William H. Armstrong
(Full name William Howard Armstrong) American nonfiction writer, autobiographer, biographer, and author of young adult novels and picture books.
The following entry presents criticism on Armstrong's young adult novel Sounder (1969) through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volume 1.
Armstrong's young adult novel, Sounder (1969), winner of the 1970 Newbery Medal, is an emotional tale of prejudice and recovery revolving around an African American sharecropper family struggling for survival in the deep South during the early twentieth century. The story reflects Armstrong's personal history, his knowledge of southern rural life, and his admiration for strong-willed individuals. Narrated from the innocent perspective of the family's unnamed young son, the text provides graphic descriptions of the cruelties inflicted upon sharecroppers of the era trapped by poverty and lack of education. Patterned after a story told to Armstrong by an older school-teacher, the novel is concerned, in part, with the family's loyal coon dog named Sounder—named for his resonant howl that reverberates across the country-side—whose fate in many ways parallels the life of the narrator's unjustly treated father. While a mainstay in elementary school libraries, Sounder has attracted recent critical debate surrounding Armstrong's ability as a white writer to accurately portray the lives and voices of black characters. In 1972 a film adaptation of Sounder, directed by Martin Ritt, was nominated for four Oscar awards from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including best picture.
Armstrong was born on September 14, 1914, near Lexington, Virginia. He was raised on his devoutly Scottish Presbyterian family's farm and attended lo-cal elementary schools, where he evinced an early talent for reading and writing. Armstrong attended Augusta Military Academy, a private military high school, from 1928 to 1932. According to his family, Armstrong wrote his first story as a cadet at Augusta, but the story was so good that his teachers falsely accused him of plagiarism. Later, the story was published in the literary magazine at Hampden-Sydney College, where Armstrong edited both the magazine and the college newspaper. He graduated from Hampden-Sydney with honors in history in 1936 and went on to study history further at the University of Virginia. Armstrong married Martha Stonestreet Williams in 1942, with whom he had three children. Three years later, he became a history teacher at Kent School, a private school in Kent, Connecticut. In 1953 his wife died, and Armstrong raised his children as a single parent. During the 1950s and 1960s, Armstrong focused on writing history books and study skills guides rather than fiction. He wrote his fictional masterpiece, Sounder, in 1969, in the midst of the growing civil rights movement. The novel won both the Newbery Medal and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970 and was called the best children's book of the year by the New York Times. In the early 1970s, Armstrong wrote two books that echoed the characters and plot of Sounder—Sour Land (1971) and The Mills of God (1973)—though neither achieved the critical or popular success of Sounder. Over the next twenty-five years, Armstrong continued to live and work in Kent, penning a series of historical biographies, study aides, and additional works of young adult fiction, many with overt religious themes. He died on April 11, 1999, at the age of eighty-four.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
While named after the distinctive dog, Sounder primarily charts the history and ongoing struggles of a poor sharecropper family. Unnamed by Armstrong—the intent of which remains a point of ongoing contention among his critics—the family ekes out a hard-scrabble living as sustenance farmers who are forced to survive winters selling raccoon and possum pelts and walnut kernels. A young boy, the eldest of the family's four children, narrates his family's difficulties, which grow particularly harsh after his father is beaten and arrested by unsympathetic sheriffs for the theft of some hams meant to feed his starving children. As the narrator's father is dragged away by the police, Sounder, a Georgia redbone/bulldog mix whom the father rescued as a stray, attempts to protect his master, but the armed sheriffs ruthlessly shoot the growling dog. Sounder, gravely injured, crawls under the house where the family believes he intends to die. When the boy looks for him several days later, the dog has disappeared into the woods to recover. After the father's incarceration on a chain gang, the lives of the sharecroppers grow immeasurably worse. In the father's absence, the mother is forced to take a job doing laundry for the nearby white families. However, a few weeks after the violent arrest, Sounder astonishes the family by returning to their home, though his spirit and body have been severely damaged. Whereas before, his bark could be heard for miles, now the dog no longer barks without the presence of his beloved master. Meanwhile, the boy—already limited in his prospects due to his inability to read and write—takes his father's place in the fields, but continually searches for his missing father after harvest every season. This becomes a pattern in the boy's life until, as a teenager, he meets a schoolmaster who agrees to teach him in exchange for doing chores. The boy later passes his new knowledge onto his siblings. Despite all of their hardships, the boy's mother continues to teach her children perseverance and acceptance, advising her son: "you must learn to lose, child. The Lord teaches the old to lose. The young don't know how to learn it." The father finally returns years later as a broken man, having been injured in a mine explosion, and the elderly Sounder barks for the first time since his master's disappearance. With half his body paralyzed and completely broken in spirit, the father dies soon after his return, quickly followed by Sounder. After both deaths, the now-educated boy quotes Montaigne, his teacher's favorite author, to sum up his feelings: "Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead."
By leaving the family unnamed and by keeping the exact setting of the narrative unclear, Armstrong is able to make Sounder a more universal text. The vagueness of the world outside the sharecropper's cabin reflects the limited vision and knowledge of the novel's illiterate protagonist. Armstrong employs a third-person limited omniscient point of view that emphasizes how the narrator thinks and reacts to events. As a result, the psychological realism of the boy's consciousness and innocence form the lens through which the readers view his world. Armstrong utilizes the young boy and his family in Sounder to dramatize the evils of racism and poverty. Notions of social injustice and unnecessary cruelty are developed through the author's precise and realistic descriptions of the father's arrest, the boy's visit with his father in jail, and the father's crippling. The boy's courage in confronting racism, his endurance in the face of opposition, his unselfish love for his family, and his hunger for learning are traits that Armstrong promotes as necessary for the survival of humankind. The boy learns to read in order to help himself overcome his loneliness and to break the chains of ignorance that imprison his family. Thus, Sounder is also about the power of literature and stories to comfort people and help them deal with hardships. Some scholars have noted the importance that the coon hound, Sounder, holds in the story. Almost an animalistic embodiment of his beloved master, the dog undergoes many of the same physical difficulties of the father. David J. Amante argued that, "By drawing parallels between the fates of Sounder and the father, Armstrong makes the point that humans are treated like dogs in the racist early twentieth-century South." Nancy Huse similarly found parallels between the human/animal relationship in Sounder and those featured in classical works, stating that: "The Odyssey resonates in Sounder. The faithful dog Argus is the associative reference for the telling of the Black man's story." Beyond the novel's emphasis on character and social issues, the text also demonstrates Armstrong's personal religious belief in the power of perseverance and human will. Overtones of the Bible are evident throughout Sounder, particularly in the construction of the narrative.
Since its initial publication, Sounder has remained an internationally popular text, with many readers applauding the novel's unflinching depiction of graphic racism and poverty. However, more recently, critics have begun to debate the accuracy of the book's setting and tone, particularly citing questions surrounding Armstrong's ability to write authentically about black sharecroppers. Some have argued that Armstrong lacks a proper understanding of black culture in the Jim Crow South, noting the narrator's family's seeming lack of contact with other neighboring black families, the apparent disregard by the mother figure over whether her children should be properly educated, and the general passiveness of the family in accepting the unfair judgment of the sheriff. Further, such detractors have asserted that the novel's white characters—particularly the sheriff and his deputies—remain largely undeveloped, a detail that some label as an unstated forgiveness, or worse, collusion by omission. But most central among the many questions raised by critics has been Armstrong's deliberate unwillingness to provide a name for the family in Sounder. June Jordan has characterized "the silence of the family, the centrality of the dog, the anonymity of the storyteller" as "questions to be asked over and over again by educated black readers of the book." Several critics have also called for a reexamination of the initial assessments of Sounder's literary merit with Albert V. Schwartz suggesting that, "Surely this (positive) response by white people played a paramount role in the book's selection for the Newbery Medal." However, despite this vocal minority, the general critical consensus surrounding Sounder has been largely favorable. Ethel L. Heins has opined that, "[t]here is an epic quality in the deeply moving, long-ago story of cruelty, loneliness, and silent suffering [in Sounder]. The power of the writing lies in its combination of subtlety and strength. Four characters are unforgettable: the mother, with her inscrutable fortitude and dignity; the crushed and beaten father; the indomitable boy; and the 'human animal,' Sounder."
Study Is Hard Work (nonfiction) 1956; revised edition, 1995
Through Troubled Waters: A Young Father's Struggles with Grief (autobiography) 1957
87 Ways to Help Your Child in School (nonfiction) 1961
Sounder [illustrations by James Barkley] (young adult novel) 1969
Animal Tales [adaptor; from the story by Hana Doskočilová; illustrations by Mirko Hanák] (picture book) 1970
Barefoot in the Grass: The Story of Grandma Moses (biography) 1970
Sour Land [illustrations by David B. Armstrong] (young adult novel) 1971
Hadassah: Esther the Orphan Queen [illustrations by Barbara Ninde Byfield] (young adult novel) 1972
The MacLeod Place [illustrations by Eros Keith] (young adult novel) 1972
The Mills of God [illustrations by D. B. Armstrong] (young adult novel) 1973
The Education of Abraham Lincoln [illustrations by William Plummer] (young adult novel) 1974
My Animals [illustrations by Mirko Hanák] (picture book) 1974
Study Tips: How to Improve Your Study Habits and Improve Your Grades (nonfiction) 1975; revised as Study Tactics, 1983; revised by M. Willard Lampe II and George Ehrenhaft as A Pocket Guide to Correct Study Tips, 1997
Joanna's Miracle (young adult novel) 1977
The Tale of Tawny and Dingo [illustrations by Charles Mikolaycak] (young adult novel) 1979
Elizabeth Minot Graves (review date 21 November 1969)
SOURCE: Graves, Elizabeth Minot. Review of Sounder, by William H. Armstrong, illustrated by James Barkley. Commonweal 90 (21 November 1969): 257.
