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The Man Who Changed His Skin
Thirty years ago John Howard Griffin, a white Texan, became an itinerant Southern black for four weeks. His account of the experience galvanized the nation.
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
By 1949 Griffin was earning a respectable income as a breeder of prize livestock, but his yeoman days were already numbered. That spring he met the New York drama critic John Mason Brown, who was in Texas on a lecture tour. Brown suggested that Griffin try his hand at writing; he certainly talked like a writer. Griffin, intrigued, asked how he should start. You get some paper and write, Brown curtly replied. Griffin did just that, converting a room in the barn behind his parents’ house into an office. It was a cramped space, “about three long steps each way,” but it suited Griffin’s anchoritic temperament. It also suited his subject, a novel about a young American man studying Gregorian chant in a French monastery. Neglecting his hogs, Griffin sometimes worked all night, dictating in French on a wire recorder and later transcribing his dictation in English on his mother’s ancient Underwood. In seven weeks he had completed a first draft and launched a new career for himself.
He had also precipitated a series of events that eventually changed the law of the land. He called the book The Devil Rides Outside, borrowing from a French proverb: “The devil rides outside the monastery walls.” The six hundred-page novel is a study of the struggle between faith and temptation, a raw, sprawling work that seems to have sprouted like a mushroom in the garden of Texas letters. In 1981 the novelist Larry McMurtry wrote of it as “a strange, strong book whose verbal energy . . . still seems remarkable after almost 30 years. In the mostly all-too-healthy and sunlit world of Texas fiction, the book remains an anomaly, dark, feverish, introverted, claustrophobic, tortured.”
Issued by a fledgling Fort Worth publisher, The Devil Rides Outside received surprising attention for a first novel by an unknown. Reviews were mixed. “Most of the novel’s sound and fury is bound up with the medieval notion that sex is the domain of Satan,” complained the Atlantic Monthly, but the noted literary critic Maxwell Geismar was impressed. He called the book one of the best novels of the decade and dubbed its author “a Texas Balzac.”
The Legion for Decent Literature, a Catholic organization, succeeded in getting The Devil Rides Outside banned in Detroit on the grounds that it was unfit for children and adolescents. While little in the book would shock a contemporary reader, the novel was daring for the fifties. It contains a pair of passages that describe in exactly the same language sexual climax and spiritual rapture.
Postwar censorship laws were a welter of local and state statutes, many of which, despite the historic 1934 circuit court ruling on Ulysses, still banned whole works based on isolated passages. In the spring of 1954 the book’s paperback publisher, Pocket Books, arranged to challenge the Detroit ban. A bookstore manager was arrested for selling a copy to a police inspector; the court convicted, the bookseller appealed, and Butler v. Michigan began a two-and-a-half-year march to the Supreme Court.
Despite the praise and attention, the fall of 1952 found the thirty-two-year-old Griffin utterly miserable. After six years of delay FranÇoise had bitterly broken their engagement. In his grief he received solace from an unexpected source, Piedy Holland, now a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Despite Griffin’s disability and the gap in their ages, the two found themselves increasingly drawn to each other. After a genteel courtship of several months, he proposed to Piedy at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. She happily accepted, and the two were married the following June after Griffin received dispensation from the Vatican for his Pacific marriage. They moved into a cottage behind the Hoilands’ house, and Griffin went to work on a second novel.
Totally blind, he turned to animal husbandry to earn a living —and wrote a novel that was banned in Detroit.
That fall Griffin noticed a growing numbness in his fingers. The doctor diagnosed malaria, a souvenir of his days in the tropics. The numbness progressed until by December he was not only blind but confined to a wheelchair, effectively paralyzed except in his left arm. He began taking minute doses of strychnine as a stimulant, but the prognosis was uncertain. To compound his troubles, he had been diagnosed as diabetic.
Despite these afflictions, he continued to labor on Nuni, a Robinson Crusoe tale of a middle-aged English professor struggling for survival on an island of savages. In his journal he wrote: “I am aware perhaps that I am putting the problems of my life into the lap of Professor Harper and I am desperate for him to solve them. I am stripping him of everything that men generally consider necessary to a man’s ability to function at the human level.”