Piri Thomas Elmer Bendiner - Essay

Elmer Bendiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.