A loyal coon dog, a poor sharecropper desperate to support his family, and his young son who yearns for an education, all play roles in [Sounder, ] this biting indictment of the treatment of Negro farmers in the South. Although a tragic story of man's inhumanity to man, this is also an uplifting tale of courage, human dignity, and love. The writing is simple, timeless, and extraordinarily moving. An outstanding book.
Ethel L. Heins (review date December 1969)
SOURCE: Heins, Ethel L. Review of Sounder, by William H. Armstrong, illustrated by James Barkley. Horn Book Magazine 45, no. 6 (December 1969): 673.
The boy was nearly always hungry in the bare sharecropper's cabin [in Sounder ]; eight miles was too far to walk to school, but his mother had raised him on the folklore of the Old Testament, drawing strength from the courage and righteousness of Biblical heroes. Uncomplainingly he looked after his brothers and sisters while his mother did the white folks' laundry; for he had one great joy—a mighty, mellow-voiced coon hound called Sounder. One dark night, the father, impelled by his young ones' hunger, slipped out and stole a ham; and when the sheriff and his men came to take him to jail, they shot down the frenzied dog in the road as he hopelessly tried to save his master. The shattered creature dragged himself to the woods, only to reappear miraculously weeks later, crippled but healed. The father did not return; sentenced to hard labor, he disappeared. As the boy grew older, he could not match his mother's patience: "you must learn to lose, child. The Lord teaches the old to lose. The young don't know how to learn it." Filled with impotent rage, he began to wander over the state, searching the chain gangs and prison farms for a glimpse of his father. Thus he met a gentle, elderly schoolteacher who lived in unheard-of luxury, with two lamps in a cabin full of books. The old man urged the boy to spend the winters with him; but in the summers he always went home for the field work. Then one day, his father—a limp and twisted skeleton of a man—came home…. There is an epic quality in the deeply moving, long-ago story of cruelty, loneliness, and silent suffering. The power of the writing lies in its combination of subtlety and strength. Four characters are unforgettable: the mother, with her inscrutable fortitude and dignity; the crushed and beaten father; the indomitable boy; and the "human animal," Sounder.
William H. Armstrong (essay date August 1970)
SOURCE: Armstrong, William H. "Newbery Acceptance Speech." Horn Book Magazine 46, no. 4 (August 1970): 352-58.
[In the following transcript of his acceptance speech for the 1970 Newbery Award, Armstrong recounts some of the childhood experiences that inspired Sounder and discusses young readers' reactions to the novel.]
In an honest effort to do a serious piece of homework for this assignment, I borrowed the latest Horn Book collection of acceptance speeches and studied them with a degree of diligence. I learned a great deal. For example, I learned about a dozen definitive definitions of that indefinable term "Literature for young readers—what it is." And I learned how some authors put books together. I am still convinced, however, that most books hang together because some patient and perceptive editor skillfully ties together a lot of loose threads. I also learned something of the lasting quality that books should contain. A most significant statement to me was "The real stamp of a book's living qualities comes with the increased pleasure from re-reading, a new discovery of hitherto unperceived riches."1 Having read this statement, I wandered back in time to search out what books from my childhood measured up to these qualities.
On the big round table in a Virginia farmhouse kitchen I found a Sears, Roebuck catalogue, the Old Farmer's Almanac, Burpee's seed catalogue, the Bible, and McGuffey's Third Reader. My mother had studied McGuffey's Reader in school, and kept it over the years to read to us. Especially at bedtime, she would read a prayer or two that contained the word God. Or a story of how good a boy felt after he had been punished for some wrong. Or perhaps a story of how proud a boy could be of work and thrift.
The Sears, Roebuck catalogue contained the quality of "increased pleasure from re-reading," for it stirred dreams that made "the haves and the have-nots" one—"if only…." And although I read for sheer pleasure, and not to weigh critically, I know now that I was reading an all-time best seller. From the Almanac there was to read and reread: "The cultivation of the earth ought ever to be esteemed as the most useful and necessary employment in life." Or, "One or two discarded brown paper bags should provide a child sufficient material for entertainment for a rainy day." Here was brightness to dispel the ominous threat of a dark sky.
But of all the books available none carried between its pages more "increased pleasure" and "new discovery" at rereading than the seed catalogue, which usually arrived about the middle of January—when the winter was already too long. A first reading of the catalogue would change the lowering January sky and temper the cold wind that turned even the mountains on either side of the Shenandoah Valley blue. The sky would become an April sky, filled with clouds, and that April sky seemed so close that a boy could lie on his back on a hillside and reach up with a stick to punch a hole in it. And with a second reading and a third, there came a certainty that the lifeless brown and gray earth would spring to green life again. That seedtime would come, and harvest. And as one read, he might be chewing on a scabby Wine-sap apple from the bottom of the cellar bin, but he tasted beefsteak tomatoes, freestone Alberta peaches, and wine-red cherries from the topmost branch of the tree where the sun had ripened them first.
No one told me the Bible was not for young readers, so I found some exciting stories in it. Not until years later did I understand why I liked the Bible stories so much. It was because everything that could possibly be omitted was omitted. There was no description of David so I could be like David. Ahab and Naboth were just like some people down the road. And the first time I was allowed to visit court when my father was on jury duty, I saw Cain.
These books then, plus stories heard from a black man around that Virginia farmhouse table, formed the substance of what I remember of my own life as a young reader. Although some of the books I have mentioned were not—strictly speaking—literature, they filled a need.
And now I find myself in the precarious position of having won a prize for a book called Sounder, written for anyone who might like to read it.
Until I received a telephone call from Mary Elizabeth Ledlie some time in February, the word Newbery had not meant to me a man in England who stocked his bookshop with stories for children. But Newbery had been a word to stir the deathless joy and remembrance of a small boy's Christmas. Because if that boy were especially good from somewhere around October 27th or November 12th until Christmas, his father would take him to Newberry's five-and-dime store in town. And after he had looked at all the bows and arrows and red wagons, he could ask the jolly, red-coated Santa Claus—enthroned amid the incense of chocolate and peppermint—to leave them under the Christmas tree for him.
But Newberry's Santa never brought the bow and arrows or the red wagon. So out in the back pasture the boy would cut a maple sapling with his two-bladed barlow pocketknife that he had won for selling Cloverine Salve—guaranteed to cure shoulder—gall for horse and chapped lips for man. Then with sapling and binder twine from the hayloft, the boy would make his own bow.
But tonight it is real. The boy will not have to go home and hammer the Newbery Award out of the top of a Campbell soup can or out of a washer off the axle of his father's hay wagon.
And now, if you will, allow me one brief moment to express—as an adult—the meaning of the prize. Who gives it meaning? You, the librarians, the keepers and guardians of the memory of mankind. For that is what books are. "I gave man memory, that precious gift, along with fire," said Prometheus. As librarians, you keep watch at the gates of civilization. For when the destroyer comes, his first act is to burn the books. You, too, preside over the only true court of justice in the world. For without spiritual or temporal bias or prejudice, you allow ideas to bear witness.
And if I have added one tiny fragment to mankind's memory, it is you who will help to preserve it. For you do more than preserve it, you draw attention to it. Without you, Peggy Brennan, age ten, might never have written to me: "It [Sounder ] made me feel very hollow inside. Because we are living comfortable while the boy's family lived uncomfortable. You made me feel like I was watching all this happening right in front of my eyes."
Some one of you gave Tina Rinaldi Sounder to take home. Tina, age eleven, in the fifth grade, wrote to me: "When I read your book my body felt cold but it also felt warmth."
You hear such comments all the time from many people—young and old—about many books, but these comments have come as a revelation to me, so indulge me for just two more. From Miami, Florida: "A few weeks ago, I picked up Sounder at our traveling library. My son and daughter are 11 and 12, and quite capable of reading themselves, but there are times when I want to read to them. And so—I did. Returning it to the library was something I regretted having to do. But it was not the end of Sounder. On April 18 my children gave a copy to me. It was a wonderful present—most wonderful."
And one last note from Sharon, age eleven, whose librarian had read the book one Saturday morning: "Our librarian was the first to discover this terrific book. It was sad and a few of us cried silently. At first, I closed my ears to the book, but then I realized that I should listen."
