Let Me Live

by Angelo Herndon
[Random House, $2.50]
IT is fools like me — and we run high into the thousands — who need Angelo Herndon’s book, Let Me Live. We knew, of course, about the case of the young Negro, and we have been violently and sincerely and sporadically indignant over it; some of us have even listened to speeches or signed letters or sent contributions, that the preposterous business might be brought to a higher, and, it was hoped, a saner, court. We would have said, and believed it while we were saying it, that we knew all the facts. Well, we did n’t. And those we did know we could n’t really believe, or, to be kinder to us, we could n’t toughen our minds to grasp. We needed them stacked solidly between book covers; we needed sharp black print and cold white paper to clear the rosy mists from our vision. You cannot raise your eyes from the pages of Let Me Live and descry how delightfully dewpearled is the hillside.
Angelo Herndon’s book is much more than a report of the Angelo Herndon case. It is the story of his life, — he is now twenty-four, — curiously touching in the manner of its telling. Mr. Herndon found honest publishers at Random House; no seasoned ghost came between the young man and his book. An experienced writer would have learned — and a born writer would have known—enough to keep it dead simple, to set down events and speeches without comment, and to leave them that way. John Steinbeck could have made a perfect book of Angelo Herndon’s story, a book to live in literature and to tear your heart out in the meantime. Mr. Herndon seems to have gone, for his style, to a writer he doubtless never read and probably never heard of: the late Horatio Alger. But that very style, the innocence of his hard-labored phrases, like a good boy writing home, attains a most competent result of tearing out the heart.
Let Me Live is a sombre and terrible life story. But it is not tragedy; the protagonist remains unbroken. From the time when, playing with some little white boys, he first heard the word ’nigger’ and laughed at the funny sound (the little white boys saw he did not know what it meant, and straightway taught him with sticks and stones), on through his days as a child laborer in the Kentucky mines, driven, overworked, cheated, living always among the cheated, the driven, the starving, his spirit grew in him. Such things are contagious. Your own spirit stretches as you read his book — stretches till it reaches a good respectable height at the account of Herndon’s trial for his life, on a forgotten slave law against ‘insurrection,’ five years ago in Georgia.
That trial is completely unbelievable; save that it happened. Actually, the question ‘Would you want yo’ daughter to marry a nigger, suh?’ was roared at a white witness. Actually, the prosecutor, the Reverend Hudson, thundered, ‘This is not only a trial of Angelo Herndon, but of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Kerensky. . . . As fast as the Communists come here, we shall indict them, and I shall demand the death penalty in every case.’ Actually, the incendiary literature found in the prisoner’s room, and offered as evidence, included the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Red Rook Magazine. (‘Look at the red covering of this magazine, Red Book,‘ cried the Reverend Hudson to the jury. ‘Is not that proof enough?’) Actually, the reverend prosecutor prayed the jury to ‘send this damnable anarchistic Bolsheviki to his death by electrocution, and God will be satisfied that justice has been done and the daughters of the state officials can walk the streets safely. Actually, the jury ’showed mercy’ and gave the boy twenty years on the chain gang — and God alone can compute how many death sentences that equals. . . .
There is real exercise for the spirit in the record of that trial, and the memory of it. But for the inducing of high and sustained fury I suggest the reading, in the appendices of the book, of the speech to the jury by Chief Jailer Holland, keeper of the unspeakable prison where Angelo Herndon was confined. Such reading may be constructive in its effect. Anger is often a form of labor pains.
I wish, for our national comfort, that Let Me Live were a freak, a literary curiosity. But, it is a vital document in American history, a record of fierce importance. It is a book to place in cornerstones; and may we spin in our graves when a future generation shall unearth it, and know that it was true!