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3571 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding:
The Evolution of a “Foul, Iniquitous, Atrocious, Horribly Wicked” Best-Seller

Robert Gover

In my early years—probably way before you were born, dear reader—I was fascinated by the powerful taboo against miscegenation, “race mixing,” as it was called then. As a child, my mother had passed on a hush-hush family secret: I was part Indian (i.e., Native American). I look Irish. During my twenties as I struggled to become a novelist, the subject of racism haunted me. How might it be handled in a new novel? I chanced upon a hint while watching Boris and Natasha on the Bullwinkle TV cartoon show. Could it work to use such cartoonish exaggerations in a novel?

At that time, newspaper headlines screamed Red Menace, racism poisoned the social atmosphere, John Steinbeck got only a paragraph in Encyclopedia Britannica while Ernest Hemingway got a full page, Henry Miller was deemed a pornographer, and Gore Vidal was dismissed as a homosexual. Novels dealing with race, sex, politics or money were considered “in bad taste.” My urge was to kick these cultural “forbiddens” in the knees, which is why I found Boris and Natasha so refreshing. Cartoon characters can be “off the reservation” in ways that realistic depictions cannot be.

For years I’d been struggling to write a “serious” novel about racism, but I had not found a way to cut through the nonsense and get to what I felt was the essence of it: sex and money. Inspired to test the possibilities of “the cartoon novel,” I went back to work with new energy.

I found that by using the first-person perspective for the male character, I could get at the combination of ignorance and arrogance that is at the heart of racism. But what about the black hooker I wanted to use as the other side of the discord? How could I bring her alive in the minds of readers? Would it be possible to put myself in her shoes and write from her first person point of view without losing my author/puppeteer self?

As if in response to that thought, the voice of Kitten soon came to me and stayed with me day after day of writing at blinding speed, and her perspective brought out more of J. C. Holland’s too. I didn’t so much write this novel as take dictation, then revise and refine, cutting the first draft from around 500 pages to 200. In contrast to Kitten, J. C. Holland’s Pavlovian cultural conditioning became laughable, so I let the satire roll, knowing even as I did so that some people were going to be upset by this novel, if it ever got published. Sex between consenting white and black was still outlawed in many states and a powerful taboo in all, the prevailing assumption being that white and black humans were as different as chimpanzees and gorillas.

My father had been killed in an auto accident shortly after graduating from medical college and completing his internship in Philadelphia when I was eleven months old; his plan had been to study neurosurgery in Minnesota. His death dropped my mother and me into the depths of the great depression. I grew up in what was then an orphanage, Girard College in Philadelphia, exchanging insults with the black kids on the other side of the wall that enclosed Girard, and spent some summers with my father’s people in Kentucky, where one of my childhood playmates was a black kid named Robert Gover: we were “Black Bobby and White Bobby.” I’d heard variations on what was then called “black slang,” a term which presumed all blacks everywhere in America spoke the same derivation of the King’s English. I’d heard enough black people by 1959 to know this was another cultural mirage. But that did not ease the difficulty of rendering a teenage black hooker’s slang into words on paper. I wanted her variation on our common tongue to signal that here was another sense of reality, but without slowing the story’s flow of events.

Ever since Columbus sailed west in search of gold and the slaves to dig it up for him, the Americas have been populated by evolving combinations of “us” and “them.” Like most European Americans of his time, JC knows he’s right, and knows that if only “they” would open their minds, they’d know it too. Kitten, a more clear-headed pursuer of happiness, doesn’t see the world in such white-or-black terms. As I worked, I became delighted by how well JC epitomized the affluent European American up against what he fearfully perceived as the mysterious and implacable African American. Mr. Proud Has Got encounters Miss Hungry Has Not.

My agent at the time, Jack Lewis of American Literary Exchange, had handled my three previous attempts at the novel, entering each in literary contests, while I continued to hold down a newspaper job. I very much enjoyed going to New York occasionally and having lunch or dinner with Jack, listening to him dissect various novels and reminisce about the famous authors he’d known. I thought of him as an erudite literary connoisseur and was encouraged to know he found my work worthy.