I should like to end by saying that as long as you remain, and your audience of Sharons remains, we are not lost. Rather, we are found, renewed, and sustained.
1. Taken from Carolyn Horovitz' essay "Only the Best," Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956–1965 (Horn Book, Inc.).
Zena Sutherland (review date 1973)
SOURCE: Sutherland, Zena. Review of Sounder, by William H. Armstrong, illustrated by James Barkley. In The Best in Children's Books: The University of Chicago Guide to Children's Literature, 1966–1972, edited by Zena Sutherland, p. 52. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
[Sounder is t]he story of a black sharecropper's family, written with quiet strength and taut with tragedy. Having stolen to feed his family, the father is arrested at home; trying to protect his master, the dog—Sounder—is severely wounded. The oldest boy haunts the roads, seeking his father in chain gangs; he is taken in by a teacher and learns to read, his mother agreeing that he must have this chance. The boy bears with dignity the double burden of grief: the once-mighty animal crippled, and the shadow of a man who returns to die in silent desperation. Grim and honest, the book has a moving, elegiac quality that is reminiscent of the stark inevitability of Greek tragedy.
John Rowe Townsend (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: Townsend, John Rowe. "Realism, American Style." In Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature, p. 275. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1983.
[In the following excerpt, Townsend examines some of the criticism leveled against Sounder, particularly the problematic issue of Armstrong's role as a white author writing about the "black experience."]
The white writer to whose book the 'black experience' is the basic material is on perilous ground. William H. Armstrong's Newbery Medal-winning Sounder (1969)—about the poor black sharecropper, arrested for stealing food for his hungry children in a hard winter, and about the great coon dog, shot and terribly injured but holding on to life until his return—is attributed by the author to the grey-haired black man who taught him to read fifty years ago; but this has not saved it from being comprehensively trounced for lack of authenticity, white supremacism, and emasculation of the black.
Some of the charges made against Sounder seem obviously misguided; the fact that the sharecropper's family are referred to as the father, the mother, the boy, rather than by name is surely not because 'within the white world, deep-seated prejudice has long denied human individualization to the black person'. It must have been the author's intention that his characters should appear universal, not tied down to a local habitation and a name. A charge of lack of authenticity is hard to evaluate; it depends on what you mean by authenticity. To me it has always seemed that truth in a novel is truth to the enduring, underlying realities of human nature; and that these enduring realities are recognizable whatever the context. It is not necessary or desirable that writer or critic be restricted to what he knows from direct experience; otherwise no man could write about women, no middle-aged person could write about old age; no one at all could write about the past. It is the task of the creative imagination to leap across such frontiers.
Sounder, though by no means a masterpiece, is a brief, bleak book that tells an elemental story of hardship, suffering and endurance; tells it memorably and well.
Nancy Huse (essay date summer 1987)
SOURCE: Huse, Nancy. "Sounder and its Readers: Learning to Observe." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 12, no. 2 (summer 1987): 66-9.
[In the following essay, Huse explores how different age and racial groups react to Armstrong's Sounder, dividing readers into two groups—"participants" and "observers." Huse asserts that, "[t]he need for stories by minority writers, and the need for both participant and observer readings of them, becomes urgent when works like Sounder are understood in their historical and aesthetic contexts."]
Recent criticism suggests that there are other paths for those opposed to censorship to take than "defending attacked books" by ridiculing those reader comments that criticize classics as racist, sexist, or class-biased. Wayne Booth and Judith Fetterley have both argued that readers, at times, must actively depart from the values in given texts, and that this departure enhances the literary experience. Increasing recognition of our culture's racism may mean that, as in the case of William H. Armstrong's Newbery-winning Sounder, the norms of readers will increasingly stand in opposition to the norms of a work which addresses an area of shifting cultural values. For example, many readers of Sounder know that the separation of Americans on the basis of race has not, as its author's preface states, become "a world of long ago … almost totally changed" (viii).
Discovering the true meaning of a text is, according to Hans Gadamer, an infinite process, one that involves moving to higher states of reflection and self-criticism as time passes (253). Entering into dialogue about a work is essential to the act of understanding it as a classic, and in fact the widespread engagement of a culture with a text in this manner is one of the ways critics identify a work as a classic. Generally in this century, classics have also been viewed as meeting aesthetic criteria based on innovation or evocativeness in language, but this notion assumes that the language of a text is, in some way, significant to cultural understanding. Thus, readers play an active role in producing the meaning of given texts, as Wolfgang Iser and Louise Rosenblatt have shown; they may also have insights which clarify, add to, or correct an author's. Using insights from my students, reviewers, and "issues" critics, I propose to show that Sounder, a book which meets traditional (or New Critical) aesthetic criteria quite well, takes on more accurate, albeit painful, meaning as a classic when various groups of readers draw from their personal experience and knowledge to assess it. The "attack" on the book is crucial to its continuing life, for the "attack" opens up its potential, as literature, to criticize human institutions. Readers can alter the form of this book, moving it from the realm of fable to irony; the boy's quest for manhood is unsuccessful, some readers chorus convincingly. A book like Sounder —by nature of its classic status—demands to be supplemented and surpassed by other works, specifically by the works of Black writers.
A few years ago, I taught Sounder in a college class. The heaviness of the atmosphere that day, the unre-solvable sense of guilt and pity not subsumed into a recognition of the protagonist's imaginative powers, left me wondering why I had to act as advocate for the book with my white, middle class students. Though they had enjoyed examining the lyric beauty and heroic structure of other children's books, their questions about Sounder moved away from those considerations. Was the book "true"? Why had a white man chosen to write it? What effect did it have on other readers? Why was the film version so different in tone? Something about this discussion kept me from assuming that I had "understood" the book better than the students, for they were asking Booth's well-known questions, who is writing, and to whom?
Some answers to my students' dissatisfaction with the book are implied in the history of its reception by reviewers. There is a sharp difference between the reactions of "establishment" (mainstream newspaper and library) reviewers, and those publishing in alternative media such as Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. Most of those who welcomed Sounder in 1969 and created the context in which it won the Newbery responded, as I had, to its links with classical literature and the Greek ideal. These were usually alluded to by such expressions as "epic quality," "dignity," and "stark inevitability of Greek tragedy" (Horn Book and Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books). The namelessness of the characters seemed to indicate the universal coming-of-age theme. (The idea that "boy into man" is not a universal experience hadn't yet been made clear by feminist critics.) Alluding to the sadness of tone, reviewers cited the book's "far-away" quality and the "emotionally exhausting" experience of reading it; these were the only comments echoing my students' responses. In light of what the other group of reviewers would say, the mainstream remarks about the social realities described by the novel should be noted. The Saturday Review writer commended "the nameless courageous poor" who face indignity with courage; the Commonweal reviewer thought the book would "do more for the Black cause" than ninety years of Civil Rights marches. Only Kirkus, of all the mainstream reviews, rejected Sounder, citing its overt and obvious symbolism, its playing on sympathy rather than empathy. June Jordan, a Black poet and novelist reviewing for the New York Times, recognized the lyric quality of the work and its basic truthfulness, yet listed almost a page of questions about the silence of the family, the centrality of the dog, the anonymity of the storyteller—questions to be asked over and over by educated Black readers of the book.
Sounder fails as rhetoric (and thus in some ways as story) with the adult readers who hold that literature representing minority experience must be written by minorities themselves if it is to perform the "imaginary correction of deficient reality" Iser claims is the function of literature (85). Examining these readers' comments in light of certain of Iser's premises shows that, far from misunderstanding the literary structure of Sounder, they have offered an interpretation based on the actual nature of the text, and thus make possible a better understanding of the book as a classic. What the work leaves out, includes, and negates can be a focus for an "educated interpretation" of Sounder. Unlike "establishment" reviewers, this second group takes issue with the use of the individual hero construct to show the youth becoming a mediator between his poor family and the whites who, still enforcing segregation in churches, have nevertheless been the cultural deliverers, via Montaigne, from his bitter and violent rage. Armstrong is actually pleasantly conventional in developing this theme, for readers who believe that the representation of the individual's triumph through mature rationality constitutes what needs to be said, or as Iser puts it, what is left out of dominant thought systems (73). Certainly, Western literature consistently presents this perspective. But to readers who are more observers than participants, people more aware of social and historical conditions than is the implied reader of Sounder, the pull of the story is away from what is included to what is left out. Perhaps even more than the writer in his most careful moments, they are in a position to know what that is.
Left out of Sounder are the very things which need to be said in the face of the oppression the book depicts. Unlike the Greek tragedy it is said to resemble, the book offers no communal response to outrage. The man, remembering and shaping for a white audience that constituted his employers, attributes his mental salvation to differentiating himself from his family through education. The observer-readers, unimpressed by the conventional Oedipal myth at the heart of the book, supply instead factual material which points up its emptiness for them. It is known, for example, that slaves were not passive when their families were broken up, nor—as W. E. B. DuBois has shown—have Blacks been docile in the face of oppression (Schwartz 90). Rae Alexander of the NAACP objected particularly to the denial of role models to Black children and to the family's diminished capacity as an instrument for change (62). The notion that a book ought to be truthful, ought to include the voices of those it purports to represent, and ought to provide affirmation through admirable heroes are, I think, literary as well as political or social comments, well in line with the thinking of many well-known critics (Booth, Lukacs, Jameson, Kolodny are a few of the names which spring to mind).
