III: Black Renaissance
Maybe everybody is sentimental about his college days. Certainly I loved Lincoln. My years there were happy years, jolly and full of fun. Besides I learned a few things. And I wrote Not Without Laughter.
The ideas for my first novel had been in my head for a long time. I wanted to write about a typical Negro family in the Middle West, about people like those I had known in Kansas. But mine was not a typical Negro family. My grandmother never took in washing or worked in service or went much to church. She had lived in Oberlin and spoke perfect English, without a trace of dialect. She looked like an Indian. My mother was a newspaper woman and a stenographer then. My father lived in Mexico City. My granduncle had been a congressman. And there were heroic memories of John Brown’s raid and the underground railroad in the family storehouse.
But I thought maybe I had been a typical Negro boy. I grew up with the other Negro children of Lawrence, sons and daughters of family friends. I had an uncle of sorts who ran a barber shop in Kansas City. And later I had a step-father who was a wanderer. We were poor—but different. For purposes of the novel, however, I created around myself what seemed to me a family more typical of Negro life in Kansas than my own had been. I gave myself aunts that I didn’t have, modeled after other children’s aunts whom I had known. But I put in a real cyclone that had blown my grandmother’s front porch away. And I added dances and songs I remembered. I brought the boy to Chicago in his teens, as I had come to Chicago—but I did not leave behind a well-fixed aunt whose husband was a mail clerk.
I wrote the book during the summer following my junior year at Lincoln. The authorities said I might remain in the empty dormitory and write. For two weeks I didn’t do anything. But the time passed like two days. Then suddenly I began with the storm, and my characters seemed to live in the room where I worked. Their chairs and tables were there, too, and the lamp. Then I wrote out short histories for all my characters as they came to life—how old they were, where born, things that had happened to them, and what might happen to them. Also why.
These sketches and outlines I tacked on the wall above the table where I worked. Then I began the second chapter. At first, I did a chapter or two a day and revised them the next day. But they seemed bad; in fact, so bad I finally decided to write the whole story straight through to the end before re-reading anything. This I did in about six weeks. Then I went to Provincetown for a vacation before classes opened in the fall.
All that winter, my senior year, I re-read and re-worked my novel. The following summer, after graduation, I again stayed on the campus in a big, empty theological dormitory all alone. I began to cut my novel, which was far too bulky. As I cut and polished, revised and rewrote, the people in the book seemed to walk around the room and talk, to me, helping me write. Aunt Hager and Annjee and Jimboy were there. And an oil light burned on my table—as in Kansas.
That night when Harriett ran away to join the carnival was almost more than I could stand. I knew I would miss her. (I had never really had an aunt who ran away to join a carnival, but I wanted to have one. And there wasn’t really any oil light in the dormitory.)
At the end of the summer the book was not finished, but I thought it was, so I went to Canada. When I came back to New York and read it, it seemed so bad it made me sick. So I went to work once more. I couldn’t bear to have the people I had grown to love locked up in long pages of uncomfortable words, awkward sentences, and drawnout passages. I began to cut and re-write, page after page. I was lucky now to have a sympathetic and excellent typist, Louise Thompson, who must have done certain pages over for me so often she could have recited by heart their varying versions.
So all that winter in New Jersey I worked on the novel. Finally it had to go to the printer. Galley proofs came. Page proofs. And at last it was on the stands: Not Without Laughter. Distributed to San Francisco and Melbourne, Bombay and London, Tokio and Paris. Listen, Aunt Hager! Listen, Harriett! Listen, Annjee! Listen, Jimboy! Hey, Benbow! I wanted to make you as wonderful as you really are—but it takes a lot of skill in words. And I don’t know how.
I went to Far Rockaway that summer and felt bad, because I had wanted their novel to be better than the published one I had given them; I hated to let them down.