Discovering John Howard Griffin: A Life Worth Remembering, a Novel Worth Reading
John Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century — and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.
John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) is known best for the book that inspired people in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, to hang him in effigy from a traffic light on Main Street. The book is Black Like Me (1961), an account of his six weeks in the Deep South passing as a Negro.
A decade before Black Like Me, Griffin’s first novel, The Devil Rides Outside (Smith’s, Inc. 1952), had created another sort of stir. Hailed by the Saturday Review (“This first novel has in it the power of life itself”) and the New York Herald-Tribune (“this big symphonic novel sets up a theme worth writing about and attacks it with passion, knowledge, and the authority of experience”), the Book of the Month Club selection sold well (400,000 copies in hardcover and paper), and later in the decade the critic Maxwell Geismar declared The Devil Rides Outside one of the best novels of the 1950s. Meanwhile, Griffin’s “long, strong, and tormented story of the war between the flesh and the spirit” was condemned by the Legion of Decency and became the subject of a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Felix Frankfurter: “The state [Michigan] insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely this is to burn the house to roast the pig.”
Blindness and Beethoven
The Devil Rides Outside is absolutely unique among American novels of its time, or any time, for that matter. How could it not be? It was written by a blind musicologist from Texas whose formative years were spent in France. Since he felt more comfortable speaking French, Griffin told the story into a wire-recorder each night, translating the French into English the following day and typing it. The blind author needed a week to learn how to get around on a typewriter and seven weeks to complete the first draft of what would be a 596-page novel. In Griffin’s autobiography, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision, he says he began The Devil Rides Outside with Beethoven’s Quartet, Opus 131 in mind, “a work that I knew intimately. The characters enter as Beethoven’s themes enter and are developed in the same way …. When the thematics of the novel did not match the music, I changed the novel.”
A year before the book’s publication in 1952, Griffin converted to Catholicism, having written himself “into the church” by reliving in fiction his time in the monastery at Solesmes, France, and the Benedictine Abbey there, “the motherhouse of the Gregorian Chant,” where he had a cell and was allowed to work on various original manuscripts. At the same time, his sight was “rapidly diminishing,” and when he became totally blind and could no longer work on the music, he experienced “an unexpected awakening to the realities of the spirit” that eventually led to a friendship with philosopher and longtime Princeton resident Jacques Maritain.
The problem with writing about Griffin is that his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction personal history diverts attention from his literary labors. This man’s whole life is like a novel written to enlighten readers about the nature of faith and vision in a world blinded and violated by prejudice. Born into a genteel Texas family that detested the vulgarity of racism but treated segregation as an absolute, Griffin went to France at age 15 as a scholarship student at the Lycée Descartes, then to the University of Poitiers in Tours to study music and psychiatry, becoming assistant to the director of an asylum where he experimented with the therapeutic effects of music, the Gregorian Chant in particular. With the Nazi occupation of France imminent, and having by then been shamed by his French friends into accepting that blacks were allowed to eat in the same restaurant with whites, he saw the lethal evils of another form of racism first-hand. Staying on to oversee the asylum when the director was conscripted, he joined the underground resistance, using the asylum ambulances to transport children of Jews out of Tours to the country and then to the port of Saint Nazaire. Discovered by the Gestapo while attempting to help an Austrian family, he escaped to the U.K., returned to Texas at the age of 21, joined the Army Air Force, was shipped to Guadalcanal, and then to the Solomon Islands on a special mission that involved living with the natives. Wounded by a bomb that caused the concussion that ultimately destroyed his sight, he married, had three children, wrote The Devil Rides Outside and Nuni (about his time in the Solomons), and in 1957, after a decade of blindness, he suddenly regained his sight and saw his wife and children for the first time. Two years later he dyed his skin and lived the nightmare of prejudice described in Black Like Me.
That’s only a shamefully superficial tour of Griffin’s “once in a century” life.