Observer-readers have reacted favorably to the film version of Sounder, with its warm, loving family, the support from other Black families (unquestionably absent from the novel), and even the depiction of a woman teacher, not a man, as the boy's mentor. The guilt and pathos a participant reading evokes are undercut by the film's inference that the boy's family, and other members of the Black community, contributed toward his survival and final perspective. Insights, in fact, drawn from observer readings seem to have affected the filmmaker's decisions. Reading as an observer rather than a participant in Sounder —reading in the critical rather than the submissive mode—is a normal stance for a second reading by anyone. What follows is essentially my "second" reading of Sounder, done in a context of other readers' responses to the work, but incorporating the emphases my background as a (white) literature teacher leads me to make. Even with my attempts to reread with an observer consciousness, however, this reading is a partial one—not only because of limitations of space, but because commentary from still other readers could enhance my ability to discover the meaning of this classic—i.e. evocative—work (Kuznets).
Negative reviewers have drawn attention to the importance of close reading, a very traditional literary method, by noting the details which make them impatient with the text and its exclusive focus on suffering. The use of passive hymns rather than authentic and resistant spirituals; the absence of any comment on the economic effects of the father's imprisonment; the mother's defeated "I reckon he was born to lose" instead of any anger—these are some of the observations I find helpful (Schwartz 90). For my own part, the analysis of what is included, the literary allusions and social norms actually present in the text, seems important; Iser notes that the presence of the familiar signals what is undergoing transformation (69). Two familiar sources for Sounder —literature, and the notion of the family—undergo transformation in the text.
The Odyssey resonates in Sounder. The faithful dog Argus is the associative reference for the telling of the Black man's story. This mention of Odysseus' welcome and recognition by Argus constitutes an important gap in the text, a place where readers need to construct meaning. For readers familiar with The Odyssey, associations and pride of Odysseus at the moment when his ability to reclaim his home, wife, and son are still subject to his proving the identity the dog instinctively knows. Odysseus will perform stunning feats of strength, skill and wit to persuade his human counterparts of the reality the old dog knows without proof other than his master's physical presence. That the parallel with Sounder does not extend very far is clear, especially in the context of dissent from observer readers. Initially, as a participant, I relished the repetition of the quest of Telemachus in the person of the boy who must watch his father's humiliation and his dog's faithful suffering before he traces cyclical paths to find, not his father and a home to inherit, but a heritage his parents had little to do with creating, except through the physical labor which makes possible its ideals.
Sounder suggests a home for the spirit between the physical realities of black and white which falls far short of the unified world Odysseus reclaims and restores. The alteration of the tale, it may be argued, simply reflects the transition from the epic to the novel. Yet the effect of the alteration is to make this an extremely somber tale. The fact that the boy's curious and intelligent mind has virtually no model in his parents and their circumstances distances him still further from the Telemachus/Odysseus parallel. Can the boy be said to reclaim an honorable heritage from usurpers who want what he has an intrinsic right to? In fact, the key allusion is a major way of moving the new story in a direction opposite to that of its model. Like many modern works, this one focuses on the aloneness of the hero. Though many readers may not realize that Sounder is a deliberate departure from an extremely joyful pattern, there are many other cues which initiate the reader into the image of passive suffering, lonely growth, and spiritual quest the book offers. While Odysseus and Telemachus are empowered by their roots, everything in the novel is about leaving, differentiating from home and parents in order to gain the powers of memory and language which reside outside of the silent cabin. Since many of Sounder 's participant readers have cited its references to the epic as one of its merits, it is important to understand the effect of the allusion, an effect dramatized by the dissenting readers' refusal to engage in the work.
Other literary allusions in Sounder, to Joseph and to King David, suggest the boy's identification with these individuals. The voice of Sounder himself is aligned, by the boy, with the wind that told David he had divine protection in battle. Though the story suggested by The Odyssey is altered away from its inherited strength, the Biblical stories of men protected by divine choice, and the implied order of creation—nature serving the needs of "man"—are not open to the same scrutiny. The boy will triumph by embracing the literate ideal represented by Montaigne, not the oral tradition of the boy's mother, who creates no tales herself but prepares for his initiation into a version of Christian humanism. Participant readers see the poor boy elevated through these associations with David and Joseph, but for observers—whose sense of the boy's inherent worth may already be a part of their ordinary consciousness without the supporting allusions—another ironic dimension may be the opening description of the old man attending a white church because no preacher came regularly to the black one. The Biblical allusions thus have negative as well as positive connotations, depending on what readers bring to them, but the thematic structure of the text seems to validate the Biblical parallels while undercutting the epic allusion; readers who resist the Biblical parallels seem to be exercising a corrective critique to the assumptions of the author about what constitutes heroism (e.g. patient submission/wisdom vs. active resistance/revolution). As Lois Kuznets points out, however, Armstrong's view of racism includes the intensely sorrowful outcome of the original manuscript, in which the old black teacher is killed by bigots. Armstrong's publishers chose to divide the material into two novels; the second of these, Sour Land (1972), thus emphasizes the injustice done to blacks by identifying the hero specifically with Christ (Kuznets 29). Yet it is Sounder, without its sequel (or, from the author's perspective, its ending) which is considered a classic children's book. Participant readers of this work are tutored in the humanity of the poor black child, his inherent intelligence; observers are noting that the boy is not shown in adulthood as a leader of his own people, but as one elevated to a place they cannot come. The absence of black voices from the work, of their own storytelling and survival traditions, become to the newly observant reader a reminder of what Sounder is: the well-intentioned and well-crafted statement of a white writer to a white audience about the potential of education and acculturation to resolve a painful present into a consoling past and promising future.
Iser's work helps to explain the selectivity of and response to the text of Sounder. As a way of complementing reality, bringing out what is excluded from generally accepted thought systems, fiction usually operates "on or just beyond the fringes of the thought prevalent" at the time of the writing (73). A selection from the social system, like the ones from literature, offers the framework the reader must use to organize one of the possible meanings of the work (86). The social norms, violated or distorted in the text by means of selectivity, engage the reader in scrutiny of what, at least for participant readers, has previously passed unnoticed. Each reader experiences the same framework, yet constructs the aesthetic object in accordance with his or her social and cultural code. Readers who experience the silent, gentle, and helpless family in Sounder engage in dialectic with what is presented, making associations drawn from personal background to allow a transformed reality to take shape. If Iser is correct that what is present in texts is there to alter, by indirection, the reader's own reality, then it is helpful to wonder what is being suggested by the silence in the cabin and the imaginative intensity of the boy. For readers who have not perceived the sensitivity and pain of being poor in a racist society, the impressively sad and lyric tone of Sounder may well be a contradiction of familiar impressions. The "bad nigger" image, for example, exemplified in Wright's Bigger Thomas for the purpose of revealing its causes, is here denied or negated firmly. The father's inept thievery is offered in context of the family's hunger; he is shown to have been lucky in the past, finding Sounder as a pup, winning a pig in a shooting contest. His mastery at hunting and shooting could have been presented as indications of his latent power and threatening presence in a world which allows him no room to live as a man. Yet this is very carefully omitted from the framework; despite his desperate move of stealing food, the father is never shown as anything but an image of manliness and mystery for the boy—an image which is altered toward ineffectuality when the strong hands prove to be powerless. Sounder corrects fears whites harbor about blacks by presenting them as people to be pitied. While it may be argued that the book does acknowledge the unjust order by the isolation of the old teacher in his balcony seat at church, it is the observer readers who have pointed this out, not the participant readers/reviewers celebrating the religious and cultural unity portrayed in the boy's ascent toward literacy.
Some questions about the boy's family and their circumstances can be profitably raised. What, for example, can we rightly make of the boy's savoring—over and over—the fact that his mother washes his pillowcase and sheet every week? This is certainly part of the immediacy of sensation at the beginning of Sounder which is left behind in maturity, subsumed into philosophical and religious experience; it is important in developing the mind of the protagonist. Yet, why this detail? Stressing the cleanliness of the family not only stretches the imagination (compare the conditions of the white sharecroppers fully recreated in Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) but seems present in order to help participant readers see the boy as "one" with them. It is another intense negation of a common assumption; yet, well-meant attempts to describe the poor as clean, law-abiding and dignified must at least be examined. Corrections like these, according to Iser, evoke something not found in the outside world (92); the work's emphasis on such details—besides the clean sheets, one can think of the silent children, the family mute when the sheriff comes, the mother humming rather than talking or crying when she is troubled—all are structured to assist the reader in losing an illusion (132). Assuming that literature does work indirectly, it is clear that the reader's own beliefs are assumed to be in tension with such details. For participant readers, the literary imagery of Sounder extends their existing knowledge of racism in the antebellum South and of the possibilities for the human mind; for observer readers, the extension of such knowledge is something like waving the pe-rennial red flag before the bull, intensifying but not enlarging or transforming their understanding of racism and human potential, and presenting a "solution" which seems to avoid the need for widespread social change.
