Piri Thomas Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas, Piri


Piri Thomas 1928–

(Born John Peter Thomas) American autobiographer, short story writer, dramatist, and filmmaker.

Thomas, a Negrito (half black/half Puerto Rican) from Spanish Harlem, began writing while in prison of his experiences as a drug addict, street punk, and convict. Building his literary career out of a quest for self-respect and self-identity, he has been compared to James Baldwin and Claude Brown.

In 1967 Thomas published Down These Mean Streets, the first volume of his autobiography, which covers his life from the ages of 12 to 28. Combining urban street talk and Spanish phrases with poetic original images and stream-of-consciousness technique, it was a powerful reflection of the ghetto subculture, an eloquent document of Thomas's fight for survival and escape, and a detailed examination of the need for machismo, the male reputation for cool and courage. Underneath its raw, stark situations and language, the book was a Bildungsroman of Thomas's education in life and search for a value system. It was banned from several libraries for its language, sex scenes, and descriptions of drug use. Most critics agreed that the book's uniqueness and excitement made up for its technical flaws, and that it was worth reading as literature rather than pure sociology. Thomas was hailed both as a survivor and a distinctive new voice.

Subsequent books have failed to attract the enthusiastic audience of Down These Mean Streets. The autobiographical Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand and Seven Long Times, removed in time from the experiences being related, lack the emotional intensity of the earlier book. Thomas is also the author of Stories from El Barrio, a collection for young adults.

Despite his limitations, Thomas has proven himself to be an effective, well-respected writer whose works have consistently shown spirit and honesty. "I have a responsibility," he has written, "to say it like it is." For young people who identify with Thomas's searches, his works well accomplish his statement. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Nelson Aldrich

The truthfulness of Down These Mean Streets goes beyond autobiographical integrity to illuminate not only that dubious concept, "the culture of poverty," but more importantly, the culture of Americans. (p. 4)

The book is punctuated with violence, and with fitful sex and the anesthetics of heroin as well. They end by engulfing the youth that Thomas writes about, but not his book. For these things are not perceived by him as "problems" or as a social outrage, but as elements of a rite de passage that he recalls now with an easy, even a proud, familiarity. Besides, his life was far more complicated and rich than sensational…. The really serious aspects of life were not drugs, but the unremitting and unavoidable struggle for status; not police brutality, but the terrible possibility that his father did not love him; not American racism, but the devastating thought that, being a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, he must choose what he would only appear to be.

As history, the important thing about Thomas's book may be that it presents a life differing little from that of hundreds of thousands of boys who grew up and continue to grow up under similar conditions. It is definitely unimportant to history that Thomas is now a "constructive member of society." But Down These Mean Streets is not a Puerto Rican sequel to Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, for it demands to be read as literature, not as raw data for social research. Thomas knows himself; his recollection of his youth is completely honest, and his writing—though occasionally flawed by self-conscious barbaric yawps—is wonderfully powerful. His achievement is to have so thoroughly taken the measure of his individuality that he adds significantly to our sense of the richness and shame of being an American. (p. 17)

Nelson Aldrich, "Inside the Skin," in Book Week—World Journal Tribune (© 1967, World Journal Tribune, Inc.), May 21, 1967, pp. 4, 17.∗

Daniel Stern

[The literary qualities of "Down These Mean Streets"] are primitive. Yet it has an undeniable power that I think comes from the fact that it is a report from the guts and heart of a submerged population group, itself submerged in the guts and hearts of our cities. It claims our attention and emotional response because of the honesty and pain of a life led in outlaw, fringe status, where the dream is always to escape.

There is, in reports such as this, a certain lack of suspense. The reader knows from the start that the survivor who wrote the book is one of those who got away. There remains the question of how the escape was worked. And there is the fascination of being told of it in a special language created in conflict….

What I, for one, did not know until I read Piri Thomas's tough, lyrical autobiography was the pervasiveness of the Hispanic cultural and social legacy, particularly that phenomenon known as machismo, which can be roughly translated as a kind of insistent maleness.

In Piri Thomas's gutter world, machismo is even more roughly translated as "heart." It can lead a boy to a sense of his own worth—or to drugs and jail. "Down These Mean Streets" is the story of Piri Thomas and his "heart." But, more important, it is the odyssey of one member of a submerged population group whose claim on our attention is immediate and overdue. (p. 1)

Piri Thomas...

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James Nelson Goodsell

["Down These Mean Streets"] is both vigorous and compelling. A very uneven book, it is nonetheless consistently readable….

