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It's time for the reader's omen to act with one by our originally broadcast over station WNYC in New York and distributed by national educational radio. The reader's Ohman act is America's oldest consecutive book program. Here now is Mr. Bauer. During the many years of this program I've been especially interested in first books by new writers who came fresh to the literary scene. There is something stirring about making one's own personal discovery of a writer who has a voice of his own. A writer from home one expects much in the future. I remember that I felt so when in 1038 I came upon Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's children a book of stories and interviewed him on this program. And again I had that feeling when in 1905 I read a first novel called Focus by a young writer named Arthur Miller who has done other things quite different since then. I have such a feeling now after reading a first novel called Go down dead by Shane Stevens just published by William our own company.
This is a very different novel from those two. But this is 1967 and much has happened in America and to our literature in more than 20 years. This is a novel of our time rough and brutal as his life in Harlem or parts of at least and the language is rough as well. This we can take in stride now. Perhaps we are not wholly shockproof But when readers recognize truth handovers fidelity understanding and compassion they do not shrink from tragedy and hatred. I go down death is a story of Harlem as fresh as today's newspaper. As tough as what happens on its streets its chief character is a 16 year old boy named King Henry who succeeded to the presidency the Playboys street gang in competition with the Tigers a white gang and their natural enemies of course. The structure of the story is that enmity and several incidents leading to a sort of ritual battle a formal encounter between the two gangs. The result of that battle is the death of several of the
members of each club and chiefly of the president of the Playboys. But woven into this story told in the Argo of Harlem streets by King Henry is a panorama of Harlem life and characters that is frank and naturalistic in the extreme. What goes on in Harlem school makes up the down staircase seem a fable of purest ray by comparison. And what is the reality behind storefronts and apartment house portals. It is a shocking revelation of urban deterioration on all levels. Shane Stevens the white author of godown dead was born 28 years ago. He was educated in Hell's Kitchen schools and in Columbia University. He has been a traveler by tramp steamer to Mexico to Hong Kong to Cuba and has had a wide variety of jobs such as working on the Hoboken docks to bartending and running the elevator in the morgue of a city hospital. Yes lived in several cities San Francisco and New Orleans among them as well as New York.
Now that Mr. Stevens is what I know of you from having read the blurb on the jacket of your book. I like to know a lot more particularly I would like to know when you began to write and how it came about. A woman's The ball is I. I started writing this novel in 1960. I could begin I suppose by saying that back as far as I can remember I've been living with Negroes and Jews and Italians mostly in Hell's Kitchen at least Hell's Kitchen of years ago. And the one thing I always from earliest awareness as far as I can remember the one thing I was always fascinated by was the dynamism of the negro the black man's language. And so about 1958 when I was at Columbia I got the idea of living in Harlem and seeing exactly what is going on there. And I lived on Hundred and Twenty eighth street on Park Avenue for three years through the end of one thousand sixty and
trying to get background and the material going out with the kids. Seeing what's what's happening on the streets. And that was about mid 1960s when I actually started putting words down and it took about six years was finished about June of 66. That's six years meaning there are a lot of difficulties involved in let's say teaching yourself writing perhaps more getting researched. I would think hope hope anyway than than the actual writing of the a book all dogs certainly I learned a lot with the first one and I hope whatever is wrong with the first one will be better with the second. Well there's not very much wrong in my eyes Believe me I know. I had wondered you see if you had made any or general attempts at something shorter let's say a short story which might have grown and grown and possibly become this particular novel. You know from the very beginning my idea was to do a novel about the scene in Harlem. And of course one says Harlem one is really saying every place in the country where the black man is
located. So it's thought it from the very beginning as a novel and finally worked itself out. How did you choose Harlem is it simply the place where things are happening and where the deterioration and social deterioration is probably the worst. I think so I think. I have been to Watts I've been to Atlanta Georgia I've been to Greenwood Mississippi. I've been to Frisco but I would say in Harlem I have found the least things that I never expected to find things that I thought had been done away with hundreds of years ago. Yeah I would say in my opinion Harlem is the worst at least in the United States that I have found this is a place where things are likely to be happening here after that kind of thing that you referred to as the revolution. Yeah. They'll be I think the white man is going to be very much surprised in years to come. As far as things that are going to happen to the black man it's not going to takes if the 300 years of
slavery he's not going to take this nonsense that the people in Washington the calling the great Negro so-called Negro revolution. It looks good on paper the civil rights bill. But economically socially politically nothing has been done for the Negro. Probably he is in a worse state now economically and socially than he was in 63 or 60 or as far back because as you want to go. There are plans right now for having for want of a better term a revolution. I think the black man is waiting for a leader. He had a leader in Malcolm X but unfortunately he was destroyed. Some people I myself included believed by the white mean I would reach through the machinations of the white man. There was another leader named Robert Williams who was drummed out of the country on false kidnapping charges. He is now down in Cuba just returned from China I
believe. He was a charismatic leader is today but is not certain he will not be found in the United States until the revolution occurs. You're looking for altogether different types of leaders. Martin Luther King let us say I get it. Martin Luther King I think most black men will agree. It started out well but is an Uncle Tom. And I too was a fascinating saying if you're making predictions that well not actual predictions but something very close to it. It's fascinating but I'm doing this interview on your book because I regard this is enormously important and highly readable and I want a lot of people to get to read it. So I'd like to have you talk about it. I wonder if the fact that as I've referred to it just as a matter of pure fact that you are the white author of the book
about negroes I wonder if that made any particular difficulties for you or did have you so associated yourself with people that you have come to know in Harlem that it seemed as natural to write about them as if there were no breach between you at all. Yeah there are. As far as I'm concerned there was no breach certainly in my years up there and I'm still up there today and I hope to be up there for many years to come. Harlem and places like it there certainly were people mostly young people who. Look the Skins a white man coming into Harlem trying to find out what makes them tick. Seeing at least some of them getting the feeling that they were put on a pedestal but for the most part once I identified with them trouble seemed to disappear. How did you gain their confidence and get within their trust.