After trying to read as an observer, I sense anew that the sad silence of the cabin, the haunting, mournful lyricism of the narration, are the deformations and distortions of reality common to literature. I have a sharper image of the reality behind the story because I see how shaped the story is, how it conceals in the process of revealing. Details unnoticed before add to the complexity of the work: the patch motif, sign of the boy's observant vision and imagination, also persuades that this family was poorer than their neighbors—or is it that they were thriftier? If poorer, why? If thriftier, why? No responses are given in the story; this is one of the gaps the reader must use to forge links among elements. Like the clean laundry, the detail serves the focus on the imagination, but it also asks readers to take a certain attitude—perhaps sympathy—toward the family whose father is "caught" on a patch. Other details which suggest the family's links to nature are obviously selective as well. The deprivation of the family is intrinsic to the story Armstrong wanted to tell, and also to the one he unwittingly told about his social views and political understanding at a moment of our history.
Observer readers move Armstrong's book into a stronger position as a classic when they point out its distinctive shape as an act of guilt, an expression of pity, and a hope for reconciliation in terms defined by a dominant conservative culture. In addition to this link with our past and present, this book can ask what possibilities for freedom do exist through imagination and memory—including the imaginations and memories of the oppressed. The need for stories by minority writers, and the need for both participant and observer readings of them, becomes urgent when works like Sounder are understood in their historical and aesthetic contexts.
Alexander, Rae. "What Is a Racist Book." The Black American in Books for Children. Ed. Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodward. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1972.
Armstrong, William H. Sounder. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Booth, Wayne C. "Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and Feminist Criticism." Critical Inquiry September 1982.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Continuum, 1975.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
Kuznets, Lois. "Sweet and Sour Land: A Critical Comparison of the Sounder Novels." Illinois English Bulletin Spring 1978. Kuznets also was the respondant to this paper at MMLA, 1984.
Reviews of Sounder: Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books December 1969: 54; Commonweal November 21, 1969: 257; Kirkus Review October 1, 1969: 1063; Horn Book December, 1969: 673; New York Times Book Review October 26, 1969: 42; Saturday Review December 20, 1969: 30.
Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
Schwartz, Albert V. "Sounder: A Black or White Tale?" Cultural Conformity in Books for Children. Ed. Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodward. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1972.
David J. Amante (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Amante, David J. "Sounder." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 3, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 1265-271. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, 1990.
[In the following essay, Amante offers an introduction to the thematic and plot elements of Sounder, arguing that Armstrong creates two dimensions in the novel's setting—"one psychological, the other physical."]
About the Author
William Howard Armstrong was born September 14, 1914, near Lexington, Virginia. He was raised on a farm in the lovely, history-steeped Shenandoah valley, and the descriptions of southern life in his most famous novel, Sounder, reflect his Christian upbringing in the rural South. The strong individuals that play major roles in Armstrong's fiction can be traced back to the history of his neighborhood; Stonewall Jackson, the famous steelwilled Confederate general killed in the Civil War, had taught Sunday school at the same church Armstrong attended as a boy. Military history was a part of Armstrong's childhood because several Civil War battles had been fought near his home.
His love of history was cemented at the Augusta Military Academy, a private military high school that he attended from 1928 to 1932. According to his family, Armstrong wrote his first story as a cadet at Augusta, but the story was so good that his teachers falsely accused him of plagiarism. Later, the story was published in the literary magazine at Hampden-Sydney College, where Armstrong edited both this magazine and the college newspaper. He graduated from Hampden-Sydney with honors in history in 1936 and also studied history at the University of Virginia.
Armstrong married Martha Stonestreet Williams in 1942. Three years later, he became a history teacher at Kent School, a private school in Kent, Connecticut. His wife died when his children were very young and Armstrong raised his family as a single parent. He has been a teacher most of his adult life and also raises sheep on his farm.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Armstrong focused on writing history books and study skills guides rather than fiction. He wrote his fictional masterpiece, Sounder, in 1969, in the heat of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It won both the Newbery Medal and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970, and was called the best children's book of the year by the New York Times. Sounder received high praise for its tragic and understated beauty, its fine descriptions, and its depiction of a boy's experiences with his dog and with the racism in his society. Like Armstrong's subsequent fiction for young adults, it portrays a strong individual who strives to overcome racial injustice.
In the early 1970s, Armstrong wrote two more books that echo the characters and plot of Sounder. Sour Land features Moses Waters, a black man of near-mythic goodness, as its hero. The Mills of God set in Appalachia during the Great Depression, has a boy and a dog as central figures and provides vivid descriptions of the era and setting.
During the 1970s, Armstrong wrote three books about historical figures: Barefoot in the Grass, a folksy biography of another strong individual he admired, the painter Grandma Moses; Hadassah: Esther the Orphan Queen, a fictionalized account of the Old Testament figure Esther who started life as an orphan but rose to become a queen; and The Education of Abraham Lincoln, which dramatizes Abraham Lincoln's early life. None of Armstrong's later historical portraits or novels were as highly praised or as popular as Sounder.
Sounder reflects Armstrong's personal history, his knowledge of southern rural life, and his admiration for strong individuals. Concentrating on an innocent child's perspective, the story provides graphic descriptions of the cruelties inflicted upon a black sharecropper family trapped by poverty and lack of education. Sounder is the tragic and moving story of an unnamed boy who is devoted to his family and their faithful hound, Sounder. His father, jailed for stealing food to feed the starving family, is put on a chain gang that is constantly moved around the state, and the boy sets out on a quest to find him. The story also involves the boy's loving relationship with Sounder, who is named for his resonant howl that reverberates across the countryside.
Sounder begins shortly before Christmas, in a small cabin on a poor, desolate farm somewhere in the American South, where the boy lives with his parents and siblings. There are two dimensions to the setting—one psychological, the other physical. The exact place and time of the story are deliberately vague, but Sounder probably takes place around 1900, before tractors and machines were common on small farms. The psychological setting, the young boy's mind, is more precisely defined.
Themes and Characters
The unnamed boy is the book's central consciousness and only well-developed character. The boy is first seen as a lonely child, perhaps six or seven years old, who idolizes his father and loves to hunt with him and Sounder. Rather than providing a description of the boy, Armstrong allows the boy's thoughts and observations to reveal that he is strong, curious, and good-hearted. His family is illiterate, and he longs to learn to read. After Sounder is shot, the boy comforts and tries to help him, demonstrating his devotion to the dog. When his father is unfairly jailed, the boy is adventurous enough to leave his mother and his small cabin and embark on a quest to find his father and to learn how to read.
The boy eventually finds a teacher who becomes a substitute father. The boy develops into an unselfish, hard-working teen-ager who takes care of his mother and the other children. He never forgets his roots and returns from school in the summers to work the family farm and pay the rent. The boy stoically endures pain and failure, overcoming all setbacks with a quiet nobility.
The courageous and faithful dog Sounder is "a mixture of Georgia redbone hound and bulldog." Both Sounder's bark and his heart are noble and larger than life. Armstrong describes Sounder's melodious bark as haunting the countryside: "But it was not an ordinary bark. It filled up the night and made music as though the branches of all the trees were being pulled across silver strings." The dog, a wonderful hunter, suffers a crippling gunshot wound when he bravely goes to his master's aid as the father is being arrested. By drawing parallels between the fates of Sounder and the father, Armstrong makes the point that humans are treated like dogs in the racist early twentieth-century South. Both are subjected to cruel and unprovoked violence that cripples and eventually kills them.
The boy's mother is a long-suffering and hard-working woman who believes that fate is too powerful a force to resist. She takes in laundry and shells walnuts to eke out a meager existence. Because she does not want her son to leave home, she discourages him from learning to read. The mother constantly hums or sings the woeful song "That Lonesome Road." A limited, sad figure, she talks, like everyone in the story, in short laconic sentences, and tries to hide her emotions.
The father appears only at the beginning and the end of the story. At the beginning, he is a strong, resourceful, and loving man who finds joy in hunting. He hunts not just for sport but to put meat on his family's table. As the story opens, game is scarce and the family is starving. In desperation, the father steals a ham and sausages to feed his family. The father loves his family passionately and risks his own freedom so they can eat. Brutally arrested and treated like an animal in front of his family, he is ashamed to speak to his son when the boy comes to see him in the county jail. At the end of the story, the father returns, crippled from a mining accident after years of labor on a chain gang. A man broken by his society's brutal response to a small crime, he dies while hunting with Sounder.
Armstrong uses the young boy and his family to dramatize the evils of racism and poverty. Notions of social injustice and unnecessary cruelty are developed through precise and realistic descriptions of the father's arrest, the boy's visit to him in jail, and the incident of the father's crippling. The boy's courage in confronting racism, his endurance in the face of opposition, his unselfish love for his family, and his love of learning are traits Armstrong promotes as necessary for the survival of humankind. The boy learns to read in order to help himself overcome his loneliness and to break the chains of ignorance that imprison his family. Thus, the book is also about the power of literature and stories to comfort people and to help them deal with hardships.
