Ronald L. Fair Pamela Marsh - Essay

Pamela Marsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "We Can't Breathe," Ronald Fair has written an unsparing, brilliant, yet unexpectedly warm and touching book. He calls it an autobiographic novel, "a narrative of what it was like for those of us born in the thirties." By "us" he means the children of those blacks who moved up to the north to cities like Chicago "hoping to find the self-respect that had been cut out of them."…

With the children of "We Can't Breathe" we are in … [the atmosphere of] enemy-occupied territory, grubbing for survival and dignity. The brutality is … raw, the talk … coarse.

But that inexplicable sense of heightened awareness is present too. Chicago in the cold and the snow, the uncontrolled excitement of a gang of boys, the slaughter of the rats—we aren't going to be able to forget Mr. Fair's scenes. We may wish we could….

In this book Mr. Fair explains why he writes as he does. A teacher is speaking, the woman who first saw talent in Ernie (alias Ronald?) and fostered it. She is so shocked by what he has written that he wants to tone his writing down.

"You must always tell the whole truth," she says. "If that's the way some of us talk, then that's the way we talk and there's nothing you can do about it except have people talk that way. But you could explain why they talk that way.

"That you could do for our people and for yourself, so that when you become a writer people who read your writing will know that even though your characters talk in a—well, I guess you'd have to say in a nasty way—it's not because they have lost their dignity. That's what you can do; you can write about your people with love."

Pamela Marsh, "Chapters on the American Dream," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1971 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), December 30, 1971, p. 6.