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The Lonesome Boy Theme

by Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps at the East Winston Branch, Winston-Salem Public Library, in 1956. Photo: East Winston Branch Archive, Forsyth County Library.

Arna Bontemps at the East Winston Branch, Winston-Salem Public Library, in 1956. Photo: East Winston Branch Archive, Forsyth County Library.

In the eighteenth century, I have been told, there was a popular saying to the effect that nobody would ever have fallen in love if he had not first read about it in the poets. Whether or not this is true, there is certainly something to be said for the proposition that experience owes much — if not everything — to the writers, the storytellers, the moralists who make us aware of the heights and depths, the brilliance and shadow of many-splendored existence.

Perhaps memory is the common element or ingredient that works the miracle of merging poetry, writing, art with experi­ence. If you have read Saint Augustine’s essay on memory in his Confessions, you will know what I am thinking; but a more recent example can be found. My own experience as a reader of fiction is long enough to make me aware of changes that have occurred in my time in the outlook of writers. The attitude toward memory which their stories reflect is particularly notice­ able.

Fiction of the twenties — when I was a college student and immediately after — books like My Antonia by Willa Cather, Three Black Pennys by Joseph Hergesheimer, The Grandmothers and Good-bye Wisconsin by Glenway Westcott, even Main Street by Sinclair Lewis had at least one element in common: nostalgia, a quality which was warmly appreciated in those days, but which tended to come into disfavor with critics, if not readers, about the time of the Depression. Perhaps the change was inevitable, but as nostalgia was purged from fiction, something else was also lost. The abracadabra by which the writer got some of his own vision into the reader’s experience stopped working so well. What hap­pened, I suspect, was that the medium of transmission was im­paired. It was a failure of memory.

Another instance of preoccupation with memory, which did not involve longing or nostalgia, is found in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain by Charles Dickens. The hero of this story, a chemist, wants to forget a life blighted by sorrow and wrong. His nemesis, having convinced him that his memories are his curse, makes a bargain with him to take away the disturbing memories on condition that the hero will pass along a similar oblivion to everyone he meets. The chemist tries to carry out the terms, but discovers to his horror (as our generation must learn, I fear) that the blotting out of remembrance of the past also blots out of his life and the lives of chose about him such qualities as gratitude, repentance, compassion, and forbearance. Only the intervention of a good angel, as it were, gets him out of this unfortunate compact.

The Greeks were bothered by unpleasant memories too. The waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, appear to have had a strong attraction for them.

Another concern of storytellers at least as far back as Dick­ens — if not all the way to the Greeks — strikes me as related in a different way. It has to do with a kind of spiritual malnutri­tion resulting from a deficiency or poverty of memories. Here in the United States we might call it the theme of the boy from the country. In Europe, no doubt, it was the young man from the provinces, and it was represented by such novels as Dickens’ Great Expectations, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and a host of other fictional works. The standard situation involved an eager youth making his way to the city in the hope of acquiring experience, standing outside in his callowness and naivete, seeking to enter and participate. His memories, if he came from some of the areas we used to hear about, Mississippi, for example, left as much to be desired as did the pot-liquor and sow-back diet on which his body had been nourished in childhood. But these recollections I have found almost too poignant, too disturbing, for children’s books.

With me the lonesome-boy theme has persisted. Consciously or unconsciously, it too reflects influences. I used to avoid the first person singular in my writing; for some reason or other it embar­rassed me. But despite my efforts — despite careful stratagems — I am afraid I did not always avoid autobiography. Born in Louisi­ana, carried by my parents to California at a very early age, I sus­pect that it is myself I see as I look back in each of the guises in which the lonesome boy has appeared since I introduced him in God Sends Sunday, my first book.

As a child, [that story began] Little Augie was not required to chop cotton or work in the rice swamp like the other boys of his  age.

If that was not enough to mislead anyone who might try to connect me with the characterization, I thought that the follow­ing might do the trick.

