In 1959, a thirty-nine-year-old white Texan who was a Catholic convert contrived to masquerade as a black man by ingesting chemicals and using infrared lamps to disguise his race. He traveled the South for six weeks, keeping a journal of his encounters and travails as a “negro.” The book John Howard Griffin wrote from this experience, Black Like Me, was an explosive bestseller in 1961, and, as a staple of high-school civics classes, has been in print ever since. More than 10 million copies have been sold to date.
Griffin died in 1980 at the age of sixty-“of everything,” as his wife Elizabeth said, though actually from complications related to diabetes. Black Like Me remains Griffin’s most celebrated work, and until recently the only one still in print. It was hardly the most astonishing tale he had to tell.
Scattered Shadows, a memoir of his own life rather than an assumed one, is introduced by the poet Robert Bonazzi, who, as an admiring graduate student in the 1960s, became Griffin’s friend and literary executor. He later married Griffin’s widow. Elizabeth Griffin-Bonazzi died in 2000, but Robert Bonazzi has sustained their effort in urging republication of Griffin’s out-of-print novels and preparing his unpublished works for print, including this memoir.
The book’s subtitle, “A Memoir of Blindness and Vision,” is not metaphoric. The story begins as an account of Griffin’s loss of sight, the...