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Robert Bonazzi has sustained their effort in urging republication of Griffin’s out-of-print novels and preparing his unpublished works for print, including this memoir.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 result of a war wound he sustained in the Pacific during World War II. His vision gradually worsened until 1947, when, at the age of twenty-seven, he went completely blind.
Griffin seems to have taken to sightlessness with a kind of steely gusto, coming to the belief that “a life without sight was as interesting as a life with sight.” He was determined to excel in arenas where sight would seem to be essential. He became a champion cattle breeder, for example, on the small ranch where he moved with his parents. He wrote two novels, and fought a pornography charge on one all the way to the Supreme Court (he won).
Although fascinated by monastic life, Griffin struggled with faith, and in 1951 converted to Catholicism. He learned Braille, walked fearlessly with a cane, achieving independence by sheer determination, aided by his loyal parents and later his wife Elizabeth, whom he wooed after he lost his sight.
On January 9, 1957, ten-years blind and settled into his life as a husband and father, he walked into his parents’ house one afternoon and suddenly saw a flash of red, then a door “dancing at crazy angles.” Soon after, the dazzling world of light and color returned: the faces of his parents, his never-before-glimpsed wife, and the children he had known only by touch. Like a figure out of the New Testament, he was miraculously restored.
The narrative arc of his “blindness memoir” leaps away from him, though, requiring the improbable “vision” conclusion. In any case, his book is already crammed with enough storylines, subplots, and reversals to furnish at least three memoirs: a war memoir, a conversion memoir, and also the story of his blindness. And throw in a young-American-in-France memoir-a fascinating coming-of-age story.
“The journal format,” Bonazzi remarks in the introduction, was Griffin’s “natural literary form.” This method suited Black Like Me. His tour of the South is studded with sharp vignettes, and the focus on racial injustice remains vivid and immediate throughout the picaresque narrative. The effect in Scattered Shadows is more, well, scattered. The harrowing Pacific war scenes that open the book seem the most memoiristic. The French sections contain intriguing characters, some celebrated (the pianist Robert Casadesus and the poet Pierre Reverdy), and proto-essays on belief and music.
Yet an odd hurry overtakes the book as it reverts fully to journal form, presenting entries in real time. The voice of retrospection that gives memoir its greatest authority is absent in the breathless daily reporting where every event weighs the same. The sections are simply journal entries, dated and written in the present tense, lacking the doubling of consciousness that true memoir provides. A breathless reporter, rather than a pondering heart, seems to be at work in these unsorted diary excerpts.
We think of writers, Griffin says at the beginning of Shadows, “as people to whom things happen.” His point-“experience for the writer is in many ways an attitude of mind”-underscores the value of the journal and steadfast observing even as it ignores the importance of form and structure.
Studs Terkel treasured Griffin as a “bone deep” humanist, passionately empathetic to “the other.” In a eulogy he wrote at the time of Griffin’s death, he said he believed Griffin “might have become an important American novelist.” But he felt Griffin’s commitment to social justice and pacifism limited or derailed his literary work, especially after the immense success of Black Like Me gave him many invitations on the lecture circuit.
“As matters stand,” Terkel wrote in his tribute, John Howard Griffin “was merely an important American human. Let’s settle for that.” Scattered Shadows persuades that Griffin “never failed to astonish,” as Terkel put it. The memoir, flawed as it is, might well be an enticement to an enterprising biographer who would rightly see in Griffin a fascinating protagonist of midcentury idealism and struggle in matters both political and spiritual.