Opportunity Review of Born to Be

August 31, 2008 at 12:48 am (Born to Be) (, , , )

When published in 1929, Taylor Gordon’s autobiography Born to Be was widely reviewed by both the white and the black press. In addition to the highly critical Crisis review (discussed in an earlier post), Born to Be was also reviewed in the New York Times Book Review as well as in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Few reviews failed to take a shot at Carl Van Vechten (who provided a forward to the book), and some reviews spent more time on Van Vechten’s foreward than on the book itself.

Opportunity, published by the National Urban League, was an important journal during the 1920s and 1930s, publishing (as did Crisis) poetry and fiction as well as news, articles on social issues, and reports on African American accomplishments in a variety of fields. For a time, Opportunity sponsored a literary contest (winners included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Helene Johnson), and it also sponsored several fund-raising events for the National Urban League, including a series of concerts at which Taylor Gordon and Rosamond Johnson performed (among a long list of others, including Paul Robeson, Nora Holt, etc.).

The Opportunity review of Born to Be, written by Eugene Gordon, was far more positive than the Crisis review (while still taking its shots at Van Vechten), and finds particularly praiseworthy some of the earthier elements of the book that the Crisis found most objectionable. The review, however, makes a couple of somewhat puzzling arguments, questioning why someone as young as Taylor Gordon would have written an autobiography, especially as his life had been fairly typical for a young black men (and the review barely mentions Gordon’s singing career and the surprising rise to fame that made him anything but typical). The review also praises Gordon for being articulate and sophisticated and a good storyteller, but, despite acknowledging these skills, suggests that the humor in Gordon’s book is unconscious and that his humor is most apparent when Taylor is being pompous. Whatever Taylor’s character flaws, it’s hard for me to see pomposity as one of them, and the reviewer doesn’t offer an example.

On the whole, though, the Opportunity review is a positive one. The review also reveals that the reaction to Born to Be in the black press was by no means monolithic, as has sometimes been suggested by historians who refer only to the Crisis review in their references to the book.

From the Opportunity review:

[. . . .] Muriel Draper, in the introduction adds: “Taylor Gordon is a human being.”

I am in complete agreement with the lady. As a matter of fact, I am somewhat abashed that she would think that what appeared to the reader to be so obvious would need to be thus emblazoned. One cannot get through the first chapter without being aware of the fact that he is a human being with considerable of the animal dominant in him. Which, I hasten to append, is nothing to his discredit. We are all too prone at times to forget our close affiliation with the animal kingdom, and it is refreshing to find someone like Taylor Gordon reminding us constantly that whatever else we may pretend to be we are animals, first and last. As to Carl Van Vechten’s groping to determine precisely what has happened in the book—well, I think I appreciate how he feels. Something has happened, without a doubt; but I am far less concerned with what has happened as to how it happened.

For why Taylor Gordon at 36 should have thought his life involved enough with richly varied experiences to justify his writing a book about it I do not know. Perhaps some of Mr. Gordon’s friends, having heard from time to time snatches of his inimitable stories, urged him to write them out. [. . .] Thus we have first rate publishers [Covici-Friede] of a book containing matter that might easily be excelled by any of a score of Negro youths, working their way through such colleges as Howard, Fisk, and Lincoln, if they took the trouble to write out their experiences. The book would be more literary than Mr. Gordon’s and far richer, in some instances; but I doubt it would be quite so readable.

Born to Be is a funny book. It is funny because the author takes himself very seriously. It is funny in the sense that a pompous person is often funny; that is, without being aware of it. On the other hand, there are times when Mr. Gordon obviously tries to show humor, and the obviousness is always most obvious. He is funny when he does not sense it. It is not an important book. It does not add anything of value to our store of knowledge. It is true that we learn a great deal of the youth and manhood of an American Negro who was born and reared in a Montana village among whites, and therefore did not encounter race prejudice until he had grown up. It is true also that we learn how an intelligent young black man, with little schooling, reacts to the stimuli of a prejudiced world, of a curious world, of a world of passionate, animal women, of a world that loves the songs he sings, of the world of Harlem, of the world that is Europe; but I doubt that Gordon’s experiences were different from those of any other young Negro in similar situations would have had. It only happens that Gordon became articulate where others would have remained silent.

The most interesting feature of the book, aside from the drawings by Covarrubias, is the language in which it is written. It is the language of the untutored, and as such retains all the vigor of the original. The book would have been flatly commonplace if the editors had polished its grammar and bolstered up its rhetoric. It would have then had nothing remaining to recommend it except its vulgarities. Even these would have appeared rather slack rewritten in literary English.

Mr. Gordon is best when he tells a straight story. His sense of narration is excellent. He knows all the tricks of the professional story teller. His tale about Old Billy Leapopa, “a rich Scotch farmer and stock-man” who visited the sporting house, where the youthful Taylor worked, every Saturday night; his account of the episode in Dan Smith’s Saloon, with its significantly vulgar closing words; his stories of narrow escapes from particularly hazardous situations involving white women, and of his reception in Europe by the parasitical nobility,–all these are told with the skill of the born raconteur. “Ho! Ho! . . . I wonder what I was born to be?” he chuckles, as the last word of his biography. Perhaps he was born to be a writer of such tales as Cassanova told in his day or as Frank Harris told at a later period. At any rate, Born to Be, taken all in all, is a fair beginning. It is not all like that, to be sure, and I do not wish to give the impression that it is. (Although I do not suppose the publishers would greatly mind, since it is their wish chiefly to sell the book.)

Born to Be is the naïve but interesting story of a sophisticated but interesting young man’s life, but the only reason I can see for its having been written, when there are thousands of lives more interesting in rich variety, is that Taylor Gordon happened to be articulate. And happened also to have the moral support of man who stands in well with certain publishers.

Citation: Eugene Gordon. Rev. of Born to Be. Opportunity (January 1930): 22-23.

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