When I sent Jack One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, his response was an angry phone call to declare it a gross violation of good taste and say he would represent me no more. Before the pain of that had time to fester, I got a call from Jack’s partner, Aladar Farkis, who declared the novel brilliant and said that, despite Jack’s rejection, he personally would handle it.

Jack had come to literary agent work from a background in Hollywood publicity. Aladar had become a famous novelist in his youth in Hungary, moved to Paris, and fled Paris for New York just before the Nazi occupation.

I wanted to believe Aladar was right, but Jack’s reaction was dispiriting. How many people in the book publishing business would agree with him? Of course it was “in bad taste.” It had to be. It kicked sacred cows and dealt with a forbidden subject. But the novel as an artform had certainly dealt with forbidden subjects before—that is one of its values as an artform: it can take us beyond any era’s accepted facts to a more ancient and abiding truth. I decided that OHDM being “in bad taste” in 1959 did not mean it was not a worthy a novel. A novel that addressed the hidden class-and-sex foundations of a xenophobia so holocaust-producing as America’s racism couldn’t be as unworthy as Jack’s dismissal suggested.

A month or so went by before Aladar called to say the novel had been shopped to a dozen or more New York publishers, all of whom rejected it. One even refused to return the manuscript in the mail, fearing legal reprisal. It’s hard to imagine now, but this was a time when the word fuck, in print, was viewed with the kind of gentrified alarm elicited by war refugees today. This was a time when newspapers would carry stories of pederasty and bestiality but ban trans-colorline sex as too awful to print. Covering police stations in Western Pennsylvania, I’d seen racially-mixed couples, captured the night before, brought out of their cells the next morning to be painfully humiliated before being released out onto the street.

Aladar sent the manuscript to a French agent, his Paris connection—Ouvaroff, I think his name was—a Russian émigré who had been blinded in the French resistance against the Nazis. He was married to an American, who read the novel aloud to him. He declared it “literature” and said he’d be delighted to represent it. Quickly thereafter, La Table Ronde purchased French language rights and retained Marcel Duhamel to translate. Duhamel would do two drafts before retreating to the Alps with one Mimi Danzelle, an African American who’d grown up commuting between Paris and the US, to complete the final translation.

Meanwhile, an English publisher, Neville Spearman, while roaming Paris, read the manuscript and announced he was prepared to buy English language rights, but with a contingency: that I change fuck to fug. I agonized and argued about this, maintaining that changing the spelling of an ancient and enduring English word was an absurd way to gain literary respectability, but Neville would not budge. I finally demanded 100 percent of theatrical and film rights in return for this typographical alteration. When he agreed, I promptly came down with an illness that almost killed me. Recovering in Annapolis, Maryland, where I’d been covering politics for the Annapolis Capitol, I dutifully changed each fuck to fug, then had the final version professionally typed. This was before copy machines and computers. A whole page had to be retyped to correct one typo.

As I made peace with the resonance of mothahfuggah, my health improved. Doctors had advised me that I had all manner of health problems coming out of that strange illness and that I should not exert myself in any way. As an ex-athlete, I’d found my best medicine was hard exercise. As soon as I was able, I began jogging, first a city block, finally ten miles. This was before running for physical fitness had become fashionable, when policemen would assume you were running from a crime and stop you and search you.

By this time, advances were coming in from other European publishers and other translations were in progress. The British edition appeared first, while the French version was still being translated; London reviewers found the novel beneath contempt. The French edition appeared during the summer of 1961 to wonderful reviews in Le Monde and La Figuro. The French loved both characters and relished the satire on American hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, an American publisher named Clarkson Potter had read the novel while visiting Paris and sent me a contract and an advance. I celebrated. However, after Potter returned to New York and had business associates read it, he decided the book needed revisions. Kitten, he said, was real, but JC was ridiculous and needed to be made more...well, real. I struggled to convey that both characters were cartoon-like exaggerations, not attempts at realism, that it was their contrasting situations and outlooks that constituted the story’s reality. I maintained that I could not “revise” JC without destroying the contrast and thus the heart of the story. He severed our contract and, according to law, I was left owing him the advance he’d paid before changing his mind.

