In my early years—probably way before you were born, dear reader—I was
fascinated by the powerful taboo against miscegenation, “race mixing,”
as it was called then. As a child, my mother had passed on a hush-hush family secret:
I was part Indian (i.e., Native American). I look Irish. During my twenties as I
struggled to become a novelist, the subject of racism haunted me. How might it be
handled in a new novel? I chanced upon a hint while watching Boris and Natasha on
the Bullwinkle TV cartoon show. Could it work to use such cartoonish exaggerations
in a novel?
At that time, newspaper headlines screamed Red Menace, racism poisoned the social
atmosphere, John Steinbeck got only a paragraph in Encyclopedia Britannica while
Ernest Hemingway got a full page, Henry Miller was deemed a pornographer, and Gore
Vidal was dismissed as a homosexual. Novels dealing with race, sex, politics or
money were considered “in bad taste.” My urge was to kick these cultural
“forbiddens” in the knees, which is why I found Boris and Natasha so
refreshing. Cartoon characters can be “off the reservation” in ways
that realistic depictions cannot be.
For years I’d been struggling to write a “serious” novel about
racism, but I had not found a way to cut through the nonsense and get to what I
felt was the essence of it: sex and money. Inspired to test the possibilities
of “the cartoon novel,” I went back to work with new energy.
I found that by using the first-person perspective for the male character, I could
get at the combination of ignorance and arrogance that is at the heart of racism.
But what about the black hooker I wanted to use as the other side of the discord?
How could I bring her alive in the minds of readers? Would it be possible to put
myself in her shoes and write from her first person point of view without losing
my author/puppeteer self?
As if in response to that thought, the voice of Kitten soon came to me and stayed
with me day after day of writing at blinding speed, and her perspective brought
out more of J. C. Holland’s too. I didn’t so much write this novel as
take dictation, then revise and refine, cutting the first draft from around 500
pages to 200. In contrast to Kitten, J. C. Holland’s Pavlovian cultural conditioning
became laughable, so I let the satire roll, knowing even as I did so that some people
were going to be upset by this novel, if it ever got published. Sex between consenting
white and black was still outlawed in many states and a powerful taboo in all, the
prevailing assumption being that white and black humans were as different as chimpanzees
My father had been killed in an auto accident shortly after graduating from medical
college and completing his internship in Philadelphia when I was eleven months old;
his plan had been to study neurosurgery in Minnesota. His death dropped my mother
and me into the depths of the great depression. I grew up in what was then an orphanage,
Girard College in Philadelphia, exchanging insults with the black kids on the other
side of the wall that enclosed Girard, and spent some summers with my father’s
people in Kentucky, where one of my childhood playmates was a black kid named Robert
Gover: we were “Black Bobby and White Bobby.” I’d heard variations
on what was then called “black slang,” a term which presumed all blacks
everywhere in America spoke the same derivation of the King’s English. I’d
heard enough black people by 1959 to know this was another cultural mirage. But
that did not ease the difficulty of rendering a teenage black hooker’s slang
into words on paper. I wanted her variation on our common tongue to signal that
here was another sense of reality, but without slowing the story’s flow of
Ever since Columbus sailed west in search of gold and the slaves to dig it up for
him, the Americas have been populated by evolving combinations of “us”
and “them.” Like most European Americans of his time, JC knows he’s
right, and knows that if only “they” would open their minds, they’d
know it too. Kitten, a more clear-headed pursuer of happiness, doesn’t see
the world in such white-or-black terms. As I worked, I became delighted by how well
JC epitomized the affluent European American up against what he fearfully perceived
as the mysterious and implacable African American. Mr. Proud Has Got encounters
Miss Hungry Has Not.
My agent at the time, Jack Lewis of American Literary Exchange, had handled my three
previous attempts at the novel, entering each in literary contests, while I continued
to hold down a newspaper job. I very much enjoyed going to New York occasionally
and having lunch or dinner with Jack, listening to him dissect various novels and
reminisce about the famous authors he’d known. I thought of him as an erudite
literary connoisseur and was encouraged to know he found my work worthy.
When I sent Jack One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, his response was
an angry phone call to declare it a gross violation of good taste and say he would
represent me no more. Before the pain of that had time to fester, I got a call from
Jack’s partner, Aladar Farkis, who declared the novel brilliant and said that,
despite Jack’s rejection, he personally would handle it.
Jack had come to literary agent work from a background in Hollywood publicity. Aladar
had become a famous novelist in his youth in Hungary, moved to Paris, and fled Paris
for New York just before the Nazi occupation.
I wanted to believe Aladar was right, but Jack’s reaction was dispiriting.
How many people in the book publishing business would agree with him? Of course
it was “in bad taste.” It had to be. It kicked sacred cows and dealt
with a forbidden subject. But the novel as an artform had certainly dealt with forbidden
subjects before—that is one of its values as an artform: it can take us
beyond any era’s accepted facts to a more ancient and abiding truth. I decided
that OHDM being “in bad taste” in 1959 did not mean it was not a worthy
a novel. A novel that addressed the hidden class-and-sex foundations of a xenophobia
so holocaust-producing as America’s racism couldn’t be as unworthy as
Jack’s dismissal suggested.
A month or so went by before Aladar called to say the novel had been shopped to
a dozen or more New York publishers, all of whom rejected it. One even refused to
return the manuscript in the mail, fearing legal reprisal. It’s hard to imagine
now, but this was a time when the word fuck, in print, was viewed with
the kind of gentrified alarm elicited by war refugees today. This was a time when
newspapers would carry stories of pederasty and bestiality but ban trans-colorline
sex as too awful to print. Covering police stations in Western Pennsylvania, I’d
seen racially-mixed couples, captured the night before, brought out of their cells
the next morning to be painfully humiliated before being released out onto the street.
Aladar sent the manuscript to a French agent, his Paris connection—Ouvaroff,
I think his name was—a Russian émigré who had been blinded in the
French resistance against the Nazis. He was married to an American, who read the
novel aloud to him. He declared it “literature” and said he’d
be delighted to represent it. Quickly thereafter, La Table Ronde purchased
French language rights and retained Marcel Duhamel to translate. Duhamel would do
two drafts before retreating to the Alps with one Mimi Danzelle, an African American
who’d grown up commuting between Paris and the US, to complete the final translation.
Meanwhile, an English publisher, Neville Spearman, while roaming Paris, read the
manuscript and announced he was prepared to buy English language rights, but with
a contingency: that I change fuck to fug. I agonized and argued about this,
maintaining that changing the spelling of an ancient and enduring English word was
an absurd way to gain literary respectability, but Neville would not budge. I finally
demanded 100 percent of theatrical and film rights in return for this typographical
alteration. When he agreed, I promptly came down with an illness that almost killed
me. Recovering in Annapolis, Maryland, where I’d been covering politics for
the Annapolis Capitol, I dutifully changed each fuck to fug, then had the
final version professionally typed. This was before copy machines and computers.
A whole page had to be retyped to correct one typo.
As I made peace with the resonance of mothahfuggah, my health improved.
Doctors had advised me that I had all manner of health problems coming out of that
strange illness and that I should not exert myself in any way. As an ex-athlete,
I’d found my best medicine was hard exercise. As soon as I was able, I began
jogging, first a city block, finally ten miles. This was before running for physical
fitness had become fashionable, when policemen would assume you were running from
a crime and stop you and search you.
By this time, advances were coming in from other European publishers and other translations
were in progress. The British edition appeared first, while the French version was
still being translated; London reviewers found the novel beneath contempt. The French
edition appeared during the summer of 1961 to wonderful reviews in Le Monde
and La Figuro. The French loved both characters and relished the satire
on American hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, an American publisher named Clarkson Potter had read the novel while
visiting Paris and sent me a contract and an advance. I celebrated. However, after
Potter returned to New York and had business associates read it, he decided the
book needed revisions. Kitten, he said, was real, but JC was ridiculous and needed
to be made more...well, real. I struggled to convey that both characters were
cartoon-like exaggerations, not attempts at realism, that it was their contrasting
situations and outlooks that constituted the story’s reality. I maintained
that I could not “revise” JC without destroying the contrast and thus
the heart of the story. He severed our contract and, according to law, I was left
owing him the advance he’d paid before changing his mind.
I’d spent that advance and others from Europe to move to Atlantic City and
rent a store selling bathing suits, beach toys and souvenirs on the boardwalk, thinking
I would run the store during the summer months and this would enable me to write
during the winter months. Working as a journalist made novel writing difficult because
a reporter fills his mind with facts and figures which become meaningless as time
moves on and are replaced by a head full of other facts and figures soon to become
meaningless. Filling my gaze with the vast Atlantic and its ever-changing moods,
I reasoned that my mind would naturally focus on the timeless essentials.
That summer (1962) Gore Vidal, who had picked up the British edition in his travels,
wrote about it in his then-regular column for Esquire magazine. This was
followed by a note from Henry Miller to Barney Rossett, publisher of Grove Press.
“This novel should create a sensation!” said Henry, among other laudatory
Thereafter, Neville Spearman sold American language rights to Ian Ballantine, who
sublet hardback rights to the more daring Grove Press, which rushed out an edition
in the fall of 1962, just as a citywide strike by the printers union shut down newspapers
in New York, and the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened annihilation. It seemed the
stars were aligned for another showdown between what was and what was becoming:
Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, to be followed by the Vietnam
War resisters and alternative culture movements.
The New York Times bestseller list had not yet become purely a marketing
tool in the early 1960s, and to some degree reflected actual sales of new hardbacks.
When the printers strike ended and the “Gray Lady” returned to publication,
the novel had risen to number three position. A glowing review by novelist Herb
Gold had appeared on page three of the New York Times Sunday Book Section.
Meanwhile, some nameless corporate management person read the novel and Grove Press
was thereafter forbidden to place ads for it in the Times, a remarkable
departure from the usual publishing industry’s mutual back-scratching arrangement
with the Times.
Well, I had a history of displeasing big corporate managements. Not long out of
college, I’d been hired by Babcock & Wilcox to join their public relations
department as they were poised to bring the world nuclear power plants. I kept wondering
aloud what was to be done with the uranium, plutonium and other radioactive waste,
in view of what a public relations problem this could eventually pose. I was told
this was not something I should be concerned about. When my concern did not evaporate,
I was ordered to see the company psychiatrist once a week, then every other day,
and finally every day. The psychiatrist became miffed when I did not react with
astonishment to the news that my IQ surpassed the company’s best technical
people. At Pitt, I’d minored in psychology and my lab project was to give
four different IQ tests to around 100 students, showing that none scored highest
on all. I soon realized I’d best return to the grubbier world of newspaper
reporting where IQs were viewed with as much cynicism as politics.
Even growing up in Girard, I’d been categorized “incorrigible”
and at age sixteen would have been sent to Glenn Mills Reform School (a fearful
hellhole in those days) had I not gotten an offer from Princeton, an alumni-funded
scholarship for swimming. Girard had an amazing swimming coach, John Donlevy, and
I’d learned the butterfly when it was being invented and was still part of
the breaststroke event. A group of alumni proposed to give me a free ride through
Lawrenceville Prep School and then Princeton. In those times, about one percent
of Girard graduates went on to college, so the Princeton offer altered how the staff
at Girard perceived me.
To cut to the chase, I eventually opted for Pitt, a more blue-collar university
with an outstanding fiction writing program—rare in those days. I joined a
fraternity but, coming from an orphanage (read “greatly lacking in social
skills”), I felt marginalized. I didn’t fit in with regular guys from
suburbia, who drove cars, spent big bucks on beer blasts and cat houses, were Apple
Pie xenophobic and homophobic. For a brief time, I clandestinely dated a black girl
who worked the college cafeteria weekdays and a whorehouse weekend nights. Watching,
from behind a beaded curtain with the Madame and some pimps, white college boys
go to black whores like troops of Ole Massas to the slave cabins of yore was
a mind-expanding experience for me.
I was, in a sense, an overeager Candide searching for my own niche in society,
certain that I was fated to become a writer but uncertain what mode of writing to
pursue. At age fifteen, I’d scribbled a novel-length story in a notebook during
the Christmas break. Then I tried playwriting, film script writing, short stories
and came back to the novel as the form which is at once the most elastic and challenging.
Reactions to One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding when it first appeared
in the USA were strong, ranging from enthusiastically positive to angrily negative.
One “grand dame” came up behind me at a cocktail party to whack me over
the head with her copy. It angered white and black conservatives alike. Whites thought
Kitten was a hoot but JC was...well, “unreal.” Black conservatives
found JC a hoot but were incensed that a white novelist should presume to create
a black character. There were exceptions: word on the street had it that Malcolm
X spoke highly of the novel, and good words were written about it by conservative
torch-carrier William F. Buckley, Jr. Eldridge Cleaver applauded it in his
book, Soul on Ice. There seems to be a shadowy zone in our political spectrum
where far right and far left meet. Less educated or literal-thinking Americans tend
to read first person POV narrative as autobiography, and it’s impossible to
explain how a novelist can be at once part of and separate from fictional characters.
Some literati types told me OHDM had gotten the best reviews of any first novel
to that point in the 20th Century.
I did not send Grove an author’s photo to put on its book jacket, and soon
became accustomed to the greeting, “Oh, we thought you were Knee Grow!”
When I showed up at a book store in Greenwich Village to autograph some copies,
the manager wanted to kick me out, saying he had just met Robert Gover, “a
dapper black guy with a porkpie hat.” I had to produce a driver’s license
and other ID to pass. This Neptunian fog thickened when the Village Voice
misquoted me as saying, “I’m a communist.” The interview took
place in an exceedingly loud nightclub, Trudy Heller’s, and I did mention
communism, but only to say that I’d switched my major at Pitt from fiction
writing to economics so I could learn more about it.
Northern reviewers tended to assume the story was set in the South; Southern reviewers
assumed it was set in the North. I purposely did not specify the setting. It was
an American state of mind transcending geographic location. Well, every work of
art is something of a Rorschach test. When sex and racism is the theme, some experience
To inspect the roots of our racial xenophobia, one can do worse than read the colonial-age
Oxford Dictionary definition of the color black and contemplate Bacon’s
Rebellion in 1676, a hundred years before the Revolutionary War. The old Oxford
Dictionary defined black as “deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty,
foul. Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death,
deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister. Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horribly wicked.
Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment,” and so on. After Bacon’s
Rebellion, the American lower class was color-coded into white and black. (For details,
see Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, W. W. Norton,
1975.) Before this uprising, English and African servants/slaves were often
housed together and, nature taking its course, produced children of “mixed
race.” Bacon’s Rebellion was mounted by white, black and “Other,”
stimulating legislators to become adamant about passing the laws which created our
special brand of American separatism.
Since Europeans, Africans, Asians and Native Americans came together here under
the long shadow of the Inquisition, we’ve altered our material environment
dramatically: planes, trains, automobiles, rockets; phones, radios, television,
computers, the internet; denuded forests, poisoned seas and drinking water. But
the invisible beliefs and assumptions which constituted the Dark Ages of Europe—how
much have they changed? When we discover our water sources have been polluted, instead
of cleaning them up, we sell each other bottled water. Cleaning up costs money;
selling makes money. One of my favorite novel-writing students, Kirsten Dodge (Let
Me See) put it this way: “If it’s worth doing, it’s
worth doing for money.” That may be the very essence of our culture.
In One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, JC isn’t constituted to question
the beliefs and assumptions he’s inherited from the European Dark Ages. And
in the novel’s two sequels, he clings to the only assumptions he knows, even
through those chaotic, transformative years now called The Sixties. I imagine him
today drinking top-shelf whiskey and taking a handful of prescribed medications
faithfully while boosting and benefiting from our famous “war on drugs.”
Kitten, although she understands JC’s incapacitating hypocrisy, has followed
her prescribed path through American reality, and it has not led her to a home in
the suburbs and credit cards galore.
Since The Sixties, so-called interracial couples have become fairly common, but
the Supreme Court has fortified our system of plutocracy masquerading as democracy
by declaring campaign contributions a form of free speech. The Bush Administration’s
“evidence of racial equality”—Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell—is
evidence that affluence trumps skin color. Today, one could change the skin colors
of the two characters in this novel without changing the satire on America’s
economic class system.
Occasionally, someone suggests I write another novel in this series so we find out
what becomes of JC and Kitten after The Sixties. It lights the imagination:
they meet in the Congressional cloakroom circa 2005. He’s a lobbyist pushing
more corporate welfare for health insurance and drug companies; she sneaks into
her Congressman’s office to match his list of campaign contributors with her
list of johns.
All but gone from such an updated version would be the lightning bolt of youthful
sexual attraction which jumped the economic gap back in The Sixties. In the temper
of these times, they’d be confrontational ideological enemies. They just wouldn’t
dress up half as nicely today as they did when the spirit of the times was young,
dumb, and full of come. So I leave them as they were, caught like a pair of bygone
movie stars, circa 1960, in an old-fashioned still photo.