Lonely Crusade, by Chester Himes
The Writing on the Wall
by Chester Himes.
New York, Knopf, 1947. 398 pp. $3.00.
The terminal moraine of socially conscious novels, comic strips, movies, pulp fiction, etc. left behind by the Popular Front icecap of the 30’s has, for better or for worse, permanently changed the American cultural landscape. Novels like Lonely Crusade, which deal with racial prejudice from the point of view of the insulted and injured themselves, are now common. What sets them apart from the muckraking books of the Upton Sinclair era is that they do not present any news to anyone (although they are equally sensational), and the isues involved, which were once considered so ugly and obscene that they had to be discussed in whispers like a dirty joke, are now frankly presented for mass entertainment as well as uplift. There is a financial profit in moral indignation.
Close students of the grafitti scratched on the walls of men’s rooms during the war have observed how, amid the standard clutter of telephone numbers, sexual brags and invitations, heroic drawings of sexual organs, etc., there was a gradual influx of social consciousness. This took the form of lewd threats of violence against the — Jews and, to a lesser extent as the threats were more fully carried out, against the Negroes. In barracks, in shipyards, in bars all over the United States, it was in these chambers of catharsis that the underground from time to time relieved itself of the social and political pieties of war propaganda and posted its own bulletins.
A Camera reflection of this phenomenon appeared in the official world of movies, radio, and publishing—but, of course, inverted to respectability: Don’t kill the Jews (or the Negroes). Novels on racial and religious bigotry have now become a huge commercial success, even in competition with old-line historical sex fantasies. The two have much in common.
The styles and the sensibilities of these best sellers are cut out of the same sub-literary “popular” cheesecloth, with the only difference, perhaps, lying in the themes they exploit. But even this difference is practically annulled in the more pretentious works by a heavy dose of lurid sex, miscegenation, brutality, revenge, and third-act heroics.
The mucksters who rake the surface of these profound problems may be well-meaning, but their books and movies mean something else. Their honesty is not in question, nor is the legitimacy of the theme of racial intolerance for a work of art. Nevertheless, by cheap exploitation of an issue so crucial for the future of America, I think that the dignity of the cause and the dignity of the injured themselves must suffer. The wolf will not be domesticated and made comfortable. Although the professed purpose of these books is to prod the American public out of its apathy, they may well have the opposite effect of dulling it to sleep with the lullaby: everything will be all right if enough people buy and read this book. It is a truism, but one too often ignored, that the only preventive for racial and religious bigotry in America is to raise the living standards of the people, economically and culturally. And that means, among other things, the super-cession of the Hollywood monopoly and big-business publishing. To paraphrase Jimmy Walker: no bigot was ever ruined by a book.
Lonely Crusade, the novel under review, is in a direct line of descent from its predecessors, more sensational, more insipid for all that and even more clumsily written. The plot concerns a young idealistic Negro, Lee Gordon, who gets a job as a union organizer on the West Coast during the war, has an affair with a white girl sent as a spy by the Communist party, then is betrayed by her because he is colored, just as she, subsequently (by some curious twist of the party’s higher strategy), is betrayed by her comrades because she is white. Through this adventure he loses his wife, his job, and his friends, and becomes involved in the murder of a company agent; then, like Job, the hero regains all he has lost, and finally, in The Big Strike, he redeems himself altogether by leading a charge of pickets through the police.
Some notion of the shabby style may be had from the following: “She [Gordon’s abandoned wife] did not want to commit suicide. She just did not want to live any more and did not know any way to do it otherwise.” When Gordon considers going to bed with his mistress it is to “consummate their gender.” A caricature of a Jewish Communist is seriously presented as a philosopher with dialectic like this: “Death will be but another change in the infinity of change. You will return from the reflection of matter to the matter you reflect. But the movement of which you have become a part in your resolution will go on.” I can quote more, but this will suffice.
The four hundred pages of Lonely Crusade are sweated out with some steamy episodes of copulation between white women and black men, and, also, several vaporous discussions between Negroes and Jews (invariably presented as Communists) on such topics as Negro anti-Semitism and why Jews love money. The author’s treatment here reveals a bias which is almost incredible in a book of its pretensions.
Which leads us to an overwhelming question—what real difference is there between the style of this book written by a Negro and the style of the very American mob culture which humiliates and degrades his people? Lonely Crusade breathes the same suffocating air as the ads, the radio, the movies, the pulps. Although the author is himself a Negro, his book is so deracinated, without any of the lively qualities of the imagination peculiar to his people, that it might easily have been composed by any clever college girl. Such writing, no matter how well intentioned, and the grafitti in the men’s rooms are part of the same debased culture; there is, in fact, an almost symbiotic relationship between them, with each feeding off the other. Meanwhile, however, the handwriting on the wall of the men’s room becomes clearer and larger.