"PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG CONVICT"
by H. Bruce Franklin
YESTERDAY WILL MAKE YOU CRY. By Chester Himes. W. W. Norton. 365 pp. $25.
When Chester Himes was nineteen, he was chained upside down, beaten by police until he confessed to an armed robbery, sentenced for twenty to twenty-five years, and incarcerated in the Ohio State Penitentiary. That was in 1928. By the time he was paroled in 1936, he had become a nationally-known writer. After publishing eight stories in the African-American periodicals Abbott's Monthly (Chicago) and Atlanta Daily World, he had broken into the major leagues with four stories about prison life in Esquire, becoming one of the most popular authors for that magazine (where he continued to publish until 1959).
These stories that Himes published while in prison had to be carefully tailored to evade the systematic suppression of prison writings that coincided with the beginning of the Depression. In the 1930s--just as in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s--state and federal officials and lawmakers zealously labored to prevent convicts from communicating with the reading public. As Miriam Allen De Ford wrote in "Shall Convicts Write Books?", an article published in The Nation of November 5, 1930, cells were being searched "not for narcotics and knives, but for manuscripts," and all those found were destroyed. Federal authorities even orderedRobert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, to stop publishing his groundbreaking research on the diseases of birds, severely punished him for smuggling out Diseases of Canaries, and later suppressed his book-length manuscript on the American prison system. According to Herman K. Spector, a prison librarian back then, it was the very success of prison writing that "set off a counterflow of reaction and prohibition," masquerading under the rationale that "convicts were in prison 'to be punished, not to make money.'" Sound familiar?
Shortly after his parole, Himes completed a novel based on his prison experience and filled with materials that never would have gotten by the prison censors. As he tried to find a publisher, Himes discovered that censorship took other, somewhat more subtle, forms in the larger society. Year after year, rejection followed rejection. In 1950, Henry Holt verbally accepted the book, but when Himes showed up to sign the contract he was told that the acceptance had been overruled from higher up. By the time the novel was accepted in 1952--sixteen years after he left prison--Himes had published two controversial novels centering on African-American experience: If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusade (1947). The prison novel meanwhile had gone through many rewrites with ever-changing titles: Present Tense, The Way It Was, Black Sheep, Debt of Time, Solitary, Day After Day, and Yesterday Will Make You Cry. When at last published by Coward-McCann in 1952 under the new title Cast the First Stone, the novel was radically different from any of Himes' manuscripts.
Finally, in 1998, six decades after Himes first composed thebook and fourteen years after his death, the prison novel is being published in its final manuscript form before being chopped up on the procrustean bed of commercial publishing in the early 1950s. Bearing Himes' own final title, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, the volume is being issued as one of W. W. Norton's Old School Books, a series of twentieth-century African-American pulp novels overlooked or undervalued because of their disturbing content and style. Under the editorship of Marc Gerald and Samuel Blumenfeld, the series has given a new life to John A. Williams' classic The Angry Ones, Himes' The End of the Primitive, two novels by the innovative convict writer Clarence Cooper, Jr., and works by Roland Jefferson, Charles Perry, Robert Deane Pharr, Herbert Simmons, and Henry Van Dyke. Old School Books has also brought a new audience to Donald Goines, the prison writer who has sold five million copies of his novels to a mostly African-American readership. Yesterday Will Make You Cry is the first hardback Old School Book.
This is an exciting event for those interested either in Chester Himes or the American prison, or, as we shall see, some crucial cultural differences between America in 1952 and 1998. Here is one of Himes' most important novels in a complete version previously seen only by a handful of people. Featuring a very personal introduction by Melvin Van Peebles, the volume is based on the manuscript in the Yale University library. Unfortunately, editors Gerald and Blumenfeld provide only a scanty "Editors' Note," which reads more like an advertising blurb and offers not even a hint about their editorial methodology.
