William Mathes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1438

The book came to me along with the summer's meager trickle of new offerings, at a time when publishers seem to be lying low, waiting to spring their really important fall lists on the world: Manchild in the Promised Land, by Claude Brown. Though it came with a benediction by Irving Howe, I put it aside, thinking it was just another book by an angry young Negro.

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There is no doubt that Negroes have much to be angry about, and I am all for anger, righteous or otherwise. Not hate, but anger. There is room for dialogue in that emotion. It gets things moving; someone answers with shock; someone applauds; something happens. Nevertheless, I am growing more than a little tired of the persistent and somewhat high-pitched anger of James Baldwin and his imitators (my ears are ringing), even of the too restrained and too fraught-with-love anger of James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. In such anger there is limited communication. What is needed now is not more of such blatancy, such shrill response to hurt and deprivation, but words that convey hurt and deprivation themselves, words that can permit many people—especially white people—to identify with the Negro. So far we have lacked words that impart the feelings of what it is like to be a Negro in this country at this time.

Claude Brown answers this need. (p. 456)

I began Manchild reluctantly and came to weep and laugh over it, finishing with mounting excitement. Although this much enthusiasm over a book is foreign to me—and I know I must sound like a dustjacket copy writer—I was profoundly moved. Although I cannot know with certainty, I think I know now what it feels like to be a Negro growing up in Harlem. There is an honesty here, an ingenuousness, that will insinuate its story under the toughest hides. More than any book I have read in years, Manchild probes past the fabric of order and conventional response and finds that place in all of us that knows about pain and terror and the slim hope of being born by chance and dead for sure.

This is a book that insists on an affective response; it appeals to a reader's emotional abilities, rather than his intellectual. Still feeling the effect of it, I want to try to explore some of the reasons this book seems to me to herald a new—and more widely acceptable—Negro talent. I use "Negro" here advisedly. Brown appeals to us in his first work as a Negro, not as a writer or student or chronicler of society. He is a man who is a Negro; this fact motivates his story. This fact is the personal condition of adversity upon which he is forging a viable personality, and upon which he nearly failed to stay alive; between these poles is an identity, a personality, a man. The Negro, transcending his birthright, becomes Prometheus; he becomes a uniquely eloquent, modern Everyman. And it is precisely this quality that is an antidote to and an extension of Farmer's restrained fury and Baldwin's cries of impotence.

No, I am not a Negro and all I know directly about Harlem is a feeling of sadness—and revulsion—from having passed through it in a cab. I cannot say for sure whether or not Mr. Brown's account of being a Negro in Harlem is accurate, or that he is, as I believe he is, an accurate spokesman for that Zeitgeist. This is the same kind of question as whether or not Samuel Pepys was a valid chronicler of his slice of Restoration England. The consensus is that he was, and for the same reason that Brown conveys within his book verification of his chronicle.

Certainly, we can check Brown and Pepys against history. Others have written about London in the 1660's; you could walk across Harlem on the heads of sociologists and demographers. But Pepys and Brown convey—and this is why they are read—the feeling of being alive in their respective milieus. Their commitments to their times and lives are their verification. What communicates is their involvement and their lives. Neither is read for his writing ability—Pepys' diary has to be severely edited to be rendered readable; Brown makes all the mistakes one can make in his autobiography, including mixing the language and jargon of his new academic self with the slang of Harlem. But they are read for other reasons, more important reasons than their accuracy and their talent. The force of their experience and their desire to understand what they experience find common ground in all human beings. Whether we write a book or not, all of us are overwhelmed by our lives and are continually trying to forge meaning from the mass of our everydays.

One difference between Pepys and Brown (among many) is important: Restoration England is safely past; we may experience it and we may share it through Pepys. But Brown's story is a tragedy, contemporary tragedy. His has the seed of a greater tragedy, if only a few of us are able to share it, share the feeling of being a Negro in America today. By the time Brown's book is a classic, the issues he documents will have destroyed or transformed our nation and the world, for that matter.

Another difference is that Brown, unlike Pepys but like Robert Graves in Goodbye To All That, is recapitulating. He is looking back as he moves on, passing from one world into another with trepidation, regret, and triumph. Pepys wrote within the frame of his everyday, letting it design his narrative. Pepys did not write for publication, so far as we know. Perhaps Brown did not either when he began Manchild, but he had the choice to publish or not, and Pepys did not.

In some ways Pepys' method might have been better for Brown. Toward the end of his book, especially, Brown wanders and stumbles between his old life and his new, between the words and ideas of Harlem and the jargon and conceptions of a college graduate with psychological predilections. In some ways Brown's method would have suited Pepys. In it he would have been able to elaborate and extend many of the events of his life, giving substance and depth to them. One way gives the advantage of spontaneity and a lack of artifice, while the other permits reconsideration and gentle perusal.

But these are ancillary issues. The impact of each writer is in his personal life and his individual responses—through a kind of "True Confessions" technique that has been working well since the first shaman gathered an audience around a fire and began telling them what had happened to him in the forest. The pitfalls of this method are repetition and sentimentality, which Brown—Pepys less often—avoids well. If anything, Brown is not sentimental…. (pp. 456-58)

Writers like Pepys and Brown are read for a variety of reasons, as recorders of a way of life, a place, a time, as curious participants in a contained and fascinating world, because their personalities are compelling and vital. But their lasting quality seems to be in their literary innocence, their candor, their ability to convey in words something of their experience. This could be said of any writer of merit, as well as the fact that there is in them a compulsion, if you like, which forces them to get at and describe the truth as they know it, to get it all down, the way it was, the way it felt. They know that their experience is important and they communicate this feeling of importance to the reader. In spite of—some would argue because of—their lack of studied professionalism and their literary innocence, they create emotions in their readers, rather than word-tricks on paper. Pepys and Brown elicit different emotions, surely, but still it is the emotional quality of their writing that secures them readers.

But Pepys never wrote for public consumption; his journals were discovered and published in 1825. Claude Brown is off to law school, having shared with us his farewell to Harlem. Manchild is such a good book, it makes one hope that Brown would think twice before giving up writing. The civil rights movement could certainly use a non-pious, non-furious spokesman. And, perhaps more important, American letters could use a writer with Brown's instinctive sense of psychological drama, his apparently natural ability to communicate complex and highly evocative patterns of contemporary life. (pp. 459-60)

William Mathes, "A Negro Pepys," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Fall, 1965, pp. 456-62.

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