Authors: Howard Fast
To those who are the most unfortunate
victims of race hatredâthe children,
in the hope that they will grow up in
a cleaner and better world.
T WAS TWELVE YEARS AGO THAT I FINISHED WRITING
. And, looking back, it seems to me that writing it was the most difficult literary task I had ever attempted, both in a physical and in a creative sense.
At the time, I was working twelve to fourteen hours a day in a factory in downtown New York. I followed the storybook maxim of the writer who would write, come what may, come heaven or hell. Rising with the dawn, I drank two or three cups of strong coffee; and I managed to write a little, a page or two, each day. It wasn't a pleasant process, or one that I consider particularly helpful to the creative life. My wages at that timeâand you will remember that those were very bad timesâwere eleven dollars a week; my health was not good. I was always tiredâI always dreamed of the two or three extra hours of sleep which I had to deny myself or stop writing. And when I finished, when I finally wrote the last page of a book that had come out of my very gut, I realized that it was like nothing else that I had ever read, and would therefore probably be consigned to a desk drawer forever. In the two years that followed, I wrote almost nothing at all.
In the beginning, I rejected the manuscript myself. I put it away for three months and did absolutely nothing with it. Then I read in the papers that Whit Burnett, who was editor of Story magazine, was deeply interested in the short novel, and I left the book at his office. A week later, it became a discovery, and I was invited down to Story magazine to be told what a wonderful young talent I wasâand to participate in the general excitement. This was one of their findsâas was most carefully explained to meâone of the reasons why their little magazine justified its existence. Of course, it was very long for a magazine, 45,000 words, and they would not think of cutting any of it, so they had to investigate the possibility of a special type of word-spacing, something that would permit almost twice the usual word-length on a page. The expense this involved was very considerable for a magazine like Story, and therefore they could not pay a great deal for it.
“How much?” I asked them.
“Fifty dollars,” they said.
I turned this over in my mind. On a word basis, it was somewhat more than a tenth of a cent per word, a remarkable record for literary payment; but if I computed the hours I had spent on it during the past year, a thousand hours at the very least, I arrived at the magnificent wage of five cents an hour. I arrived at an estimate of what it was worth to break your heart and your head because you thought that the literary art was the proudest and the most worthy that man had learned. Then and there, I arrived at a decisionâto write no more, to dig ditches, to operate a machine, to ride the freights, but to write no more.
Well, I didn't keep to that decision, and I managed to get Story to raise its price to one hundred dollars. But I never again wrote for one of the little magazines. I don't blame Whit Burnett for that condition; his was an unending struggle to keep alive the one outlet a sincere writer then had, and his was also a most considerable contribution to the literature of the 'thirties. But I did look with some new degree of understanding at a society that can offer the artist only poverty, hopelessness, and an occasional crumb of sustenanceâa society that drives him to prostitution as certainly as it drives the poor women who walk the streets. I remember, some years later, discussing this with Stuart Rose, who was then an editor of The Ladies' Home Journal. I no longer had to work in a factory, because Mr. Rose was buying most of the stories I wrote, and he was paying me six hundred dollars apiece for them. They were not good stories; they were not stories I was proud of then, and I would be less proud of them in the future, but they represented mountains of hamburger and steak and bread and butter. Mr. Rose said to me, one day, when I was lunching with him in Philadelphia:
“You know, I never read anything like
. It was a poem. It moved me tremendously.” He thought I should write more things like that, and he couldn't understand why I disagreed with him.
appeared in the March, 1937, issue of Story magazine. James J. Fee, Police Inspector of Lynn, Massachusetts, read his first copy of Story and decided that
was “the rottenest thing I ever read!” The two copies that usually went to Lynn were promptly seized. The next day, it was banned in Waterbury, Connecticut, and six hundred orders from that town promptly came in to Story. The ban spread over New England, which has been sensitive about such matters ever since Hawthorne was threatened with jail, whipping, and exile because he wrote
The Scarlet Letter
. This was the first time in six years that Story had been banned, and it resulted in one of the largest press runs the magazine had ever known.
