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Harlem Teacher

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The Invisible Island, by Irwin Stark (The Viking Press; $3).

This first novel by Irwin Stark, a young New York school teacher, is an encouraging performance. Decidedly it has its faults. It is too long, not because it grows tiresome or because it seems at times a trifle overcrowded with detail, but because the extent of its preoccupation with the sex life of its hero and its record of his spiritual adventures among the liberal and radical ideas of the thirties has a way of overpowering its central theme of a white teacher in a Harlem school.

There are occasions, also, when the novel recalls too clearly other autobiographical narratives of troubled young intellectuals and seems to stem more from them than from actuality. Finally, Stark suffers from the juvenile habit of inserting dirty words; words which, though they fit the dialogue plausibly enough, appear to be set down because the novelist feels he must fulfil some obligation to realism, and not out of any creative necessity.

Such faults, however, are only momentarily annoying in comparison to the very solid virtues of a work that is always alive and is most of the time dramatically absorbing. It is, to repeat, a highly encouraging novel, not only because it shows signs of the coming of a new writing talent but because it handles its grim and ugly theme with freshness, honesty and a kind of tough optimism that is never starry-eyed.

 

Too frequently pushed into the background by the rush of what must be at least in part the outline of Stark’s own youthful struggles, the essential narrative is of an idealistic young teacher’s effort to understand and help the embittered Negro students at the Emerson branch of the New York public-school system.

In the end he is superficially a failure. Most of his unwilling pupils are still suspicious of him and regard him asa fatuous and interfering outsider. Johnny Boston, the boy he is most eager to save and make his friend, has killed a Negro detective he hated and has died after a robbery. But basically Matthew Stratton, the instructor, wins his victory. In his heart he knows that he has found his place in the battle.

The conclusion of The Invisible Island is sturdily optimistic, not out of any facile triumph on the part of its central figure, but because it shows a man who, knowing the almost insuperable problems he faces, is yet at last prepared to face them to the end. It isa fighting, rather than a glib, romantic or disillusioned, conclusion, and for that reason it is effective.

The characters in Stark’s novel do not always come to life, but even when he fails with them, they are the outlines of real men and women, not figures in papier-maché. The author is considerably more successful with his men than with his women, in great part because the sex episodes never become much more than scenes thrown in because they are expected.

 

The novel does not tip the scales to its purpose: it presents the underprivileged Negro with candor. At least two of its most unattractive characters are Negroesthe brutal detective who beats Johnny Boston and is killed by him, and a ruthless career man in the public-school system. Stark sees that one of the greatest tragedies of the white man’s treatment of the Negro is the fact that it has produced a cold, ruthless selfishness as one of the chief protections against it. When he has told in quick and memorable phrases just how the detective and the teacher had become what they were, it is clear that they are as inevitably the victims of the race situation in America as the tragic Johnny Boston, who never forgot his lynched father.

Stark also depicts effectively, in the case of a Negro poet who could no longer write the poems his white public expected of him, a less frequently examined aspect of racism in the United States. That is the patronizing sentimentality that easily becomes » subconscious part of the attitude of the liberal white. Stark’s exposition of the tragedy inflicted on the American democratic structure by its maintenance of second-class citizens is valid, believable and compassionate social criticism, as well as moving fiction.

Because of this excellence, the author’s scheme of interrupting the most vital part of his story to provide long backward glimpses becomes annoying. Taken by itself, the tale of young Stratton’s careful and tentative approach to the social movements of the Roosevelt era is interesting literary history. It has, among other things, the virtue of contemplating the rise and fall of communism among the idealistic young intellectuals of the period sensibly, candidly and without bitterness. But the main business of The Invisible Island is the story of the Emerson School, and it is too good to be pushed into the background.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.

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