By leaving the family unnamed and by keeping the exact setting somewhat unclear, Armstrong makes the story more universal. The vagueness of the world outside the cabin reflects the limited vision and knowledge of the novel's illiterate protagonist. Armstrong uses a third-person limited omniscient point of view that focuses on how the boy thinks and reacts to events. This method of setting the story in a person's mind and trying to imitate the ways his mind works is called "psychological realism." The boy's consciousness and innocence form the lens through which readers view his world.
Armstrong's descriptive powers are a strength in Sounder. His precise images are especially effective in portraying aspects of the family's daily routine. For example, his vivid description of them harvesting walnuts elevates a mundane activity to an almost mystical ritual:
Inside the cabin, the boy's mother sat by the stove, picking kernels of walnuts with a bent hairpin. The woman watched each year for the walnuts to fall after the first hard frost. Each day she went with the children and gathered all that had fallen. The brownish-green husks, oozing their dark purple stain, were beaten off on a flat rock outside the cabin. On the same rock, the nuts were cracked after they had dried for several weeks in a tin box under the stove. When kernel-picking time came, and before it was dark each day, the boy or the father took a hammer with a home-made handle, went to the flat rock, and cracked as many as could be kerneled in a night.
Armstrong also artfully links physical descriptions of farm life to the young boy's emotions, thus integrating elements of the natural landscape with the boy's inner life. One passage links the boy's loneliness at night to the wind blowing outside. By connecting loneliness, an emotion, to the natural force of the wind, Armstrong creates a striking contrast between the coldness and cruelty of the world outside the family to the warmth and light of the world of the family inside the cabin.
The story is also well plotted and uses parallelism between the crippled dog and the father especially effectively. The father almost disappears from the story after his arrest, and the boy's attention shifts to Sounder. The boy waits weeks for Sounder to return, and when the mangled dog hobbles home on three legs, he is nurtured by both the boy and the mother. The dog's maiming foreshadows the father's injury. The wounded Sounder becomes a kind of stand-in for the father who is gone, and he absorbs some of the family's love for their missing father.
Because Armstrong attempts to realistically portray a racist society, he includes scenes of violence and racist language that readers may find offensive. Without excessive goriness, he graphically describes wounds to the dog and to the boy, and he also describes violent details of the boy's revenge fantasies.
Sounder has caused a controversy among critics over whether the depiction of the family is racist. In an article printed in Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard's The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, Albert Schwartz attacks Armstrong for imposing a "white fundamentalist" style and belief structure onto his representation of black culture. Schwartz contends that a white author who leaves his black characters unnamed is unconsciously expressing a form of "white supremacy" that "has long denied human individualism to the Black person." But critic and young adult author John Rowe Townsend defends Armstrong, arguing that omitting the characters' names simply universalizes their experiences. Whatever side one takes on the issue, there is little doubt that Sounder is a powerful reminder of the pain and suffering caused by racism.
The 1972 film version of Sounder is quite different from the novel. It stresses the unity of the black family and its strength, and the family members are given names. Paul Winfield plays the father, Nathan Morgan; Cicely Tyson plays the mother, Rebecca Morgan; and Kevin Hooks plays the boy, David Lee Morgan, who is older than the boy in the book. Also, a definite setting, Louisiana in 1933, is established. The mother is not the passive martyr depicted in the novel but is instead a courageous, powerful woman who encourages her son to learn to read. Nathan returns home after only one year and is not as horribly crippled as he is in the novel. Sounder is not as badly wounded either, and he accompanies the boy on his quest to find his father. The Hollywood version has a happy ending with the reunited family sending the boy to school. Several characters not in the novel appear in the film. Praised by most critics, the film is available on videotape.
A successful sequel to the film, Part 2, Sounder, was released in 1976 and starred Harold Sylvester, Ebony Wright, and Taj Mahal.
For Further Reference
Armstrong, Christopher, David Armstrong, and Mary Armstrong. "William Armstrong." Horn Book 46 (August 1970): 356-358. A short biographical article written by William Armstrong's three children.
Armstrong, William H. "Newbery Acceptance." Horn Book 46 (August 1970): 352-355. Armstrong's acceptance speech, in which he discusses his early reading habits and readers' reactions to Sounder.
Deutsch, Leonard J. "The Named and Unnamed." In Children's Novels and the Movies, edited by Douglas Street. New York: Ungar Publishing, 1983. An excellent comparison of the novel and film versions of Sounder.
Jordan, June Meyer. "Review." New York Times Book Review (October 26, 1969): 42. A very favorable review of Sounder.
MacCann, Donnarae, and Gloria Woodard, eds. The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972. Contains several articles that attack Armstrong's views of black people. The articles by Rae Alexander, Evelyn Geller, and Albert V. Schwartz give negative assessments of the novel.
Townsend, John Rowe. Written for Children: An Outline of English Language Children's Literature. Rev. ed. New York: Lippincott, 1974. Townsend defends Sounder, contending that the charges against the novel are misguided, and that the tale is both well told and well crafted.
Mara Ilyse Amster (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Amster, Mara Ilyse. "Armstrong, William." In Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, pp. 30-1. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
[In the following essay, Amster summarizes several of the critical arguments surrounding Armstrong's Sounder, noting the "extreme" ideological gap between the novel's supporters and detractors.]
William Armstrong was born in Lexington, Virginia. He credits the fact that he rode his horse in the Shenandoah Valley where Robert E. Lee once rode and attended the same church where Stonewall Jack-son once taught for his love of the land and its history. Armstrong says he grew up reading Bible stories and listening to those told by "a black man around [his family's] Virginia farmhouse table." He attended Hampden-Sydney College, where he was editor in chief of the college's literary magazine; after graduation he decided to teach rather than pursue a career in journalism. He became a history master at the Kent School in Connecticut in 1945. Walking down a moonlit road one autumn night, Armstrong heard a noise that reminded him of the "faint, distant voice of Sounder, the great coon dog" he had heard about years before from the storyteller at his table.
That memory grew into Armstrong's first children's book, Sounder (1969), a deceptively simple story about a poor black sharecropper's family and his hunting dog. When Sounder's master, the father, steals a ham to feed his starving family, the sheriff arrives at the family's shack to take the father away. In an act of defiance, Sounder attacks the lawman and is shot; he crawls off to die. The boy is abandoned, bereft of both his father and Sounder. He grows to manhood and learns to read but never stops waiting for the return of his father and Sounder. Both do return—wounded and tired—and the boy must accept the changes in his loved ones.
The critical reaction to Sounder was extreme. Awarded the Newbery Medal, the book was praised for its "epic quality" and "guaranteed a long life in the memories of all readers." The starkness of the writing, almost poetic at times, contrasts with the complex philosophical nature of the story; the slow narrative pace masks the depth of the emotions displayed by the main characters. Not all criticism was full of praise, however. "The style of Sounder is white fundamentalist; deep-seated prejudice … denies human individualization," reads one of the more scathing reviews. The complaint most often expressed questions why none of the characters but Sounder are named. While some claim that this raises the issue of white supremacy, leaving the characters nameless puts such strong emphasis on their universality that this could be any poor family in any small town. Sounder may be a bleak book, but it speaks honestly about cruelty, suffering, and enduring love.
Armstrong did eventually name his young hero in his sequel, Sour Land (1971); the boy—Moses Waters—has become a schoolteacher who is befriended by the white Stone family. The beautiful descriptions of nature and the peaceful tone with which Armstrong charts the passing of time and seasons is marred by the lackluster personalities of the main characters.
Armstrong continued to write children's books, but the critical response has been harsh. Barefoot in the Grass (1970), a biography of Grandma Moses, includes eight full-color plates that unfortunately fail to make up for the heavy writing. Hadassah: Esther the Orphan Queen (1972), a retelling of the Biblical story of Esther and Mordecai, was overburdened with long passages of Jewish history that hid the romantic quality of the tale. The MacLeod Place (1972) is an allegory about God and Nature that contains unnatural dialogue and a slow-moving plot. Such criticism is ironic considering that Armstrong never intended to write children's books. He says, "I didn't even know Sounder was a children's book until it was published." Nevertheless, the haunting wail of the wounded coon dog, Sounder, is one children and adults alike cannot easily forget.
Rebecca J. Joseph (review date March 1998)
SOURCE: Joseph, Rebecca J. Review of Sounder, by William H. Armstrong, illustrated by James Barkley. English Journal 87, no. 3 (March 1998): 92.
In this Newbery Award-winning novel [Sounder ], the life of an unnamed share-cropping family and their dog Sounder unfurls. The protagonist is the family's eldest son, who dreams of owning a book and being able to read so he won't be so lonely. The boy is not able to go to school because it is an eight-mile walk each way, and he is embarrassed by the condition of his clothes. When his father is arrested and imprisoned for stealing food for his starving family, the boy goes on various journeys to locate his father. On one journey, he finds a book in a trash can, and despite an injury to his hand, keeps carrying the book. When a kind teacher takes him in, the boy is shocked to see a shelf of books in the teacher's house; he never knew there were so many books in the world. The teacher offers to let the boy stay with him to go to school, forcing the boy to choose between staying with his family or getting an education. The boy's family realizes the importance of his going to school and supports his decision to leave home.