"Down These Mean Streets" is coarse and crude. But this is perhaps as it should be. Life for the Piri Thomases of the United States is not pleasant and cultivated. It is primitive and base….

Despite the rapidity with which the book concludes, the pages devoted to Piri's prison term and his final shaking of the drug habit once he is out of prison are a magnificent testament of how man can overcome not only his own handicaps, but also the even more blatant obstacles put in his path by others….

Through Piri Thomas's rough-hewn words shines a new voice, one which may well add significant chapters to ethnic literature in the United States. The struggle of those living in Spanish Harlem appears to have found a chronicler. There is a rugged elegance in Thomas's first book. In his second, on which he is now at work, he should be able to relieve the repetitiveness of his language and smooth out his descriptions and characters. Even without this improvement, however, it is awaited with eagerness.

James Nelson Goodsell, "A New Voice for Spanish Harlem," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1967 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), June 15, 1967, p. 9.

Elmer Bendiner

Piri Thomas in his autobiography, Down These Mean Streets, describes the passionate, painful search to validate his manhood for which, with dead-pan cool, he had to fight, steal, submit to buggery, open his veins to any drug, take any dare, any risk. He has done it all in Harlem's mean streets and gone on from machismo to manhood, acquiring during the journey an understanding of man.

This is not a confirmation ritual imposed by what the sociologists call the "barrio subculture." This is a trial by ordeal that American society devises when it challenges a boy to feel like a man while he's up to his neck in the muck that is thrown at him.

Piri Thomas emerged from his ordeal like a phoenix out of the fire…. More important, perhaps, he has given us this document of how a boy grows up in hell.

His account is all the more effective because he has not written of his childhood as hell untempered by love. He writes fondly—almost sentimentally—of the barrio and its people as if there were no villains, Negro or white, but only victims….

When he is not talking about the fight for manhood he is developing the second theme of man's development, what Whitman called, "the dear love of comrades." Comradeship to a boy does not depend on a cause or a banner. It is blind to human faults and deaf to reason. (p. 283)

There is one danger in Piri Thomas' book though not primarily of his making. Middle-class Americans may smile contentedly when they finish its horrors and say: "You see, I knew it could be done. There is some good in them after all, and if they only try like Piri Thomas, they can all make it."

To guard against that crushing smugness it would have been good if Piri had a bit more anger and a bit less of the Puerto Rican's Christ-like tolerance that bids them murmur sympathetically at the hostile world—"Ay Bendito." (p. 284)

Elmer Bendiner, "Machismo," in The Nation (copyright 1967 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 205, No. 9, September 25, 1967, pp. 283-84.

Robert P. Haro

Get this book as soon as possible. That's the best advice this reviewer can give. Savior, Savior Hold My Hand will be called urban ethnic history, social psychology, sociology, etc.; but it is, in fact, an excellent literary account of Puerto Rican life in America.

As a sequel to Thomas' successful Down These Mean Streets, this work continues the story of a dark Puerto Rican's struggle to avoid the disasters of drugs, prostitution, crime, gang wars, etc….

Oh, to be sure, the book has stylistic flaws and weaknesses, but nothing that detracts from its impact. It is a potpourri of urban English slang, underworld terminology, and Puerto Rican Spanish à la New York. To...

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James B. Lane

Down These Mean Streets dramatically captured and transmitted the reality of growing up in the Puerto Rican "Barrio" district of New York during the 1940s and 1950s. Graphically the author etched the panorama of East Harlem, the color and noises and passions and moods that coalesced among its teeming tenements….

A testimony of almost total recall, Down These Mean Streets captured the inner conflict facing a youth who hoped to achieve self-esteem and respect in this environment without succumbing to violence, drugs, cynicism, or other alluring but debilitating antidotes to soothe his rage or allay his sense of nobodyness. (p. 814)

Ironic, unapologetic, and realistic,...

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Barry Beckham

[Reading] "Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand" reminds us that most of our experiences are not that interesting to others. Accordingly, the bulk of Thomas's autobiography just doesn't grab us—or even pinch us.

His first book, "Down These Mean Streets,"… is a remarkable chronicle of one dark-skinned Puerto Rican's fear, rage and transcendent strength. It is a report from hell, describing with casual vividness the bleak event of his life from age 13 to 28. This powerful review of his early life ends with his being paroled after serving six years of a 5-to-15 year sentence for attempted armed robbery.

Thomas's latest book begins with the first year of his parole and from there recounts...