Gerald and Blumenfeld impute the transformation of theYesterday Will Make You Cry manuscript into the 1952 novel Cast the First Stone solely to "demolition work methodically carried out by Himes' editors," who "upset the whole structure of the book." Much of the manuscript, they maintain, "had simply been thrown away by Himes' editors." But given Himes' desperate quest for both income and recognition, he may have participated quite willingly in turning the manuscript into a book that would be commercially viable in 1952 America. There is also no evidence in his two-volume autobiography--The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity--that Himes objected to the metamorphosis. Whether the changes were carried out by the editors, or whether they were merely dictated by the editors'--or even Himes'--perception of the harsh facts of publication, is not especially important now. For surely if this manuscript version had been published in 1952, the novel, as well as its author, would have been mercilessly savaged. Is 1998 America ready for this book that would have been doomed in 1952? Looking at the differences between Yesterday Will Make You Cry and Cast the First Stone, one can hope so.
Some of the changes introduced in Cast the First Stone seem to have been aimed simply at making it more accessible to the 1952 general reader. The narrative was switched from third person to first person. The action and dialogue were updated from the period when the events actually took place in the late twenties through the early thirties to the post-World-War-II era, making it less accurate as a document about the American prison. Himes' overpowering dramatization of the 1930 fire that killed 330 inmates among the 4,000 stuffed into the 1,507). The prison novel meanwhile had gone through many rewrites with ever-changing titles: Present Tense, The Way It Was, Black Sheep, Debt of Time, Solitary, Day After Day, and Yesterday Will Make You Cry. When at last published by Coward-McCann in 1952 under the new title Cast the First Stone, the novel was radically different from any of Himes' manuscripts.
Finally, in 1998, six decades after Himes first composed thebook and fourteen years after his death, the prison novel is being published in its final manuscript form before being chopped up on the procrustean bed of commercial publishing in the early 1950s. Bearing Himes' own final title, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, the volume is being issued as one of W. W. Norton's Old School Books, a series of twentieth-century African-American pulp novels overlooked or undervalued because of their disturbing content and style. Under the editorship of Marc Gerald and Samuel Bsissippi white boy; that ought to tell me something, but I don't know what--but obviously it was the story of my own prison experience."
The manuscript's prose, which dramatizes the true insanity of the prison experience in trademark Himes over-the-top grotesque absurdism, was considerably toned down in Cast the First Stone. The order of the narrative was rearranged, making it seem less deranged. Again, these changes made the novel more accessible to 1952 readers, less revealing about prison, and much flatter for us, who can hear in the manuscript version how the madness of prison informs the frenzied riffs of the Harlem detective novels. Himes' editors no doubt figured, realistically enough, that the novel hadto make sense if it were to find an audience. But the very essence of Himes' vision of prison--and of the American society which has made prison such a central institution--is that things don't make sense. The final words of Blind Man with a Pistol, the last of Himes' completed Harlem detective novels, put it this way in a dialogue between the two black detectives and their white lieutenant:
"Can't you men stop that riot?" he demanded.
"It's out of hand, boss," Grave Digger said.
"All right, I'll call for reinforcements. What started it?"
"A blind man with a pistol."
"You heard me, boss."
"That don't make any sense."
In Yesterday Will Make You Cry, Himes probes the core of this madness in scenes that project the transformation of the corrupt and chaotic early twentieth-century American prison into the true fascist terror state of the modern prison. The "old time rheumatic guards" are replaced by well-armed "young, athletic men" in "neat tan uniforms," replete with riot squads: "It was power on parade." In quintessential Himes, an "accidental burst of machine gun fire" from this new force blows off the top of a black convict's head:
He had been making his bunk, and now, on the white sheet which his hands still held, a gooey mass of brains appeared. . . . his mouth was still grinning as it had been before he lost thetop half of his head, but his eyes were gone and blood was coming out over the edges of his skull, running down in his ears and down his nostrils, and his hands, which had been spreading the sheet, gave it one terrible jerk, pulling the sheet down over him as he fell between the bunks.
Two major features of Yesterday Will Make You Cry make it a fundamentally different book from Cast the First Stone, one much more rewarding for today's readers. As the novel develops, the protagonist gradually escapes from the deadly psychological effects of prison as he transforms into a writer, a role not even hinted at in the version published in 1952. So what we have here is an invaluable portrait of the artist as a young convict, far more revealing than the skimpy and evasive picture that Himes sketches in his autobiography. As Himes himself puts it in the very first paragraph of The Quality of Hurt, the first volume of his autobiography: "I find it necessary to read what I have written in the past about my prison experiences to recall any part of them."
