Griggs’s subsequent novels introduced readers to complex black characters navigating worsening conditions in the post-Reconstruction South. Following the publication of his last novel, Griggs turned to writing non-fiction exclusively, believing that this form would garner a wider audience. Griggs is recognized primarily as a novelist on the strength of his first novel, although critics in the early 21st century have begun to pay attention to his later fiction, particularly The Hindered Hand, which was written as a direct response to the popular racist novels of Thomas E. Dixon.

Primary Texts

Griggs’s novels are currently undergoing a critical renaissance. Following the republication of Imperium in Imperio in 2003 by the Modern Library, the West Virginia University Press has decided to republish all five novels as part of its Regenerations series co-edited by John Ernest and Joycelyn Moody. The general co-editors of Griggs’s five novels, Tess Chakkalakal and Kenneth W. Warren, remark in their foreword to the volumes that the rapid publication of Griggs’s five novels between 1899 and 1908 made him “one of the most productive and intriguing, if also one of the most overlooked, African American novelist from this period.” These new critical editions of Griggs’s five novels include excerpts from his non-fiction, which offer political and historical context. Since Griggs’s novels are situated amidst contemporary issues, such as various black religious movements of the time, and broader political movements, such as imperialism and war, the non-fiction provides a rigorous account of the issues affecting Griggs and his fellow African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Although Griggs is remembered in the early 21st century primarily for his contributions to African American literary history, his work as a religious leader and activist are also important to consider. Several of Griggs’s sermons have been preserved as recordings that provide listeners with a good sense of Griggs’s sermonic practice.

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