Claude Brown

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Martin Tucker

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

The man who would understand miracles is as dull as the general who drafts answers to an army of rhetorical questions. Yet in literature at least, miracles have to seem natural—that is, as belonging to the nature of things an author is creating.

Claude Brown's miracle is that from a childhood spent amidst crime, poverty, dope, promiscuity, violence and perversion, he managed to wrest himself into a belief that life could be different and better than that. The streets, as he says in his autobiography [Manchild in the Promised Land], were his home, though never his house; his house was a place with which he never made peace till he moved from it, while the streets were what gave him his sense of individuality. Brown begins his book when, at thirteen, he is struck by a bullet when trying to steal bedsheets and linen from a clothesline. He ends it in the present, as a student in his late twenties ready to graduate from a good university. During the course of the book Brown reminisces about his first experiences in "catting" (spending the night away from home); his bebopping jousts with the Buccaneer gang; his numerous visits to Children's Court; and his two years at Wiltwyck School for Boys. (p. 700)

Brown's response to life, both in the liturgical immediacy and in his lyrical retelling, provides an affirmation of Harlem's problems and its hopes for a change. His search is for a meaningful father. He has a real one, whose activity consists of work five days a week, alcohol and spirituals on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and whipping of his sons on any day; but, like all the other boys in the book, Brown does not have a father he can either talk to or respect. The dominant figure in the Brown family is Claude's mother, who, through her excessive worry over her sons, often drives them out into the street. Mrs. Brown's anguish is even soothed by the arrest of her youngest son for armed robbery, because she can at least know where he will be at night, and know that he may have a chance at rehabilitation. (p. 701)

Yet Brown's miraculous autobiography suffers from a canker: the miracle of his salvation is presented brilliantly, but the causes for it remain vague. Brown himself seems evasive when he discusses the spiritual and psychological changes that separated him from his gang and made possible his new life. It is possible that Brown has obeyed too well the maxim of the professional story-teller: dramatize but do not tell; show but do not explain. Whatever the reason, Brown's book fascinates by its immediate power of honest statement and unadulterated speech, but disappoints as an intellectual expression. The disappointment is certainly minor compared to the success Brown has accomplished in his vignettes of Harlem life, but it is a flaw that stands out among his achievements.

The book has the gaiety of adventure, even though the events it describes are grim. The reader is admitted into a wonderfully recreated world: Claude's wings and flutterings, his jail "cottage," his romance with a Jewish girl who tries to seduce him and with whom he falls in love, his friends' descent into heroin addiction, and his own rebirth. What is missing is the sense of how it came about. The achievement of Claude Brown is spectacular, but the wonder and the drama of the miracle that made it possible is dwarfed by the writer's failure to enter profoundly into that other country beside Harlem—the hero's mind and spirit. (pp. 701-02)

Martin Tucker, "The Miracle of a Redeemed Harlem Childhood," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXII, No. 22, September 24, 1965, pp. 700-02.

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