Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1236
Claude Brown's story of growing up in Harlem deals at great length with juvenile crime, the life in the streets, poverty, the curtailment of schooling, changes in the attitudes of Negroes toward themselves and toward whites, the role of the Black Muslims among the poor, and so forth. These are all issues of public concern, and this fact has been reflected in the way [Manchild in the Promised Land] has been praised and criticized. It has been called "a major American autobiography," "a Pilgrim's Progress," and "the voice of a generation and a people." From a more radical point of view, it has been criticized for its serious political and cultural omissions. In view of all this, it may be well to begin with a few simple and personal words about the experience of reading it.
I found the early pages interesting and sometimes delightful. Before I reached the middle I was rather bored—or not bored exactly, for the book was still interesting, but unsatisfied, annoyed, detained. Toward the end I felt that I was being conned. Within a few days I had forgotten the book—which is to say that it had not touched me deeply in heart or mind. Several weeks later I read it again and found that I still admired its energy and sense of detail, but cared even less for its self-conceit and for the personal cunning which makes Brown hurry on from event to event, bypassing everything that interferes with his movement. And so the question came up of how I should review it. Should I try to account for its ambiguities: that it is vigorous, yet basically passive; that it seems to be confessional and frank, yet in the end is reticent and terribly politic? Would it make sense to analyze the peculiar reactions to it: that, for instance, Brown's accession to a conventional career should be called a "Pilgrim's Progress," as if life in the middle class were the equivalent of the Celestial City? And where did these questions come from, anyway? Why put so much pressure on a lively and unpretentious autobiography?
But the facts of the case are the other way around: the pressures came first. They are the public squabble, with all its agonies and conflicts, and Brown has tailor-made his book so as to wedge it firmly into the familiar structure. This is no mean feat, but it is not a serious one. By serious I mean disinterested, willing to serve the truth.
The nub of the matter can be seen in Brown's frequent praise of himself as an "operator." He is so confident of his ability that one imagines he would be surprised to hear his book described that way—as the work of an operator. But that is what it is—no would-be, either: the real McCoy. And to be an operator takes talent, energy, and daring.
Brown's attitude, in the first half of the book, is the objective, amiably ruthless stance of tough little ten-year-olds who really size things up well and are always shouting out the unpleasant truth their elders are avoiding—and who burst into tears when they find an adult who does not avoid it. The style shifts, in the second half—perhaps with an inevitable progression—to that of the shrewd, good-natured politician who does well enough and never stunningly by the people, the state, and himself, handing all three undeniable goods and buying all three off. The limitations of this stance are obvious. It cannot afford either the whole truth or the whole feeling. Most important of all, it is incapable of re-structuring experience, since it was engaged from the beginning in an act of manipulation. Thus Brown's tale of life does not add up to the picture of a life. Yet it is admirably gregarious, and for my own part I would rather read an operator like Brown than any number of littérateurs (James Baldwin, for instance, in his novels). At the same time, however, I get much more from an artist like Richard Wright than I get from Brown. (p. 82)
[Manchild in the Promised Land] is not a tale of deprivation. In the early, swiftly-moving vignettes of life in Harlem, Brown is attracted by energy, resourcefulness, pride, style, toughness, the lore and the traits of the hipsters who make it to the top in Harlem. This is largely what he talks about. The boy he shows us is proud of the amount of trouble he can get into, and is well aware that most adults have sadly withdrawn from life. He is not so concerned with hardship, then, as with the resources of youthful pride and vitality in the face of it. If public school is stultifying and pointless, you get out. If you are hungry and cannot find a job, you steal. And so on. One effect of this free-booting spirit is that a great many odds and ends of Harlem life are brought together vividly. One senses a community that has preserved many of the face-to-face customs of an earlier time, and that, because of the hardships and dangers of the Negro's lot, puts a high value on two virtues which have all but vanished from the white middle class: courage and mother-wit. Another effect comes about through contrast. The lives of Brown's street-gang friends lie outside the mores not only of the white majority but of the Harlem majority as well. We are familiar with the studies which tell us, for instance, that sexual repression and delay are injurious, but we have not many pictures of twelve-year-olds in bed together. We are familiar, similarly, with the loss of liberty and self-esteem occasioned by the multiplicity and the ignorant enforcement of our laws, but we are not familiar with the day-to-day existence of the young men who break the laws. Brown's testimony on all these points is interesting. Perhaps it is valuable, though my own feeling is that he has not looked into his own circumstances very deeply.
It is the second of these two effects which provokes such confusion in the liberal press. For who has not been stultified in school or suffered sexual frustration in early youth? Brown's young friends seem to be exceptions. But they end badly; and Brown himself "straightens out." Perhaps there is a sigh of relief in such enthusiastic phrases as "Pilgrim's Progress." In any event there is a curious resting in the status quo, though it was the status quo which gave us all those studies of the ills of modern life. (pp. 83-4)
If Brown gives us more—a great deal more—than tourists ordinarily get, he nevertheless will not let us be more than tourists. He will not expose himself. While reading this book I thought of the somber pride of Richard Wright in Black Boy, and of the strong, sweet spirit of Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man. There are no such qualities in Manchild in the Promised Land. There is no voice. Brown is trapped in the secondary environment of issues and opinions, the world of commerce and the newspapers, and the need to make it. He keeps telling us that there is really human life behind these things—and so there is, but it is only too evident that Brown himself is not much concerned with it. (p. 84)
George Dennison, "Cooling It," in Commentary, Vol. 41, No. 1, January 1966, pp. 82-4.
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