The narrator is a graduate of Columbia University and, from all indications, a writer. His father’s profession is not mentioned but he lives in Indianapolis and belongs to the fairly-well-off middle class. His grandfather was a Congregationalist minister. His great-grandfather was a Baptist minister. His great-great-grandfather was a slave.
So where does that leave Darryl Pinckney? That is the point of “High Cotton"--Who am I? Or, more exactly, how do I think of myself?--except for a quibble. Pinckney calls his book a novel, not an autobiography, so although the narrator is Pinckney’s alter ego, the thinnest of veils floats around him. Not to get tangled in it, and since the narrator is given no other name, I shall call him Pinckney. If you can have a fictional autobiography, why not a fictional review?
But the veil is also the point. Pinckney is a literary intellectual for whom to discriminate is more important than to declare. Postmodernist irony and ambiguity are as much a part of his identity as forthright affirmation has been for contemporaries and predecessors in the Black Power and civil-rights movements; or as a contradictory yet resilient discourse of pride and patience once was to his ancestors in the South, or what he calls “the Old Country.”
Pinckney (his creator of the same name not only went to Columbia but also won a Guggenheim, a Whiting Award and a Princeton fellowship) is trying to place himself in black history. Not to do so would betray his forebears, and particularly the grandfather around whom many of his musings revolve. But to do it in slogans or simplifications, or anything but his own intellectual terms, would betray not only himself but those same forebears and that grandfather who thought for himself to the point of eccentricity and isolation.
The result is a book that is allusive and elusive, cloudy and gleaming by turns, that skips many narrative connections and can seem indifferent to being grasped, that plays tag with its readers, in short. Yet when it lets itself be caught, it can be astonishing. And the reader suspects that the elusiveness is not arbitrary, or not only arbitrary. Pinckney is on what may be an impossible search, and on such a search you don’t want followers who keep asking where they are. It is a search for a language to speak of himself in.
A child of the ‘50s, and attending Indianapolis’ best public schools, young Pinckney saw no great need to identify himself as black. He tended to think of himself as English, in fact. He daydreamed of being crowned king of England, and explained London’s subway system to family friends going abroad. In high school, he dabbled in black radicalism and attended a few meetings of a tiny offshoot of the Black Panthers. He had no car, though; a white friend had to drive him. At college, he was regarded skeptically by his activist friends who refered to him as “Dr. Thomas” (Uncle Tom with a degree).
It was not so much a gap of sympathy as of speech. The affirmations used by activism were alien to him. Yet he considers, bemusedly, the tortured language of denial that he heard in his family as a child. It had evolved through generations of proud and educated black people who made a life and found dignity for themselves under segregation. The advantage of Jim Crow, an Alabama aunt declared, was that it kept you from contact with uneducated whites. Separate but superior.
In Pinckney’s comfortable home in Indianapolis, the word was: “All men are created equal.” Even so, Pinckney writes, “lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow.” They read, in part: “You were just as good as anyone else. . . . But you had to be close to perfect just to break even. You had nothing to fear, though every time you left the house for a spelling bee or a Music Memory contest, the future of the future hung in the balance.” It was a three-beat contradiction, e.g.: “Forgiveness was divine.” But the person who shortchanged them in the shop, or wouldn’t serve them at the airport restaurant, “would get what was coming to them, though they acted that way because they didn’t know any better.”
Most of “High Cotton” is made up of selected episodes and reflections that are Pinckney’s experiments in ways of feeling black. Some are told with an awkward, chilly reluctance. A time spent in London as a would-be down-and-out radical is inert; so is his time as a Paris expatriate in the company of a Holly Golightly-like black woman who is only able to love white men. One absence in the book is any mention of contemporary personal relationships. In view of the full portraits of other relatives and forebears, it is interesting that only the most cursory mention is made of the narrator’s parents.
On the other hand, there is a beautifully written account of working as a part-time companion to avant-garde novelist Djuna Barnes. All but bedridden, she lived in a tiny room cluttered with mementos from her Paris days. Pinckney was careful not to exploit her and he tried to avoid asking about her recollections. Snippets would emerge here and there. Colette was “that silly blue-haired woman.” Of “Nightwood,” her most celebrated work, she exclaimed: “Did I write this? How did I do it? Do it while you’re young. Put all your passion into it.”
The richest and most suggestive parts of the book are Pinckney’s encounters with his grandfather. He knew him as a troublesome, itinerant old man, whose Harvard education and argumentiveness had lost him his church position. He wanders in and out of Pinckney’s life, nosy and officious, imperious and forlorn. The narrator tries to keep his distance; he senses a profound demand on his conscience.
It is only when the old man dies in a nursing home that Pinckney lets himself sense the bond. In his day, his grandfather shocked his congregation by reading them the indubitably white and indubitably literary Robert Browning. He mocked the segregated pieties of his own time; later he would criticize the civil-rights movement as bad-mannered. He once recounted to Pinckney the legend of Luther and Erasmus walking among the dead in a battlefield. “They died in a just cause,” Luther proclaimed. “They were men and had something better to do today,” Erasmus replied.
It is Erasmus that Pinckney hears, finally, in his grandfather. And in the book’s conclusion--choked, elliptical, puzzling and suddenly beautiful--Pinckney seems to find Erasmus in himself. Unable to throw himself into his countrymen’s battles and glories, he is unable to separate himself from them. He attends with his oblique voice; he participates through estrangement.