Augie lived with his grown sister Leah. He was a thin, undersized boy, smaller for his years than any other child on the place, and he had round pop-eyes. But he enjoyed a certain prestige among the plantation youngsters, and older folks as well, because of the legend that he was lucky, a legend that had attended him since birth, due to a mysterious veil with which he had entered the world.

Set apart from his mates by these circumstances, Little Augie soon grew to be miserable. In his heart he felt inferior to the strong, healthy children who worked alongside the grown-ups in the fields. He became timid in the presence of unfamiliar people and fell into the habit of stuttering when he tried to talk.

Sometimes, to amuse himself, Augie would follow the men out to plow the fields and then ride the horses home for them in the evening. It pleased him to sit on the back of the old lead mare and watch the other animals string along behind. It made him feel good to be directing the procession, shouting at the tired critters and giving the orders to start and stop. So, as he grew older, Augie spent more and more time with the animals. He became a competent rider. Curiously, he did not feel timid when he was riding or managing a fine horse; he felt big. And he loved horses for that reason.

Augie had also one other diversion. He liked to watch the river boats that came puffing around the bend and past the plantation now and again. Especially was he fascinated by the P. T. Blain that came on alternate Wednesdays, because it was the one that stopped at the tiny wooden landing in sight of the quarters. Augie had never been on hand to see it dock, but he had often watched it from the barn gate where, sitting on the top-piece, he could see everything plainly — the rousters loading and unloading barrels, the old captain with the mutton-chop whiskers, and the loafers standing along the plank in the sunshine.

One bright spring morning, however, his chance came.

The chance referred to, of course, was more than just a chance to get away from the plantation, more than just a chance to ease his itching feet. It was a chance to somehow deal with loneliness itself. When Little Augie began hanging around the old fair grounds in New Orleans and got an opportunity to ride racing horses as a jockey, he thought he had surely found the way. Not too much of this theme came through, perhaps, when Countee Cullen and I adapted the novel for the stage under the title St. Louis Woman and Harold Arlen set it to music, but it was there in the novel.

When God Sends Sunday failed to sell well, despite favorable reviews, the publisher told me that perhaps it was because the year was 1931 and the publication of the book coincided too well with the great thud of depression that followed the crash of 1929. I told myself soon after, however, that if the adult world had be­come too miserable from other causes to remember or respond to loneliness, I was not sure the same was true for  children.

So I wrote about Slumber the Sad-Faced Boy (Houghton), and the younger readers bore me out, I think. Slumber came back to me a few years ago when I was watching Dennis the Menace on television and “Mr. Wilson” was thrown out of a public library for creating disturbance under circumstances that reminded me of Slumber’s similar experience in New York. Children, teachers, and librarians wrote me often about the incident in 1937, the year the book was published, and I am glad to say some of them have continued to do so. Though Slumber was a boy who seldom smiled, he brought smiles to the faces of my own children every six months (if you know what that interval means to a writer of books) during the bad years.

Lonesome Boy (Houghton) came much later. In it, I think, the eagerness and the longing that troubled Little Augie and Slumber in a vague way they could not fully understand are made sufficiently explicit. But it brought no smiles immediately. Some people have found Lonesome Boy puzzling. (I get the impression that some adults who work with children have felt that with young people you should leave no uncertainty, no vague­ness.) Some have wondered whether or not it is a folk tale. It is not, but it is told somewhat in the manner of a folk tale because I thought that style suited the material. Was Bubber dreaming when all the last part happened?

A difficult question. Coming back to autobiography, I can remember instances in my own childhood when I was not sure whether I had experienced or dreamed certain things. That is as much as I can say about the mystery of the story that gives me a title for these remarks.

