Mozart and Leadbelly
In the early sixties, many of my colleagues were leaving the United States for Europe, Africa, Mexico, and so on, where they planned to write their great novels. They felt that America had become too money-crazed for them to live here and concentrate on their work. I was supposed to leave in the summer of 1962 with a man and his wife for Guadalajara, Mexico. I had been working on Catherine Carmier for three years but was getting nowhere with it. I had written it from an omniscient point of view, a first-person point of view, and a multiple point of view. I had changed the plot many times. Nothing seemed to work, and I figured it was because I needed to get away from the country, as my friends were doing. I was working at the post office during the summer of 1962 when my friend and his wife left for Mexico; I told them that I had to make some more money first, and that I would join them before the end of the year.
But something happened that summer of 1962 that would change my life forever. James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Every night we watched the news--my family, my friends, and I--and it seemed that we cared for nothing else or spoke of nothing else but the bravery of this one young man. It seemed that when we spoke of his courage, I felt family and friends looking at me. Maybe it was just my sense of guilt. One night in October or November, I wrote my friends in Mexico a letter: "Dear Jim and Carol, I am sorry but I will not be joining you. I must go back home to write my book. My best wishes, Ernie."
I contacted an uncle and aunt in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and they told me I could come and stay as long as I wanted to. So on January 3, 1963, a friend of mine drove me to the train station in Oakland, California, and fifty-two hours later I was in Baton Rouge. I had come back to Louisiana twice since leaving in 1948, but each time for only a week or two, and both times I lived with relatives out on the plantation where I was born. This time it would be for six months, and this time I would stay in town. I was determined to live as all the others did, and if that meant demonstrations and a run-in with the police, then let it be so. But at that time very few civil rights demonstrations were going on in Baton Rouge. And if the police did show up, they stood back watching but never tried to interfere physically with the gathering.
Uncle George and my Aunt Mamie had a four-bedroom house, and there were other people living in the house: their son, Joe, and three other nephews. Each Sunday we would drive out into the country to the old place where I was born and raised until I left for California. We would visit the old people, who would have dinner waiting for us--chicken, greens, rice, beans, a cake--and we would have lemonade and all sit down in the kitchen eating and talking. Then I would leave them and I would walk through the quarter back into the fields, and I would cross the rows where the cane had been cut looking for a stalk of cane that might have been left behind. On finding one I would peel it with my knife and chew it slowly, enjoying the sweetness of it. I would look back across the rows and remember when my mother and father and all the others in the quarter used to work these same fields.
And I would turn and look toward the quarter back at the cemetery where my folks had been buried for four generations, and I would go into the cemetery and look for pecans. If I found some I would crack them with my teeth as I had done as a small child and I would feel very comfortable and safe there because that is where Aunty, who had raised me, was buried. I did not know the exact place because the grave had never been marked, but I would feel more peace at that moment than I ever did in California.
By eight o'clock each weekday morning everyone except me would have left the house for work or school, and I would have the entire place to myself, along with my ballpoint pens, unlined yellow paper, and Royal portable typewriter. I would think about Catherine Carmier and Jackson and their families and loves and prejudices, and I would rewrite everything that I had written in San Francisco the past four years. I would work until about three or three-thirty and put everything away until the next day. Not long after arriving in Baton Rouge, I was introduced to a group of schoolteachers, and in the early evenings we would meet in restaurants, where we would sit and talk. When I was not with this group, I would go to a bar to join my uncle and his friends. My uncle worked as a janitor for one of the local oil companies near Baton Rouge. By my uncle's friends I mean ride hard laborers--those who did the dirty work. I would join them in a bar, and we would have a setup, which was a pint of whiskey, a bowl of ice, a pitcher of water, and maybe a bottle of 7 UP or Coca-Cola, and each man fixed his own drink. Many times when I reached into the bowl to get ice, I noticed bits of sand and gravel in the bottom of the bowl. At first I was apprehensive; maybe I did not need ice after all. But after looking at these guys, who appeared pretty healthy to me, I concluded that a little dirt would not kill me either.
Baton Rouge was a dry town on Sundays; so I, along with some of the younger men, would go across the Mississippi River into Port Allen, down to the White Eagle bar. The White Eagle was a rough place, and there were always fights, but I wanted to experience it all. One novel, Of Love and Dust, and a short story, "Three Men," came out of my experience at the White Eagle bar. I knew now why I'd had such difficulty writing my novel in San Francisco; I had lost touch with this world that I wanted to write about. After living in Baton Rouge for six months, traveling across Louisiana, fishing in the river, hunting in the swamps, eating in small caf*s, drinking in bars, writing five hours a day, five days a week, I was ready to go back to San Francisco to finish my novel. By then I had received an education in Louisiana history, geography, sociology, and its people that my books in California never could have given me and my running away to Mexico would not have helped. I started collecting blues records while attending San Francisco State College in the mid-fifties and inviting friends to my room to listen to the music. Most of the whites would listen to the records out of curiosity; this was before the Rolling Stones of England had made white America aware of the art and value of black blues singers. The white boys and girls of San Francisco wanted to listen because it was "exciting." However, very few of my African American friends from the college wanted to listen to it at all because they wanted to forget what those ignorant Negroes were singing about. They had come to California to forget about those days and those ways.