Well the only way I'm not sure Trust is the right word. The only way one could be with a group of people is to actually be there. And this is for instance this is why the case worker approach to welfare for an example will not work the only way one can be with the group is to actually live on the streets now. Vista is beginning to find that out now and for the first time again talking about Harlem and my years up there for the first time as far as I can see in the history of what is going on in Harlem white people are actually beginning to live on the blocks to deal in the white man's grocery store to get charged more at the local supermarket more. Let's say more money for a given item food item than perhaps on East Fifty seventh Street at the very beginning there was a certain amount of trouble with between me and groups of
Harlem Youth up there because I would come up only for weekends and then when I found out that this wasn't working and I began living up there. And experiencing what they experience from the man downtown from what they call just the mind meaning the white man everything kind of changed. Of course I never told him and I tree that I am considering writing any kind of a novel about them although they knew that I was there for more than just social work. Because that would ruin your association with them probably. I think with with some of them as an example King Henry really the character were the things that happened to King Henry taken from a 16 year old Harlem Youth whom I identify at the beginning of the book as Django. He did live there he did go through much if not all of what one reads in my book. And he did
die of an overdose of heroin at the age of 16 back in 1962. I can begin to say already of course that you made a great many changes in his life and transforming him into King Henry and this in other words is a real work of fiction it is not a documentary. No it's it's a work of fiction. I hope the imagination is there a hope the reader will find it but the despair the. The utter hopelessness of the situation in the hall is one that the white man simply cannot believe until he actually lives there and not to go there for a weekend along Lenox Avenue were one hundred twenty fifth Street. But to live under the railroad tracks and to see the degradation that is being brought upon these people. Now I'd like to get into some rather perhaps more literary matters I wonder what led you into making the choice of casting your story going to the first
person the hero telling his own story. You see as if you had an audience around him listening. Did you make a conscious decision or did you just hold off and write in that fashion. No. Again this the answer has to be something something along political lines. From the very beginning I got the idea that people will simply not believe what is being written about what I had hoped to write about unless it was an actual negro speaking and this coalesced I suppose with my own feeling for a literary style but the immediacy in a novel is what makes it remembered and and what makes it head and shoulders over over in my opinion third person novels. So both I think the political and the literary things got together and that was more or less the best kind of decision to arrive at of course. I had a feeling you see that you gained a particular sense of reality to this young man
with an awareness of his power over a number of other young fellows speaking out as he really felt as if he would or jingle actually did. Well that's that's that's true certainly. What it amounts to I guess is that you have this before using language dynamic language that is not readily understandable by others and word to be put in the third person strictly from a literary or punctual viewpoint I would suspect that it would never appear in print. The way it ought to be the way it is heard and so that again the only logical conclusion was to do it in a speaking voice and again we get back to the first person. Did you have any doubt at all that this would be read properly let us say by your readers so that it would be to represent to them actual authentic Haarlem needs. Well I think that's where some of the shock comes in although I didn't plan on that at the
beginning. I feel from my experience that the words that the black man uses today the white man downtown with you six months from now and the words that the white man are using is using now will be has been used six months before by the black man and has been forgotten. So that again the immediacy of the words was the one thing I wanted to do with the book and I hope I succeeded. But you certainly have very much in fact this leads me to another problem which I'm sure is you met very early to talk in such a life gets pretty gamey. Yeah. Did you have to restrain your characters I want to bring his talk into a book to be sure an author now has more freedom than he had 10 years ago. No I didn't I didn't have to change anything either in my mind or in the book itself the way it's written is the way they were talking. And I
would think that the white reader after the first 10 or 20 pages based on his IQ's his own experiences I would think he'd be able to get into the book certainly I've had people say that it took them as many as 50 pages but no one yet at least has come to me and said it was throughout not understandable. No it certainly isn't that the Torah seems to maybe want to just very quickly indeed. This is the kind of thing that rises up off the page and you hear it you don't read it. It is that realistic. And at the same time there's a kind of poetry in it. You know some readers are not going to find out at all good and I've met those readers already who resent gamey words that we all know about and it's and do not expect to find them on the page of a book even now. But there they are. This is this is life as it is live.
