Archive for August 2015
I read a lot of books as an impressionable teenager, but there were three autobiographies I devoured, all in the same semester, that inspired/fascinated/disgusted me with what I felt was their smart, savvy, sometimes brutal depictions and opinions of what “real life” was like: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, and Iceberg Slim’s Pimp. One was assigned for school; two I picked up at a used bookstore in Greenwich Village when my friend Mike and I were supposed to be in school. All contributed to my education.
Over time, I learned that much of what was in those books, while emotionally riveting and mostly true, was factually dubious. Freshman year in college I read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life and learned that Guthrie was both savvier and more mundane a personality than he wanted us to believe. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention showed how Malcolm’s Autobiography was a brilliant, controlled, selective performance. And now Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim tells a more complicated and less self-aggrandizing (though still pretty damn disturbing) tale than the official take.
Few of the revelations in those books (Marable’s were the most controversial when they were first published) diminish the story or the storyteller. Many of the deviations from fact in Autobiography of Malcolm X, Bound for Glory, and Pimp were made to improve and focus the story, but it turns out that messiness makes for a more complicated and even more engaging story than a slightly too-well-rounded version.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s the key line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and, in some ways, that’s the moral of the film and the three high school books I’m remembering. Sometimes, though, dumping the legend in favor of the fact can better serve the subject and the story.