One dream, however, that most writers of stories for the young always dream has come true for me in a most remarkable way. I cannot claim any credit for the illustrators the publishers se­cured, but in this important aspect of the lonesome, sad-faced boy’s career, I have been as lucky as Little Augie. I myself had been drawn to the subject for personal reasons and because it represented one of the themes I had not found in the stories I read as a youngster. What there was about it that caught the fancy of artists like Virginia Lee Burton and Feliks Topolski I do not know. I have never met either of them. But I do know that Sad-Faced Boy was the first book Virginia Lee Burton illustrated, and I remember well the first sketches she made and the cautious con­cern of all, as we passed them around, that they should be just right. No one has ever suggested to me that they were not.

Miss Burton next illustrated The Fast Sooner Hound for Jack Conroy and me — and Houghton Mifflin — with, I thought, wonderful success before the mighty Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel and its successors laid claim to all her time and talents.

Virginia Lee Burton was young and unknown as an artist and writer when she illustrated Sad-Faced Boy. Feliks Topolski, on the other hand, was so famous that the publishers did not think they could interest him in illustrating a juvenile story. He had never done one before. So far as I know, he has not illustrated any other since. But his portraits of George Bernard Shaw, Sir Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, Queen Elizabeth II, and Harry S. Truman were as well-known as his murals in Buckingham Palace and the Carlton Tower in London. He was fresh from a tremen­dous commission when he received from the publishers’ nervy young juvenile editor (a former librarian in The New York Public Library, I believe) an envelope containing a not-very-neat manuscript of Lonesome Boy. Would he be interested in illus­trating it, she wanted to know.

While commissions to design sets for plays like Man and Super­man and Pygmalion waited, while murals for the Indian Govern­ment and edifices almost anywhere you can name were held in abeyance, he read the story. I did not believe it when they told me he had said yes. I did believe it when eventually I saw the drawings. Nobody else would have drawn them. I became curious to know more about the artist, and eventually I found some of his words:

I never starved. Whatever I’ve done has not been against odds. I was actually pushed into art. My mother and father pushed me. It was the same at school. You see, I’m not so successful as spoiled. There has been no struggle…although I know that’s not a fashionable thing to say… but I’ve paid for it by having developed a certain laziness.

I’m on my way to my best work, but I’m held back by laziness and com­missions. I’m a man of appetite — my gluttony for experience, for life, possibly explains my kind of art — if you want it explained. I prefer it unexplained.

I do not believe what he says about laziness, but everything con­sidered, I suspect he too is a lonesome boy. I suspect that not even his famous murals in Buckingham Palace depicting the pomp and circumstance of a great coronation have erased from his memory the chiding of parents back in his native Poland when he was a child. Perhaps his parents called him a daydreamer and predicted that he would be a good-for-nothing when he became a man if he did not show some get-up-and-go. Perhaps what he meant was that by putting off all his other more impressive commissions while he sketched the illustrations for Lonesome Boy he was strik­ing a blow for something he did not have time to explain.

* * *

When Augusta Baker invited me to give this lecture, she told me I might talk about anything I wished, as long as I read some poetry. I am reminded of a neighborhood church I used to visit sometimes in my childhood. I believe it is fair to say that the minister was somewhat inadequate. The congregation would go to sleep, and I could see that he was sensitive about this. Eventually he found a solution. He discovered that his flock loved to talk more than it loved to listen to him. So he introduced what he called a praise meeting into his service. This was a period during which he would preside while one member after another would stand and testify to his faith and courage, the temptations and discouragements he had overcome recently. The audience never seemed to tire of these expressions. I am sorry to say, however, that, after they became repetitious, I did, and it was during these weary moments that I began writing poetry to pass the time. I remember in particular that this poem had such a beginning, though it was worked over and published in the early 1920s. I called it “Golgotha Is a Moun­tain.”

Golgotha is a mountain, a purple mound
Almost out of sight.
One night they hanged two thieves there,
And another man.
Some women wept heavily that night;
Their tears are flowing still. They have made a river;
Once it covered me.
Then the people went away and left Golgotha
Oh, I’ve seen many mountains:
Pale purple mountains melting in the evening mists and blurring on the borders of the sky.