I’d spent that advance and others from Europe to move to Atlantic City and rent a store selling bathing suits, beach toys and souvenirs on the boardwalk, thinking I would run the store during the summer months and this would enable me to write during the winter months. Working as a journalist made novel writing difficult because a reporter fills his mind with facts and figures which become meaningless as time moves on and are replaced by a head full of other facts and figures soon to become meaningless. Filling my gaze with the vast Atlantic and its ever-changing moods, I reasoned that my mind would naturally focus on the timeless essentials.

That summer (1962) Gore Vidal, who had picked up the British edition in his travels, wrote about it in his then-regular column for Esquire magazine. This was followed by a note from Henry Miller to Barney Rossett, publisher of Grove Press. “This novel should create a sensation!” said Henry, among other laudatory things.

Thereafter, Neville Spearman sold American language rights to Ian Ballantine, who sublet hardback rights to the more daring Grove Press, which rushed out an edition in the fall of 1962, just as a citywide strike by the printers union shut down newspapers in New York, and the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened annihilation. It seemed the stars were aligned for another showdown between what was and what was becoming: Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, to be followed by the Vietnam War resisters and alternative culture movements.

The New York Times bestseller list had not yet become purely a marketing tool in the early 1960s, and to some degree reflected actual sales of new hardbacks. When the printers strike ended and the “Gray Lady” returned to publication, the novel had risen to number three position. A glowing review by novelist Herb Gold had appeared on page three of the New York Times Sunday Book Section. Meanwhile, some nameless corporate management person read the novel and Grove Press was thereafter forbidden to place ads for it in the Times, a remarkable departure from the usual publishing industry’s mutual back-scratching arrangement with the Times.

Well, I had a history of displeasing big corporate managements. Not long out of college, I’d been hired by Babcock & Wilcox to join their public relations department as they were poised to bring the world nuclear power plants. I kept wondering aloud what was to be done with the uranium, plutonium and other radioactive waste, in view of what a public relations problem this could eventually pose. I was told this was not something I should be concerned about. When my concern did not evaporate, I was ordered to see the company psychiatrist once a week, then every other day, and finally every day. The psychiatrist became miffed when I did not react with astonishment to the news that my IQ surpassed the company’s best technical people. At Pitt, I’d minored in psychology and my lab project was to give four different IQ tests to around 100 students, showing that none scored highest on all. I soon realized I’d best return to the grubbier world of newspaper reporting where IQs were viewed with as much cynicism as politics.

Even growing up in Girard, I’d been categorized “incorrigible” and at age sixteen would have been sent to Glenn Mills Reform School (a fearful hellhole in those days) had I not gotten an offer from Princeton, an alumni-funded scholarship for swimming. Girard had an amazing swimming coach, John Donlevy, and I’d learned the butterfly when it was being invented and was still part of the breaststroke event. A group of alumni proposed to give me a free ride through Lawrenceville Prep School and then Princeton. In those times, about one percent of Girard graduates went on to college, so the Princeton offer altered how the staff at Girard perceived me.

To cut to the chase, I eventually opted for Pitt, a more blue-collar university with an outstanding fiction writing program—rare in those days. I joined a fraternity but, coming from an orphanage (read “greatly lacking in social skills”), I felt marginalized. I didn’t fit in with regular guys from suburbia, who drove cars, spent big bucks on beer blasts and cat houses, were Apple Pie xenophobic and homophobic. For a brief time, I clandestinely dated a black girl who worked the college cafeteria weekdays and a whorehouse weekend nights. Watching, from behind a beaded curtain with the Madame and some pimps, white college boys go to black whores like troops of Ole Massas to the slave cabins of yore was a mind-expanding experience for me.

I was, in a sense, an overeager Candide searching for my own niche in society, certain that I was fated to become a writer but uncertain what mode of writing to pursue. At age fifteen, I’d scribbled a novel-length story in a notebook during the Christmas break. Then I tried playwriting, film script writing, short stories and came back to the novel as the form which is at once the most elastic and challenging.