What is most revealing about the metamorphosis of this self-destructive young convict into a unique voice of American literature is the central role played by the protagonist's lover.
Cast the First Stone was a powerful prison novel. Yesterday Will Make You Cry is both a powerful prison novel and a profoundly affirmative homosexual love story. America in 1952 was not ready for this.
The novel as then published reduced the explicitly sexual relationship of the manuscript to a friendship based on love, non-physical except for one asexual kiss, between Jimmy Monroe the protagonist and another young convict nicknamed Dido. A sympathetic reviewer in the New York Herald Tribune referred to Dido as "a sensitive, intelligent young pervert" whose relationship with Jimmy, "though homosexual in origin and intensity, is entirely and believably platonic." He noted with approval and relief:
Their feeling for one another is a remarkable mixture of fervor, asceticism and selflessness. It is a peculiar passion in which the participants will love, but not touch, one another.
Even this sanitized relationship was too much for the reviewer in the Saturday Review, who was disturbed by the novel's "preoccupation with homosexuality" (as though that could be avoided in any authentic novel set in an American prison); admitting that he was "prejudiced," he objected to the relationship being called a "'friendship'" because "it bears no resemblance to any friendship I've ever noted or experienced." Though the enthusiastic reviewer in the Crisis called Cast the First Stone "a compelling and infuriating inferno of sustained agony which adds cubits" to Himes "stature as a novelist" and depicts prison life more vividly than any book since Henry Fielding's 1751 Amelia, he recoiled in horror from the "'love affair'": "It is here that prison-bred madness is shown to have fed upon itself to the point of bursting in repulsive degeneracy."
Thanks to the rapidly advancing gay liberation movement of the late twentieth century, respectable reviewers now would not openly express such blatantly homophobic attitudes. Yet it will be interesting to see how they respond to Himes' original version ofthe relationship.
In Yesterday Will Make You Cry, Jimmy's deeply loving and passionate sexual relationship with the other young convict--here named Rico--is crucial to his transformation from a self-loathing isolato engaged in self-destructive criminality into both a sharing human being and a budding writer. Having the narrative of this liaison now available gives us a much deeper understanding of Himes the writer, for the affair with Rico is a somewhat fictionalized version of Himes' love affair with the actual Rico, a Georgia black convict with whom he continued to correspond after his release (as documented in The Several Lives of Chester Himes, the well-researched 1997 biography by Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre).
And here is where Cast the First Stone falsifies the story in every sense. At the end, Jimmy is redeemed, but Dido, unable to face life without him, kills himself, thus reducing the main homosexual character to a pathetic creature whose only use seems to be as an instrument for someone else's fulfillment. In Yesterday Will Make You Cry, the relationship is redemptive also for Rico, who gains from Jimmy's love and respect a new sense of self-worth that allows him to overcome his own self-loathing and to look forward to his own creative future. This affirmation of a gay relationship, unusual though not unique in male prison literature, is much truer than Cast the First Stone to Himes' actual relationship with Rico, with whom he wrote a play and studied literature while in prison and who composed a folk opera based on Negro work songs he collected.
The editors of Yesterday Will Make You Cry claim that despiteHimes' desire to "simply tell the truth of who he was," the editors of Cast the First Stone at Coward-McCann "reduced black existence to a caricature." But it was Himes' choice to tell the story of his prison years from the viewpoint of a white man from Mississippi, a blond one, noon novel and a profoundly affirmative homosexual love story. America in 1952 was not ready for this.
The novel as then published reduced the explicitly sexual relationship of the manuscript to a friendship based on love, non-physical except for one asexual kiss, between Jimmy Monroe the protagonist and another young convict nicknamed Dido. A sympathetic reviewer in the New York Herald Tribune referred to Dido as "a sensitive, intelligent young pervert" whose relationship with ncensored vision of the prison hell that shaped Himes' tortured imagination, with all its seething and fertile contradictions. There could not be a fitter time or place for the publication of this great prison novel than today's United States, the world's leader in prison construction and incarceration of its citizens.
H. Bruce Franklin, the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University, Newark, is the editor of Prison Writing in 20th-Century America recently published by Penguin.