The Children of Sisyphus, 1964
An Absence of Ruins, 1967
Die the Long Day, 1972
The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Development, and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica, 1967
Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse, 1977
Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, 1982
Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, 1991
The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis, 1997
Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries, 1999
Horace Orlando Lloyd Patterson has managed to succeed in two areas of literary endeavor in a manner that demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between academic research and creative writing. His creative output is reflected in his successful novels, while he has continued to achieve critical success as a published sociologist with a central interest in issues of slavery and racism. While his creative output has diminished significantly since his most active period in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, he has continued to publish groundbreaking studies in the sociology of slavery. However, it is largely on the seminal quality of his first book of fiction that Patterson’s reputation as an author rests, and it is for this reason that–despite his diminished output as a novelist–Patterson continues to be recognized as an important literary figure in West Indies literature.
Born in Jamaica in 1940 on land that for centuries was used to cultivate sugar cane, Patterson moved several times throughout Jamaica during his early years. Essentially an only child (his six older stepsiblings from his father’s earlier marriage were significantly older than he), he developed at an early age what may be described as a bookish introspection. He read a great deal and began to cultivate the kind of imagination and instinct for academia that would characterize his later life.
Patterson attended Kingston College from 1953 to 1958 and came under the influence of a history teacher, Noel White, who helped to nurture his interest in history and the social sciences. White played an important role in guiding Patterson to pursue his undergraduate studies at the then emerging University of the West Indies. As a schoolboy Patterson had begun publishing short stories in the local newspapers, and by the time he arrived at the university he was committed to the business of writing. In the late 1950’s a radio play of his, The Do Good Woman, was produced by the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. He was thus an emerging writer at precisely the time when Jamaica itself was emerging as an independent country.
In 1963 he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to complete a doctorate at the London School of Economics. While in London he began to work in earnest on his first novel, The Children of Sisyphus. The novel offers a moving, graphic, and hard-hitting testimony of poverty and hopelessness in Jamaica. That C. L. R. James championed the book was no accident: In many ways, the novel is centered on a Marxist framing of an oppressive, class-driven society. Children of Sisyphus is set in Kingston’s slums, and its protagonists are all working-class people. Their roundedness as characters, particularly the figure of Dinah, a prostitute, contrasts tellingly with the stereotyped portrayals of the social elite and the holders of political power. Children of Sisyphus won Patterson notable acclaim and launched his career as a writer. In 1966, the novel was awarded first prize for fiction at the Dakar, Senegal, World Festival of Negro Arts, a significant accolade for a first novel.
At this point, Patterson had returned to Jamaica to assume a teaching post at the University of the West Indies. His enthusiastic desire to participate in the “building of a nation” as an intellectual appeared to have dwindled somewhat. His second novel, An Absence of Ruins, seemed to represent the writer’s own struggle with his sense of place and identity in Jamaican society. The novel is about a sociology professor who has recently returned to Jamaica from studies abroad and who is struggling with a sense of disillusionment about local politics and about his own family status and values; the temptation to read the work as an autobiographical novel is very difficult to resist. The style of the novel also lends itself to such a reading. An introspective first-person narrative, the piece focuses on the main character’s attempt to understand his inner self through a process of detaching himself systematically from all those around him.
Looking at this novel, critics maintained the basic trend of earlier responses to Children of Sisyphus, at once noting the strong influence of Albert Camus (Robert Nye celebrated Patterson as “heir” to Camus) and the existentialist agenda, while questioning the credibility of this existentialist angst in the novel itself. At best Patterson was lauded as an able imitator, and at worst he was dismissed as a mimic, a writer seeking to impose an external paradigm on material that did not truly suit such impositions.
Like the protagonist in An Absence of Ruins, Patterson moved away from Jamaica to try to make it in a larger society. He accepted a visiting lectureship at Harvard University, where he decided to remain. Patterson generated numerous academic articles in important journals in the United States and embarked on extensive research that resulted in his 1977 work, Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse, in which he expands on his careful analysis of race and culture from a global perspective.
His third novel, Die the Long Day, was published in 1972. In it, he made another departure. Leaving behind the modernist preoccupations of the first two novels, Patterson brought to bear the weight of his historical research on slavery and slave society on a novel set in the late eighteenth century. Patterson’s central project here is to celebrate the resilience of Africans who had to make a life for themselves in the repressive, culturally and morally bereft world of plantation West Indies. Patterson weaves a story that examines the efforts of a noble African slave, Quasheba, to prevent her daughter from becoming the victim of abuse and exploitation at the hands of a white overseer.
Patterson continued to produce nonfictional work. His expansive Slavery and Social Death offers a rigorous examination of patterns of slavery throughout human history. Freedom in the Making of Western Culture establishes the inextricable link between issues of liberty and the evolution of Western society. Patterson’s Ordeal of Integration and Rituals of Blood are the first two of a projected three volumes on contemporary African American life. Patterson has aroused controversy, criticism, and admiration for his stances in the essays in these books, for instance in his nonpartisan exploration of the repercussions of slavery on African American patterns of sexual infidelity and black-on-black crime, finally suggesting that the concept of “race” has proven counterproductive in improving African American life in real terms.