Reactions to One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding when it first appeared in the USA were strong, ranging from enthusiastically positive to angrily negative. One “grand dame” came up behind me at a cocktail party to whack me over the head with her copy. It angered white and black conservatives alike. Whites thought Kitten was a hoot but JC was...well, “unreal.” Black conservatives found JC a hoot but were incensed that a white novelist should presume to create a black character. There were exceptions: word on the street had it that Malcolm X spoke highly of the novel, and good words were written about it by conservative torch-carrier William F. Buckley, Jr.  Eldridge Cleaver applauded it in his book, Soul on Ice. There seems to be a shadowy zone in our political spectrum where far right and far left meet. Less educated or literal-thinking Americans tend to read first person POV narrative as autobiography, and it’s impossible to explain how a novelist can be at once part of and separate from fictional characters. Some literati types told me OHDM had gotten the best reviews of any first novel to that point in the 20th Century.

I did not send Grove an author’s photo to put on its book jacket, and soon became accustomed to the greeting, “Oh, we thought you were Knee Grow!” When I showed up at a book store in Greenwich Village to autograph some copies, the manager wanted to kick me out, saying he had just met Robert Gover, “a dapper black guy with a porkpie hat.” I had to produce a driver’s license and other ID to pass. This Neptunian fog thickened when the Village Voice misquoted me as saying, “I’m a communist.” The interview took place in an exceedingly loud nightclub, Trudy Heller’s, and I did mention communism, but only to say that I’d switched my major at Pitt from fiction writing to economics so I could learn more about it.

Northern reviewers tended to assume the story was set in the South; Southern reviewers assumed it was set in the North. I purposely did not specify the setting. It was an American state of mind transcending geographic location. Well, every work of art is something of a Rorschach test. When sex and racism is the theme, some experience shock therapy.

To inspect the roots of our racial xenophobia, one can do worse than read the colonial-age Oxford Dictionary definition of the color black and contemplate Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, a hundred years before the Revolutionary War. The old Oxford Dictionary defined black as “deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul. Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister. Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horribly wicked. Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment,” and so on. After Bacon’s Rebellion, the American lower class was color-coded into white and black. (For details, see Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, W. W. Norton, 1975.) Before this uprising, English and African servants/slaves were often housed together and, nature taking its course, produced children of “mixed race.” Bacon’s Rebellion was mounted by white, black and “Other,” stimulating legislators to become adamant about passing the laws which created our special brand of American separatism.

Since Europeans, Africans, Asians and Native Americans came together here under the long shadow of the Inquisition, we’ve altered our material environment dramatically: planes, trains, automobiles, rockets; phones, radios, television, computers, the internet; denuded forests, poisoned seas and drinking water. But the invisible beliefs and assumptions which constituted the Dark Ages of Europe—how much have they changed? When we discover our water sources have been polluted, instead of cleaning them up, we sell each other bottled water. Cleaning up costs money; selling makes money. One of my favorite novel-writing students, Kirsten Dodge (Let Me See) put it this way: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing for money.” That may be the very essence of our culture.

In One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, JC isn’t constituted to question the beliefs and assumptions he’s inherited from the European Dark Ages. And in the novel’s two sequels, he clings to the only assumptions he knows, even through those chaotic, transformative years now called The Sixties. I imagine him today drinking top-shelf whiskey and taking a handful of prescribed medications faithfully while boosting and benefiting from our famous “war on drugs.” Kitten, although she understands JC’s incapacitating hypocrisy, has followed her prescribed path through American reality, and it has not led her to a home in the suburbs and credit cards galore.

Since The Sixties, so-called interracial couples have become fairly common, but the Supreme Court has fortified our system of plutocracy masquerading as democracy by declaring campaign contributions a form of free speech. The Bush Administration’s “evidence of racial equality”—Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell—is evidence that affluence trumps skin color. Today, one could change the skin colors of the two characters in this novel without changing the satire on America’s economic class system.

Occasionally, someone suggests I write another novel in this series so we find out what becomes of JC and Kitten after The Sixties. It lights the imagination: they meet in the Congressional cloakroom circa 2005. He’s a lobbyist pushing more corporate welfare for health insurance and drug companies; she sneaks into her Congressman’s office to match his list of campaign contributors with her list of johns.

All but gone from such an updated version would be the lightning bolt of youthful sexual attraction which jumped the economic gap back in The Sixties. In the temper of these times, they’d be confrontational ideological enemies. They just wouldn’t dress up half as nicely today as they did when the spirit of the times was young, dumb, and full of come. So I leave them as they were, caught like a pair of bygone movie stars, circa 1960, in an old-fashioned still photo.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury