In the second installment of the American Dreams series, Nathaniel Rich reads a seminal African-American novel about crossing the color line, ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man’ by James Weldon Johnson. On its 100th anniversary Johnson's novel deserves recognition for its rich American themes and influence in the next generation of African-American writers.
Set with the challenge of humanizing his race for white readers, James Weldon Johnson realized that it was not enough to create a hero who was shrewd, intelligent, and valiant. His hero also had to be a conceited ass.
James Weldon Johnson. (Corbis)
The anonymous narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man has never encountered a skill or trade that he cannot instantly master. As a 12-year-old he discovers, after several piano lessons, that he is not merely an “infant prodigy,” but “a true artist.” Later, thanks to this “natural talent,” he becomes “a remarkable player of rag-time,” “indeed…the best rag-time player in New York”—a distinction that would place him ahead of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. Language comes to him as easily as music. After spending a year at a cigar factory, he can speak Spanish “like a native”—“In fact, it was my pride that I spoke better Spanish than many of the Cuban workmen.” In Paris, after “an astonishingly short time,” he acquires “a more than ordinary command of French”; a few months in Berlin and he’s fluent in German. The narrator enjoys flagrant successes in love (“I say, without any egotistic pride, that among my admirers were several of the best-looking women”) and money (“Concerning the position which I now hold I shall say nothing except that it pays extremely well”). There is nothing the man can’t do, in the post-Reconstruction South—except, of course, be seen on the street with a white woman, eat at a white restaurant, or be acknowledged in public by his white father.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is the first African-American novel written entirely in the first person, but Johnson did not have literary innovation in mind. He sincerely hoped that the book would pass as nonfiction. For this reason Johnson had to publish the book anonymously, since by 1912 he was already a hugely successful popular songwriter, Broadway celebrity, and the U.S. consul to Nicaragua. A cigar was named after him.
In the first installment of American Dreams, Nathaniel Rich finds in the 1902 novel "Brewster’s Millions"—the amusing story of man who has to blow $1 million—a parable about the emerging America of the time.
1902: Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
Actor and manager Gerald Du Maurier (1873 - 1934) in a scene from the play, 'Brewster's Millions.' (Hulton Archive-Getty Images)
Brewster’s Millions, a novel about a bet, was written on a bet. George Barr McCutcheon was visiting his publisher when the subject of bestselling novels came up in conversation.
“The name of the author is what sells the book,” remarked the publisher.
What American novels best tell the story of the 20th-century? In a new monthly series, Nathaniel Rich sets out to chart the history of the American Century through its novelists and their work.
If history is written by the winners, who tells the story of the losers? Who sings of the strivers, con men, lechers, failed artists, degenerates, alcoholics, barbiturate poppers, neurotics, depressives, hustlers, cranky intellectuals, dissolute heirs, and whores? The novelist—that’s who. These losers are the heroes of most of the greatest novels of the 20th century. With apologies to Howard Zinn, the people’s history of the United States has been written by its novelists. And it’s a living document.
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2012. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
The whole project will be extremely subjective and idiosyncratic, like all reading of fiction. Some of the novels will have been, at the time of publication, the most-discussed book of the year (Catch-22, Valley of the Dolls, The Bonfire of the Vanities come to mind); in other cases I’ll choose novels that were ignored initially, but discovered later (The Great Gatsby, say, or The Day of the Locust, which sold 22 copies in Nathanael West’s lifetime). There will also be books neglected both at their birth and today, but deserving of attention. The hope each month will be to find a novel that defines the age in which it was written with an intimacy and nuance unmatched by any history book, newspaper article, or film.
What American novels best tell the story of the 20th-century? In a monthly series, Nathaniel Rich sets out to chart the history of the American Century through its novelists and their work.
Writer George Packer mostly succeeds in describing the dissolution of our civic culture, says Michael Tomasky.