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George Anderson

For those familiar with Down These Mean Streets, reading Piri Thomas' new book, Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand is an interesting but disappointing experience…. [While] the former is strong and vital, the latter never really comes together as a living unified work.

Theoretically it is the sequel which should be the more powerful. It recounts the struggle in the early 1960's of a young Puerto Rican, embittered by poverty, drug addiction, prison and racism, to establish in his life some degree of unity and meaningfulness….

Accompanying his religious conversion is an awakening social consciousness which … leads him to accept a position as counsellor in a street club...

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William Kennedy

[Down These Mean Streets] was a document about a special condition, a special place, a special man. It was dense with the specificity of his world, of his head, of the forces that played on them both, and it was told in a quasi-poetic argot that suited the material, added to the density….

Thomas has now, in the age of Attica, resurrected the essence of [a 70-page segment of Down These Mean Streets], retitled it Seven Long Times and told the story all over again….

Now it is a dull echo. A second pot of tea made from the same teabag; but he doesn't seem to see that. He writes the new book as if the first one never existed. Worse, he relies on sentiment instead...

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Tom Seligson

It is his experience behind bars—seven years for armed robbery and felonious assault—that Thomas examines in … "Seven Long Times."

Thomas served his time in both Sing Sing and Great Meadows (Comstock), and his narrative account of what passes for life in these institutions may not be new…. [However Thomas] has written an intensely human document of one man's will for survival. (p. 10)

Thomas follows in a long tradition of prison writers: Jean Genet, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. If his prose lacks the intensity of Genet, or the rhetorical passion of Cleaver and Jackson, it is because this book, though commenting on life inside prison, was written from the...

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Larry Garvin

Down These Mean Streets for me … is an account of the victory of innocent values over a dehumanizing environment.

This innocence comes from Piri's complete immersion in life, and his absolute commitment to telling the full story without selective omission. Piri's innocence survives the baptism of the street because he arms it with a survival tool: chameleon-like self-assertion. Thus the self-conscious voice of the prologue—"I am My Majesty Piri Thomas"—carries innocence to safety through the mean streets of brutalization. (p. 197)

Chronologically, Savior picks up where Down These Mean Streets ends. But a shifting of tone and a changing of style are...

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Joan Smith

[Seven Long Times] joins the ranks of other first person accounts of imprisonment and testifies to the inhumane and generally repressive nature of those institutions.

For sociologists, Piri Thomas raises two related problems. The first is the analytical status of first person accounts. The second is the possibility of fully understanding institutions of repression within the same conceptual sphere in which these institutions understand themselves. (pp. 303-04)

Obviously, the justification of this sort of book and its distinguishing characteristic is that it is written with the special point of view of the insider. But even the insider cannot by virtue of this special...

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Denise M. Wilms

Stylistically, these storied reminiscences [in Stories from El Barrio] suffer from restraints imposed by a writer not totally at home with a juvenile audience. They also lack the breadth of vision of, say, [Nicholasa Mohr's El Bronx Remembered]…. But there's a pervasive, gut-level honesty that breaks through that thin veneer of stiffness; personalities emerge intact, and pace is fluid. The stories, whether humorous, touching, or tragic, strongly voice their settings; their concerns … sharply present the barrio's multifaceted character. Street language is restrained and unexploitive. This is warm-serious-funny blend, authentic and stronger for it. (pp. 620-21)


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Cathy Clancy

Piri Thomas's ability to combine in a character youthful innocence with street wisdom, an ability so well displayed in Down These Mean Streets, sometimes fails him [in Stories from El Barrio]. In "Mighty Miguel," for example, a boy's fantasies too closely resemble a drug user's dreams. In "The Blue Wings and the Puerto Rican Knights," also, the violence committed by clownish gang fighters does not seem shocking or tragic but just unbelievable. The author simply had not set the mood for tragedy in the story. On the other hand, some of the stories succeed very well. In "The Konk" the reader shares with a fourteen-year old boy his shame over his Afro hair and his further shame over straightening it. The...

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Thomas Lask

In one way, the Barrio (the Puerto Rican enclave in New York) is all over ["Stories from El Barrio"]. The street argot with its mixture of English and Spanish, the tenements and their dim apartments, the local food and life styles are present in abundance. The flavor of that life is present all right. But in a more meaningful sense, the Barrio is not there at all. The eight stories that make Piri Thomas's book are anecdotes, and the Barrio is incidental to the happenings in his tales….

Nothing in these stories establishes an organic link to the Barrio. They just happen to happen there. Perhaps Mr. Thomas felt that filling in the detail was enough. It's not. After all, as the title suggests, the...

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