This debut novel first published in 1962 to accolades comparing the author to James Baldwin and William Faulkner imagines an alternative history in which all black residents move away from an imaginary Southern state following a rebellion in 1957 by a young black farmer who is the descendant of slaves.
A Different Drummer ... earned [Kelley] comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin ... When I read A Different Drummer I understood why ... we have a paucity of art that chooses to imagine a different outcome for the civil-rights movement, or alternate universes where African-Americans, from any era, wield not less power but more ... It’s a brilliant setup ... Moreover, it is wonderfully executed ... Kelley was...a strikingly confident writer, with a sense of humor reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in stories like 'Revelation': caustic, original, efficacious. He was also a keen observer, and although his story has the emotional proportions of a myth, his sentences reliably feel like real life.
A Different Drummer more than lives up to the hype, both in terms of its literary accomplishment and in the power of its political vision ... here we see an America that holds fast to its moral superiority over black people ... Yet for all of Kelley’s sympathetic characterization, his ending returns us to the horrors of race hate ... Today the book offers us an unflinching study of the southern white American psyche at the cusp of the civil rights movement: its belligerence against change, the incomprehension and anger. It is woeful to think that almost 60 years later, Kelley’s story seems just as timely and as urgent, but what a gift to literature that we have rediscovered it.
Broken into 11 chapters, A Different Drummer is frequently told from the perspective of white characters, which in the hands of another writer could mean further marginalization of a voice already so suppressed in literature, but Kelley deliberately gives the book over to white narrators—who range from brutally to casually racist—to make the struggles of his own race all the more impactful ... Kelley delivers his observations with caustic humor and surprising compassion. The comparisons of his debut to the books of James Baldwin and Faulkner are justified ... A Different Drummer is a fascinating account of a man, weary of words and politicking, who makes a seemingly nonsensical decision in the eyes of society.