Notes on Sam Greenlee.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
SAM GREENLEE (1930-2014): Sam Greenlee is known primarily for one book, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Allison and Busby, London, 1969). That it was published in London and became a best seller in England is significant, given thirty-eight rejections in the U.S. It received the Sunday Times Book of the Year Award. Then Bantam picked it up. It received four minor reviews. According to Greenlee, “It sold with no promotion, it was straight word of mouth” (Rosalind Cummings, “The Relaxed Rage of Sam Greenlee,” Chicago Reader May 21, 1994). Why the thirty-eight rejections? My guess is that the book showed a path, in vivid detail, step by step, for blacks to break away from “the racial status quo, without paying riot dues” (§15, 175). (Note that my edition is a reprint from Lushena Books, Bensonville, IL, 2002—given that I was unable to find my original copy from 1969).
A question: Is Spook a good book? My impulse is to say that the characters are flat, that it has more than its share of expository lumps. Yet fairly early on I wrote in the margin, “a satisfying book, the underdog rules.” And all along I was thinking of fairy tales like Cinderella, where everything works out in the end. But instead of marrying the prince and living in his castle, it’s a chomping down on whitey when the invisible man becomes all too visible. And the lawn sign will read Whites Lives Matter. Or Don’t Matter, depending on your neighborhood.
If memory serves, I liked, very much liked, reading Spook fifty years ago, and I liked it this time around. Sam Greenlee did precisely what he set out to do.
Allow me to take a different tack. In the Rosalind Cummings 1994 interview, Greenlee says, “I went to two white brainwashing institutions” (the universities of Wisconsin and Chicago). “But I’m the black dog that didn’t fall for Pavlov’s scam.” Instead, in 1957 he joined the Foreign Service—he “wanted to see the world.” His first postings were to Baghdad, where a revolution was in process, then Pakistan and Greece, “both countries having a coup.” After eight years he could take it no longer: “I was so enraged when I came home every night. I was watching them undermine whole cultures,” adding, “The U.S. is the biggest threat to world peace.” What he did next was settle on Mykonos and begin writing his first novel. The material was at his fingertips: he had been “an information officer for the foreign service and later the deputy director of a Chicago social service agency.” And while he was never in the C.I.A., he was “surrounded by them.”
Then there’s the film, with the same title as the book, released on Labor Day weekend, 1973, by United Artists. I saw it, sitting next to Elisabeth Pierce, one of my students who was working with me at the PSU Education Center, our storefront campus. According to Greenlee, the film, “with its militant message unnerved mainstream America along with some members of the civil rights movement who balked at its violence.” I’d say it wasn’t the violence, so much as the message: He (that is Dan Freeman) had had it with “the white velvet fog,” the “white liberal smiles” (90, 191—the notion of the “liberal” takes a beating in the novel). Time for action! Is it a surprise that the film recruited from the toughs of New York?
At the end of the interview, Greenlee says, “I fought a good fight and I’m still winning. The book is beginning to find a new audience with youngbloods.” Then, “In my angriest moments, I think I should have done it instead of written it.”
A last word, a last notion: Had Sam Greenlee written a traditional novel, working up character, allowing for ambivalence, with genuine female characters, aiming for our tears, it wouldn’t have worked. This is more like Rombauer & Becker’s Joy of Cooking, nothing but the recipes for food. Who gives a damn what the two women look like or whether they smile in the kitchen! This is revolution. Granted, as you set the book aside, you’re thinking, What if….
But that’s me, Whitey. You on the other hand….
(Sam, by the way, was a poet laureate of Illinois.)