I think get that impression and you're right although I don't know Harlem the top Well yeah much of what you say is right in the sense that many readers pick up a book and they think this may be good for fireside reading. But the world is moving very fast. And I for one I suppose I suppose don't have time for fireside reading what I want to do what I set out to accomplish was to write. Something about what actually is happening today in the way it is happening and in the words that are being used today and for those readers who believe the novel should be more than just a fireside chat. I think they will find something in this whether their experience has been Harlem they are all them or in any black means ghetto. I want to go back to that idea of being in a measure a sort of documentary leave came out of it I think is a creation all right enough but the
background what goes on in the heart of history is in a sense that is documentary. It has to be I think because it's real and. So. Would you agree that there is at least a documentary flavor to the background of your novel. Yes certainly nothing that's in the book has not happened. Nothing that's in the book is not happening right now. And as a matter of fact much that is not in the book. Again hopefully it will appear in in my second novel which I'm into about 10000 words now. Much of what I didn't put in the first book will be in the second one. Things that are still to come things that I'm afraid will be very disconcerting to the white man is the major part of all an organized gang such as the Playboys and the Tigers just for example. Not any longer. What is happening now is that actually there have been two new influences coming in one is drug traffic. I don't
mean to sound paranoid but it seems from living in Harlem for any amount of time one does get the impression that the drug traffic in places like Harlem is so well organized. Again through the White me and that many of these youths because of utter complete hopeless despair are turning to drugs now once this happens. And this is happening more and more today. Once this happens the whole organization of a gang falls apart so that today you having more and more of 3 and 4 gang people breaking away from there. And for instance attacking people rather than 20 and 30 and 40 member gang structures. There's your scene of the making of stag movies have a counterpart in real life. Harlem is just a part of the documenting of Harlem. Yes it is. Several years ago this was taking place in Harlem
again because I suppose being white or black one needs money to live on. I don't pretend to know the reason that much of this type film is being or at least was being done in Harlem but it again has a factual basis yes. And of course New York seems to be a great market for this kind of film. Fraid it is the Rumble has its counterpart to I'm sure in real life a whiter counterpart or I thought too as I read of the ritualistic behavior of the two sides as they sit together in a war come so it is a virtual declaration of war. Presidents don't talk. King was saying. This is a ritual isn't it. Yes it is I think as one of the characters in the book said perhaps King Henry although I don't remember exactly. They are living a life at least on the streets that is as rigid as any West Point grad you would has ever faced. Again this
is a part of the overall problem that I think the white man simply does not grasp or perhaps does not want to grasp. I thought of international conclaves you see here the black gang on one side and the white gang on the other. It's just a sharp difference is there to be found on the international scene only much more dramatic probably and they were talking exactly the same kind of way. Words were different to be sure but it was all ritualistic and laid down for them. They were acting ritualistically That's all I could say. Well the those who have television watched television they see what is going on and of course every youth wants to emulate his elders. Unfortunately the only elders he sees on television hears on his radio are white men and much of what one reads in the book has been learned by these youths through the mass media which is
completely controlled and dominated by the white man. Now one question final question I guess death was inevitable for King was it is this. In other words a real tragedy almost in the classical sense. You must've wondered about that how you're going to end this. You ended it magnificently I think but it does end with the death of King and I just wonder if you felt that inevitable. Yes. To me I suppose to most people there are many kinds of deaths. And one of them is this spare and King's symbolic death at the end of this work can be translated into real life living on One Hundred Twenty eight street and park giving you as an example can be translated into a kind of mental and spiritual and certainly economic. They simply can't do anything more than barely exist.
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Series
The reader's almanac
Episode Number
12
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Literature
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Duration
00:23:55
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Identifier: 69-18-12 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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Citations
Chicago: “The reader's almanac; 12,” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 24, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-18345b5k.
MLA: “The reader's almanac; 12.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 24, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-18345b5k>.
APA: The reader's almanac; 12. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-18345b5k