An Incredible Work
What is it like, then, this massive, passionately written novel? Right away you’re caught up in a first-person present-tense narrative that’s sustained throughout except for an 11-page past-tense flashback. The present-tense creates a sense of acceleration and sometimes seemingly involuntary forward movement. Griffin says he used it to “feel the immediacy of the experience in contrast to the eternal rhythms” of the monastery. He chose not to name his protagonist, intending his anonymity to match that of “those unknown masters who had composed the chants centuries ago.”
Knowing that Griffin, like the American music student who narrates the story, has studied Gregorian Chant, you become aware of the way the prose evokes a chanted rhythm that can seem alternately incantatory and prayerful; the effect is of intense, charged passages of prose encompassing long interludes of dialogue. In the notes I made even before I learned that he’d dictated the narrative in French, my way of describing Griffin’s often awkward, fragmented, unstable style was to compare it to reading something in a sound and occasionally eccentric English translation.
You can get an idea of what the reading experience is like in the following passage:
It grows late. Nothing satisfies. I open a volume of Rilke, but I can’t read. I stand at my window, nose pressed against the pane, breath fogging the glass, and stare down the street. Strange brassy tonality of the full moon, now breaking through the clouds onto clustered housetops: more abstract, more frozen than abstraction. We strive for warmth in color to forget these scenes, these moments, these liturgies of dissonance, these cold angles lost in heavy shadows, just as we try to live warmly to escape death.
It’s a passage in which you hear more than you see, with the “brassy tonality” of the moon on the other side of fogged glass, a moon that isn’t shining so much as blaring, an abstraction imagined by a man speaking into darkness, unable to make out the equally abstracted housetops. Rather than seeing color, he seems to want to wrap himself in its warmth. This is heavily, almost oppressively internalized writing, driven by a visceral “power of life,” that breaks through the divisions of the senses and not always gracefully.
“A frightful and horrible creature”
While the novel’s first third is essentially concerned with the American’s relationships inside the monastery, its most eventful scenes occur outside the walls in the town where he rents a room in a villa overseen by Madame Renée, a middleaged widow who sees to his needs, arranges for a maid, cooks delicious meals for him, and slowly, subtly begins to impose herself, body and soul, on his life. What begins as an innocuous relationship develops into a battle that by the end has become a matter of spiritual life and death.
The reviewers’ comparisons of Griffin to Balzac are inspired by the creation of Madame Renée, the embodiment of French subterfuge and perversity so vividly documented by the author of the Human Comedy. In his New York Times review, Orville Prescott refers to Griffin’s “gruesomely expert study of a hysterical woman consumed by vanity, hypocrisy, and old-fashioned meanness … a frightful and horrible creature, but never a monster. She is pitifully human, too.” He goes on to observe that she is “a character such as Balzac would have enjoyed writing about.” Of course Balzac, the master, not only wrote about such characters, he invented them and the France they inhabited, much as Dickens invented England.
In and Out of Print
The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown on this day, July 16, in 1951, was put into best-seller orbit by the Book of the Month Club. A year later, the BOMC did the same for The Devil Rides Outside. Salinger’s book has been read by millions and will be in print, it seems, forever. Unless you troll the net for a used copy, Griffin’s novel, which has long been out of print, is available only as an e-book. According to amazon, it can apparently be downloaded on Kindle for $7.95.
Anyone interested in knowing more about John Howard Griffin and his work should visit www.wingspress.com, which published the Kindle version of The Devil Rides Outside, along with other fiction, non-fiction, and photography by Griffin, not to mention a book I found especially helpful, Robert Bonazzi’s Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.
Black Like Me promises to be in print indefinitely, however. A 50th anniversary edition issued in 2011 is available at the Princeton Public Library. In February of that year, 50 years after his hometown had hung him in effigy and driven him and his family into exile in Mexico, the former first lady Laura Bush came to Mansfield to unveil a plaque honoring Griffin at a ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Mansfield Public Library.
Note: The image of the battered cover of The Devil Rides Outside shown here belongs to the copy I’d been meaning to read ever since I found it many years ago for 25 cents in a Hutchinson Kansas rental-library book store that was going out of business. My excuse for finally reading this amazing novel was due to an online error that gives Griffin’s birth date as July 16 when in fact it is June 16. Serendipity works in strange and wonderful ways.