Since that time, for one reason or another, book publication has been put off. During the war years, I felt that no piece of writing was of any great import unless it contributed something or other to the struggle we were waging for our very existence, and immediately after the war I had another book that I wished to have published first. So now, at long last, I am seeing
in book form. It is almost exactly as I wrote it. Only the most minor editorial changes have been made.
I have no apologies to make for
. When I picked it up, a few months before this writing, I read it for the first time in a full decade. It was like reading the work of a stranger, and I could bring to it that relationship a writer almost never has with his own workâthat of complete objectivity. Even the various incidents in the tale had been forgotten. I reacted as a reader does, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with disappointment, but always with incredulous interest that so pure and naive a sense of horror could be woven and sustained. Twelve years ago, I was close enough to childhood to remember the moods, the incidents, and the emotions described; today, as I approach my middle thirties, the curtain has already dropped, and there is no way back. The child's world is his, and it is barred to the adult. If the story told here is successful, it is mainly because the child's point of view has been sustained.
When I wrote it, I wrote out of bitterness and hate for what our society does to children; nor do I think that situation has appreciably bettered itself. Racismâand the murderous lesser 'isms it breedsâis the curse and cancer of modern America; it is a radio-active effusion that penetrates to every level of our society, and unless we destroy it, as surely as the earth exists, it will destroy us.
I do not think I could write of the sickness of race-hatred today in terms anywhere like these. Too much has happened in the world since 1934, and too much has changed. In 1934, there was one year of Hitlerism, and we still believed those who said Hitler would not last a thousand days. Today, fifty million dead attest the hell that fascism can produce. The writer, today, has a responsibility he cannot ignore, and if I wrote about these matters today, I would have to examine far more completely the source which these children reflect.
And finally, there is the slum, the jelly on which the germ is bred. If anything, twelve years have given us more and worse slums. If this small tale does anything to help replace them with decent housing, it will be well worth the printing.
P THE STREET, SLOWLY, OLLIE SWAGGEKED, HIS HEAD
cocked, his hands in pockets bulging with the immies he had won. Because he knew he would win again; he knew he could go on winning until there wasn't another immie left in the world. He selected a round beautiful red glassy, and tossed it away. That was the way Ollie felt.
The world was full of hot sunlight and red brick walls, and the world, stretching from avenue to avenue, was held in by the walls. Maybe that was why Ollie loomed so big, because the world was so small. Big and small, big and small; but, until something larger came, Ollie was king. He knew he was king, and he attempted to walk like a king, brushing back his long yellow hair from his eyes, throwing back his head. Still, it was an easy world to be king of now, dozing and hot, and all sort of vague. Ollie was conscious of that vagueness that came in the middle of the summer-time; it made him too lazy, even, to fight. It was easy to be king, and, if' nobody wanted to fight, you didn't want to fight yourself. What then?
He rattled his immies, and then he noticed a little Jew sitting on the curb. Dimly, as a king, he knew that the little Jew's name was Ishky.
“Hey, yuh stinkin' kikel” Ollie yelled good-naturedly.
“Wanna shoot immies? Aincha got none?”
“Yer a shark.”
“G'wan, I ain'.”
“Awright, denâgimme yer immies.”
“Aw, Ollie,” the little Jew began to beg.
“Yuh heard me.”
“I'll play yuh.”
“Gimme dem,” Ollie commanded. Again he brushed back his yellow hair, weaving luxuriously. The sun was hot; it is never so hot as in July, and no matter how many times they wet the streets, it does no good. You can't cool streets when they become hot as the summer sun.
Then Ollie walked away with four more immies. He was eleven years and two months, Ollie was, with yellow hair and blue eyes. He was a king; his eyes twinkled like the blue sky, and he was beautiful.
Ollie, because he was beautifulânot like Ralph the Wop; I just sat there after he had taken my four immies, and after a little while the hot sun made me feel better inside of myself. There was a big hole in my shoe, and there was a hole in my stocking, too, so I could see my large toe, watch it as I moved it about from side to side and then up and down. There was the toe and the street and the sun, and anyway I would have lost the immies sooner or later.