Additional coverage of Armstrong's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 18; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 9, 69, 104; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 117; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 4; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 7; and Something about the Author—Obituary, Vol. 111.
Armstrong, Christopher, David Armstrong, and Mary Armstrong. "William H. Armstrong." Horn Book Magazine 46, no. 4 (August 1970): 356-58.
Tribute to Armstrong by his three children, in honor of his reception of the Newbery Medal for Sounder.
Gillespie, John T. "Getting Along in the Family: William H. Armstrong's Sounder." In More Juniorplots: A Guide for Teachers and Librarians, pp. 1-4. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.
Offers a thematic and plot summary of Sounder.
Goldsmith, Francisca. "Armstrong, William." In The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, edited by Bernice E. Cullinan and Diane G. Person, pp. 40-1. New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 2001.
Presents an overview of Armstrong's life and writing career, focusing primarily on Sounder.
Sanderson, Jeannette. A Reading Guide to "Sounder" by William H. Armstrong. New York, N.Y.: Scholastic Reference, 2003, 64 p.
Critical reference book devoted to Sounder.
Schwartz, Albert V. "Sounder: A Black or a White Tale?" In The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, Second Edition, edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard, pp. 147-50. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1985.
Argues that, as a Caucasian, Armstrong is incapable of accurately depicting the African American experience in Sounder.
by William H. Armstrong
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel for young people set in the American South during the early 1900s; published in 1969,
When a black sharecropper is arrested for stealing a ham, his dog is severely injured. Both the dog and the man disappear—the man into the Southern penal system—leaving a young son to search for his father and the injured dog,
Born in 1914 in Lexington, Virginia, white educator William Armstrong worked as a school headmaster and won recognition from the Association of School Administrators. Although he claimed to prefer stone masonry and carpentry to writing, he wrote books expressing his educational philosophy, beginning with Study is Hard Work (1956). More informational books followed, with titles like Peoples of the Ancient World, 87 Ways to Help Your Child in School, and Tools of Thinking. Armstrong then decided to retell a simple story he had heard as a child, scoring an instant success with Sounder.
Agriculture in the South
The Southern economy was based on agriculture, particularly cash crops such as tobacco and cotton. Although the Union army destroyed many crops and fields during the Civil War, afterward Southern agriculture rebounded quickly and continued expanding in the early twentieth century. Slavery itself was gone, but Southern landowners continued to rely on black labor. From their own point of view, blacks now faced the problem of earning a living and caring for their families. They knew farming, so most of the freed blacks who stayed in the South ended up hiring themselves out to their old owners or trying their hand at sharecropping—leasing small plots of land to farm for which they paid rent in cash or in a portion of the crops raised.
At the turn of the twentieth century, blacks made up one-third of the Southern population and 40 percent of the farm laborers. However, few of them earned enough money to buy land for themselves. By 1910, out of 800,000 farms in the South, only 175,000 were owned by blacks. Like most black agricultural families there, the family in Sounder worked as sharecroppers.
The sharecropping family
Every member of a black sharecropping family contributed to the family welfare. The father not only worked in the fields but also hunted local game to supplement their food supply. In Sounder, the boy’s father hunts for possums and raccoons. Because the family needed its children to work and earn money, they helped in the field and with house-hold chores, which left them little time to attend school. In any event, these schools were often located quite far from the sharecroppers’ cabins.
The mother took care of the children, worked in the fields, engaged in small money-making activities, and prepared the meals. In some cases, she worked outside the home, as the mother in Sounder does, washing the curtains and sheets for the “people in the big houses” (Armstrong, Sounder, pp. 39, 55). His mother also cares for the boy and his three siblings, shells walnuts to sell at the store, and prepares the family meals.
Armstrong’s novel vividly describes the different foods that the sharecropping family eats, including corn mush, milk gravy and biscuits, sowbelly, possum, and pork. Rural black families generally ate a breakfast of corn mush and took their main meal at noon. To prepare the noontime dinner, the mother collected firewood and water. The meal generally consisted of leftovers from breakfast with some vegetables and meat if available. Most sharecropping families ate a proverbially simple diet of “meat, meal, and molasses” because they could not afford other foods (Jones, p. 89). The family shared a final light meal in the evening.
Sharecropper families lived in cabins on the landowner’s acreage. Often these cabins were old, poorly constructed shacks like the one described in Sounder, whose “roof sagged from the two rough posts which held it, almost closing the gap between his [the father’s] head and the rafters” (Sounder, p. 1). The small cabins commonly included only two rooms for the entire family. In Sounder, the boy shares a straw bed with his younger brother. Because the cabins were also very dark, often lit only by a small lantern, many sharecropper families went to bed early, shortly after dusk, unable to see well in the poor lighting.
White justice in the South
The prison system of the early twentieth century had one purpose: to punish the convicted criminals. One of the main methods of Southern punishment was hard labor, the punishment that the father receives in Sounder. In fact, most Southern felons served time not in prison but on county road gangs or chain gangs. Chain gangs were organized to relieve prison overcrowding and put prisoners to work in public service facilities such as fertilizer factories and stone quarries. The name comes from the fact that the prisoners actually wore leg irons and chains. Their living conditions were poor, characterized by long working hours, little food, and high mortality rates; the father in Sounder, for example, is sent to a quarry where a dynamite explosion injures him and kills twelve prisoners.
Southern prison guards were often cruel; prisoners were routinely beaten, and sometimes they simply disappeared in the prison camp system, whose white officers killed nearly half the blacks murdered by whites in the South during the early part of the twentieth century. While blacks in the South made up about 25 percent of the region’s total population, they contributed 40 percent of the prison population. This discrepancy grew out of extreme racial inequality before the law, by which blacks were given harsh sentences for even the most minor offenses., Sounder clearly reflects these injustices, using as a central event the father’s sentence of hard labor for stealing a ham. And when the boy in the novel visits a work camp, the guard hits him with a crowbar, crushing his hand.
Sharecroppers—who were both black and white—worked on the landowner’s property and received seed, tools, and housing from him. The landowner assigned each family a portion of land on which to plant and harvest crops such as sugar and cotton. In return, the family would give the owner one-half of the harvested crop. The landowner also often owned the local store, which charged high prices for items like flour. These high prices coupled with the payment to the landowner of as much as half the crop generally put the family in debt and forced them to live on the brink of starvation.
Southern black schools
Education for Southern blacks was generally an abysmal affair until the civil rights era. Southern schools were segregated, with black schools receiving little funding from the state. At the turn of the twentieth century, blacks represented one-third of the schoolage population in the South but received only a little more than a tenth of the public-school funds. Until the 1960s, this discrepancy would change little. In 1935, for example, ten Southern states reported spending an average of well under $20 per black student as opposed to about $50 per white student. Black parents in rural areas nevertheless sometimes relied on small schools such as the one depicted in Sounder, so that their children could learn and still be available for farm work.
Additionally, libraries were often closed to blacks. Young people hungry for education were forced to look for reading materials in other places—as the boy in Sounder does when he searches the trash piles and finds a book.
African American religion
The church was one of the most important institutions in the Southern African American community. In Sounder, the family attends church services at the nearby meeting house and also encounters other families at the annual church “meeting-house picnic” (Sounder, p. 17). Largely poverty-stricken and powerless, blacks turned to the, church to hear sermons and sing songs that held out the promise of a better life in the Christian heaven. In Sounder the boy’s mother often sings a hymn:
You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you.
(Sounder, p. 37)
Hymns like this stressed the contrasts between hardship in this world and spiritual rewards in the next, providing encouragement to a people facing the bleak prospects of poverty and racism.
Another important aspect of the Southern black religious experience was the folk sermon, in which the preacher told a biblical story and the audience spoke with him during certain parts of the story. Such tales were familiar to the congregation, as indeed they are to the boy in Sounder, who recalls the stories of David and Lazarus. Black preachers often traveled more frequently than farming laypeople, thereby serving the double function of minister and agent of communication. In Sounder the mother speculates that the traveling preacher may have some information about the father’s location during his imprisonment.
The story of Sounder is told in the third person, focusing on a Southern sharecropping family’s oldest boy. The boy lives in a run-down cabin on the landowner’s property with his father, mother, three younger siblings, and the family’s dog, Sounder, named for his loud bark. In order to feed the family, the father often goes hunting with the dog, who helps him by barking in the direction of animals and retrieving the game after the father shoots it. One winter, the possums and raccoons that the father normally hunts do not come out of their dens. Unable to bring back any meat, the father steals a ham and some pork to feed his family. He is caught and arrested by the local sheriff. When Sounder tries to follow his master, the angry sheriff shoots the dog, hitting him in the ear and shoulder. Sounder is badly injured and crawls off into the woods.