A lady friend of mine in Washington, D.C., once told me that she knew a young African American male who would always get in an elevator whistling a tune of Mozart. I, too, like Mozart; I like Haydn, Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin. I like Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, A Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams--I like them all. And though Mozart and Haydn soothe my brain while I write, neither can tell me about the Great Flood of '27 as Bessie Smith or Big Bill Broonzy can. And neither can describe Louisiana State Prison at Angola as Leadbelly can. And neither can tell me what it means to be bonded out of jail and be put on a plantation to work out your time as Lightnin' Hopkins can. William Faulkner writes over one hundred pages describing the Great Flood of '27 in his story "Old Man." Bessie Smith gives us as true a picture in twelve lines. I am not putting Faulkner down; Faulkner is one of my favorite writers, and what Southern writer has not been influenced by him in the past fifty years? What I am saying to that young man who found it desirable to whistle Mozart in the elevator is that there is some value in whistling Bessie Smith or Leadbelly.
After publishing Catherine Carmier, my first novel, I tried publishing my Bloodline stories. Bloodline in the title means the common experience of all the male characters from the youngest to the oldest; they were all part of the same experience in the South at that time, between the 1940s and the 1960s. I thought that the stories were good enough and long enough to make a book. My editor, Bill Decker at Dial Press, felt the same way, but he told me that I needed another novel out there before he would publish the stories. Catherine Carmier had not sold more than fifteen hundred copies, which meant that hardly anyone had heard of the book. "Write a novel," the publisher told me, "and we will publish both the novel and the stories." "But those stories are good," I said; "they will make my name." "We know that," they said, "but no one knows your name now and we need a novel first."
On the plantation where I grew up in the forties were some tough people and mean people and hardworking people; they could load more cane, plow a better row, control their women--most of them would brag about having more than one woman. When the plantation system changed to sharecropping, many of these people left the plantation for the big cities, and there was always news about them getting into fights and getting themselves killed or sent to Angola State Prison for life. H (yes, that is a name) was one of those tough guys; he was tall, very handsome, and tough. He was shot point-blank when he was trying to climb through a window after hearing that his woman was with another man. Two or three months after this happened, I was back in Louisiana, and a group of us went over to the White Eagle bar. One of my friends pointed to a guy three tables away from us and said, "That is the fellow that killed H." "What the hell is he doing here?" I asked. "Shouldn't he be in jail?" "He was the good nigger," my friend said. "You don't have to go to the pen when a good nigger kills a bad nigger. A white man can pay your bond and you work for him for five to seven years."
I could not get that image of this guy sitting there in his blue silk shirt, blue slacks, and two-toned shoes from my mind, and back in San Francisco one day while listening to Lightnin' Hopkins and "Tim Moore's Farm," I thought about this guy at the White Eagle who had killed H. Suppose now, just suppose, I said to myself, you take a guy like this and you put him on a plantation to work off his time under a tough, brutal white overseer: what do you think would happen between the two of them? I wrote a first draft of this novel in three months and sent it to New York. My editor sent it back to me with this note: "I liked the first part of your manuscript; I liked the second part of your manuscript. However, the two parts have nothing in common but the characters. In the first half you have a tragedy; in the second, a farce. Go back and do it one way or the other; stick to tragedy." I wrote him back, "But the State of Louisiana did not see this as a tragedy. I have proof of that." Bill wrote back, "Too bad for the State of Louisiana."
And he was right about the novel. The first half was serious, the second was not. But I thought that if the State of Louisiana would not take the death of this young man seriously, why shouldn't I make a farce out of it? "Your Marcus killed another human being," Bill said; "you let him con the people on that plantation every way that he can, then you let him escape with the overseer's wife. No, that is not right; he should pay, or in this case let's take a different route." What happened in reality was that I rewrote the novel in three months and sent it back to Bill. He said that I had improved it 100 percent, but he told me to run it through the typewriter one more time, and he would publish both the novel and the Bloodline stories.
Bloodline is the beginning of going back into the past. I realized after writing Catherine Carmier that I had only touched on what I wanted to say about the old place and the people who lived there. My own folks are African, European, and Native American; they had lived in the same parish for four generations before me. My siblings and I are the fifth generation, and my brother's children are the sixth. There are no diaries, journals, letters, or any written words left by the old people, but there are people on that plantation who could tell me about my grandparents' grandparents and about the other old people of that time. Some of the stories were horrible, others were funny, but they were educational.
Until I was fifteen, I lived with my aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson. Because my aunt could not go to other people's houses, they would come to our house. They would talk and talk and talk, and I would listen. When there was no school and I was not needed in the fields, I often was kept at the house to make coffee or serve water. I also wrote letters for the old people. I have been asked many times about when I started writing, and for years I said I started at the age of sixteen. Now that I think back, I started writing on that plantation at the age of twelve.