Peter Wheatstraw the Devil’s Son-in-Law

ellison_smilingI just finished a class on Ralph Ellison and was lucky enough to spend an entire semester on one of my favorite writers. We read his most famous novel, Invisible Man, his collections of short stories and essays, and Juneteenth, published posthumously in 1999.

For Ellison, folklore was a constant and significant influence. A folkloric figure that appeared in both of his novels was Peter Wheatstraw, a figure for whom even Ellison, with all of his knowledge of African American folklore, is elusive in origins. In a March 11, 1988 interview with Robert G. O’Meally of The Atlantic, he said of the figure:

As far as I know ‘Peter Wheatstraw’ was not, and is not, a living individual, but a character born of Afro-American mythology. Unfortunately, I know nothing of his legend, nor of how it originated, but as a boy who had friends who were aspiring pool & billiards sharks I was familiar with ‘Peter Wheatstraw’ as one half of a dual persona that was evoked in the form of a frontier brag (or boast) when players wished to challenge prospective opponents to combat upon the green cloth of pool tables. The name of “Wheatstraw’s” other half (by the way, he was never ‘Peetie’ but always ‘Peter’) was ‘Lord God Stingerroy.’ Thus when a challenger banged through the swinging doors of the pool parlor he’d stamp his foot and let out a belligerent roar that went:

My name is Peter Wheatstraw
I’m the Devil’s only son-in-law —
So who wants to play [or shoot]
the Devil’s Son — Lord God

That is the extent of my Wheatstraw knowledge, and the circumstance out of which I appropriated the name when I used it in my novel. In other words, I “novelized” it, and you’ll note that it appears at a point when the narrator is being challenged to draw upon his folk-based background for orientation and survival…. For a novelist and descendant of storytellers, such items of folk tradition are part of his inheritance and are to be used — much as the composers of music used the folk music of their individual backgrounds — in the expression of his own unique vision. They are part of the mother lode which supports his storytelling and are as free to be used by the conscious writer as they are by the oral tellers of tales.

Peter Wheatstraw injects humor and a bit of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “Signifyin’.” Ellison’s “novelizing” the figure helps   to preserve the folk character and perpetuate his presence in the African American folk tradition. In the novels, the figure helps to connect the characters to their pasts and to their true identities, removing their invisibility. There’s an idea.

—Rachael Benavidez, Associate Editor

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