The father is taken to jail, and the mother returns the remainder of the stolen meat. Desperately missing both his father and Sounder, the boy visits his father in jail and searches the woods for Sounder. Months after the dog has been shot, he returns to the cabin, limping on three legs, unable to bark, and still healing from the injuries to his ear and shoulder. On Christmas Day, the boy takes his father a cake, which the guard, looking for a file or hacksaw, breaks into small pieces before giving it to the father. The father tells the boy, “I’ll be back ’fore long” but is then sent to do work in a labor camp (Sounder, p. 63). The boy walks to different work camps in order to look for his father, carrying a book he has found in some trash. At one camp, a prison guard crushes the boy’s hand with a crowbar, for no apparent reason other than to punish him for looking through a fence at the convicts. The boy stops at a black school in order to use the water pump to wash the blood from his hand and he meets a male school-teacher.
The teacher takes the boy to his home and bandages his wound. Impressed with the boy’s book, he asks the boy if he would like to attend school. Neither of the boy’s parents can read, and—though he desperately wants to attend school—the eight-mile walk is too long for him. The teacher tells the boy that, in exchange for doing chores, he can live in the teacher’s cabin so that he may attend the school. The boy discusses the arrangement with his mother, who agrees, providing the boy returns home in the summers to work in the fields.
Years after he is taken away, the father returns to the family’s cabin, lame and half-blind from a dynamite blast in the prison quarry. He sets out to go hunting with Sounder one final time. The boy’s father dies out in the woods and a few weeks later Sounder dies too.
The family’s values
Sounder paints a bleak picture of black life in the white South, and one that finds some relief only in the deep values that hold the family together. Chief among these are loyalty, stoicism, and—perhaps most importantly—the boy’s hunger for education. Like the hymn that the mother sings, these values stress a deeper value still: self-reliance. Mutual loyalty allows the family to function as a unit that can rely on itself. Similarly, their stoicism allows various family’s members to rely on themselves as individuals when away from the family. Finally, the boy’s hunger for education holds out promise that he will be able to rely on his own training to make a better life for himself, despite the obstacles of poverty and racism.
By the end of the novel, the boy has learned to read the book that he found in the trash. In it, he has found a message:
“Only the unwise think that what is changed is dead.” He had asked the teacher what it meant, and the teacher had said that if a flower blooms once, it goes on blooming somewhere forever. It blooms on for whoever has seen it blooming. It was not quite clear to the boy then, but it was now.
(Sounder, p. 114)
After the boy has grown up, we are told, he will hold memories of the story’s events, recalling them over and over. Like the blooming flower, his father and Sounder will go on living as long as he holds the memory of them in his mind. Armstrong’s novel thus explicitly links the boy’s education—his learning to read—with the chance that he might wring meaning and comfort from the terrible events of his boyhood.
AN ARKANSAS PRISONER FEARS MISTREATMENT
This is a hard place. I am a fread all the time that someone is going to hurt me. The Laws [police] is so hard on the Prison[er] Easpecial the colard [colored] one—they are Beating and lashing all the time... some of these Laws outer be in jail themselves.
(Kirby, pp. 221-22)
In the novel’s materially desolate world, only spiritual strength allows the boy and his family to persevere. As a white Southerner, Armstrong had a perspective on racism that was unusual for a white author of a story featuring blacks; most stories of Southern blacks have been written by black authors. The emphasis on self-reliance in Sounder might be seen as reflecting the belief that blacks in the South needed to rely on themselves for help, because white society was not likely to change.
William Armstrong grew up in the Green Hill district of Virginia. As he relates in the Author’s Note before the novel begins, his father sometimes hired an old black man of the area to do odd jobs. The old man was highly religious, and since preachers rarely visited the area’s black church, he “came often to our white man’s church and sat alone in the balcony,” Arm-strong recalls (Author’s Note, Sounder, p. viii).
Sometimes the minister would call on this eloquent, humble man to lead the congregation
in prayer. He would move quietly to the foot of the balcony steps, pray with the simplicity of the Carpenter of Nazareth, and then return to where he sat alone, for no other black people ever came to join him.
(Author’s Note, Sounder, p. viii)
The old man, who had grown up in the South after slavery, was also a teacher, and he taught Armstrong how to read. He also told Armstrong stories from the Bible, as well as Greek myths. Armstrong’s favorite story was about a loyal coon dog named Sounder. When he began to write books, Armstrong decided to tell the story that his neighbor shared with him, stating “It is the black man’s story, not mine.... It was history— his history” (Author’s Note, Sounder, p. viii).
At the end of the novel, the boy’s possibilities for growth balance the story’s sad and tragic events, and we briefly see the boy as a grown man, recalling everything that happened. Arm-strong lets his readers suppose that the boy in the story grows up to be much like the old black man who inspired Armstrong as a child. In Sour Land, the sequel to Sounder, the boy has in fact grown up and plays just such a role for the children of a white farmer.
The Moynihan Report
In a report written in 1965, Daniel P. Moynihan, a future U.S. senator, discussed the state of the black family in America. In the report, titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, he suggested that the black family was disorganized and “deteriorating,” citing the high number of black families headed only by the mother (Berry and Blassingame, p. 71). Moynihan also argued that slavery and its effects were the causes of the black family’s plight. His report received much criticism, with many critics questioning the validity of his evidence about single-parent black families. Armstrong probably knew of this highly publicized controversy when he set out to write Sounder. In his portrayal, he shows the black family as a strong, loyal, nuclear structure in which both parents and children work and sacrifice for each other’s welfare. The facts coincided more closely with Armstrong’s portrayal than with the impression conveyed by Moynihan’s report. Most black families in the 1960s included both a husband and a wife; in 1970, the majority (67 percent) of black children were living with two parents.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants, and other public places. This act changed the legal status of blacks dramatically. “Separate but equal”—the infamous formula by which the Supreme Court had legitimized segregation in its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896— had been overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education. Afterward blacks began to take advantage of new civil rights laws by enrolling in better schools and by exercising the right to vote freely without dealing with the obstacles like literacy tests or poll taxes.
The 1960s movement to integrate public facilities in the South stands in sharp contrast to the days of segregation portrayed in Sounder. In the novel, the segregation rules that prevail in the South at the time prohibit the boy from entering the jailhouse through the front door when he visits his father; the boy also attends a segregated school with other black children.
Education in the 1960s
The official attitude in regard to education for blacks had changed greatly by the time Sounder was written. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a war on poverty in America that led to the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a year later. This act allocated money for both remedial education (Title I funds) and preschool education (the Head Start program), measures that greatly affected black youth. The government, by way of the act, was taking responsibility for helping young people compensate for the disadvantages associated with poverty. In the case of poor black people, it was a condition rooted in their history. The government was, in effect, helping their children compensate for disadvantages that harked back to the segregation and slavery suffered by past generations.
Published in 1969, Sounder received positive reviews from most critics, who praised its depiction of the many injustices that blacks encountered in the early part of the twentieth century. A reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor likened it to Greek tragedy, saying, “Adults and mature young readers alike will find in the boy’s bittersweet memories a parable for our times” (Samudio, p. 43).
A few critics argued that the novel reinforced prejudices by giving no character, other than the dog, a name—thus supposedly denying the individuality of African Americans. Others argued that by leaving the human characters nameless, Armstrong lent his simple tale a timeless and universal quality. Similarly the story was criticized as being too violent for young readers but also praised because of its realistic portrayal of harsh conditions during a certain time and era.
Several critics applauded Armstrong’s writing style, particularly his vivid language, citing such passages as the following description of the mother’s lips: “When the mother was troubled her lips were rolled inward and drawn long and thin.... But when she sang or told stories, her lips were rolled out, big and warm and soft” (Sounder, p. 14).
In 1970 Sounder won the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in young people’s literature.
Armstrong, William H. Sounder. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
Jaynes, Gerald David and Robin M. Williams, Jr., eds. Blacks and American Society. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989.
Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women and the Family from Slavery to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1986.
Kirby, Jack Temple. Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1987.
Levy, Peter B., ed. Documentary History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Greenwood 1992.
Owens, Charles E. and Bell, Jimmy, eds. Blacks and Criminal Justice. Lexington, Ken.: Lexington Press, 1977.
Samudio, Josephine, ed. Book Review Digest, Vol. 65. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1970.
Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. New Orleans: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
Sounder ★★★★ 1972 (G)
The struggles of a family of black sharecroppers in rural Louisiana during the Depression. When the father is sentenced to jail for stealing in order to feed his family, they must pull together even more, and one son finds education to be his way out of poverty. Tyson brings strength and style to her role, with fine help from Winfield. Moving and well made, with little sentimentality and superb acting from a great cast. Adapted from the novel by William Armstrong. 105m/C VHS, DVD . Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, Kevin Hooks, Taj Mahal, Carmen Mathews, James Best, Janet MacLachlan; D: Martin Ritt; W: Lonnie Elder III; C: John A. Alonzo; M: Taj Mahal. Natl. Bd. of Review '72: Actress (Tyson); Natl. Soc. Film Critics '72: Actress (Tyson).