I climbed old Shasta and chilled my hands m its summer snows.
I rested in the shadow of Popocatepetl and it whispered to me of daring prowess.
I looked upon the Pyrenees and felt the zest of warm exotic nights.
I slept at the foot of Fujiyama and dreamed of legend and of death.
And I’ve seen other mountains rising from the wistful moors like the breasts of a slender maiden.
Who knows the mystery of mountains!
Some of them are awful, others are just lonely.

                              * * *

Italy has its Rome and California has San Francisco,
All covered with mountains.
Some think these mountains grew
Like ant hills
Or sand dunes. That might be so —
I wonder what started them all!
Babylon is a mountain
And so is Ninevah,
With grass growing on them;
Palaces and hanging gardens started them.
I wonder what is under the hills
In Mexico
And Japan!
There are mountains in Africa, too.
Treasure is buried there:
Gold and precious stones
And moulded glory.
Lush grass is growing there
Sinking before the wind.
Black men are bowing
Naked in that grass
Digging with their fingers.
I am one of them:
Those mountains should be ours.
It would be great
To touch the pieces of glory with our hands.
These mute unhappy hills,
Bowed down with broken backs,
Speak often one to another:
“A day is as a year,” they cry,
“And a thousand years as one day.”
We watched the caravan
That bore our queen to the courts of Solomon;
And when the first slave traders came
We bowed our heads.
“Oh, Brothers, it is not long!
Dust shall yet devour the stones
But we shall be here when they are gone.”
Mountains are rising all around me.
Some are so small they are not seen;
Others are large.
All of them get big in time and people forget
What started them at first.
Oh the world is covered with mountains!
Beneath each one there is something buried:
Some pile of wreckage that started it there.
Mountains are lonely and some are awful.

                             * * *

One day I will crumble.
They’ll cover my heap with dirt and that will make a mountain.
I think it will be Golgotha.

Another poem which had a similar genesis has been reprinted here and there recently because of its relevance to the technique of nonviolent protest. This was before either Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., had begun to work magic in the social order of their respective countries by just such means. One can never tell just what a squirming youngster may have on his mind during a drawn-out church service.

We are not come to wage a strife
With swords upon this hill.
It is not wise to waste the life
Against a stubborn will.
Yet would we die as some have done,
Beating a way for the rising sun.

When I returned to the South with my young family in 1931, we found ourselves living for a time in a decaying ante-bellum greathouse. Of course it was haunted. So I wrote a poem about it. I called it “Southern Mansion.”

Poplars are standing there still as death
And ghosts of dead men
Meet their ladies walking
Two by two beneath the shade
And standing on the marble steps.

There is a sound of music echoing
Through  the open door
And in the field there is
Another sound tinkling in the cotton:
Chains of bondmen dragging on the ground.

The years go back with an iron clank,
A hand is on the gate,
A dry leaf trembles on the wall.
Ghosts are walking.
They have broken roses down
And poplars stand there still as death.

Finally, let me mention something that reflects a certain differ­ence between the Harlem I left after the strolling twenties and the one I read about today in The New York Times and elsewhere. In the days when I lived there, the poets were a kind of royalty. The young Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were honored almost as if they had been boy princes. Recently I was shocked to read in New York newspapers that a young poet of today was shot and injured as he approached a building called The Black Arts Theatre. Was this symbolic? I was reminded of another poem I had written in the earlier period.

I have sown beside all waters in my day.
I planted deep, within my heart the fear
That wind of fowl would take the grain away.
I planted safe against this stark, lean year.

I scattered seed enough to plant the land
In rows from Canada to Mexico,
But for my reaping only what the hand
Can hold at once is all that I can show.

Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields
My brother’s sons are gathering stalk and root.
Small wonder then my children glean in fields
They have not sown, and feed on bitter fruit.

The eleventh Anne Carroll Moore Lecture, given at The Donnell Library of The New York Public Library, May 5, 1966. From the December 1966 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month


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