Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Siege of Harlem

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, January 6, 2002

“Dear old Josea Boutwell, still at that time Minister of Interior, I heard him say--we were all standing around the lobby waiting for Mister Eddie--I heard him say, ‘I’ll give anybody ten to one he’s coming up here with the names of a three-man committee to keep the dear old lines of communication open.’ There were no takers and as a matter of fact my good friend Ahearn Tucker says, ‘Yes, brother, and whatsmore I can tell you who those committeemen will be: one retired businessman, one retired football coach, and a college professor with a bowtie.’ Well, there was laughter all around...”

This is a strange artifact of the sixties. Written in 1964, published in 1965, it tells the story of when Harlem seceded from the Union and built its own government. The cover blurb says “Beneath the hilarity is a clear warning: ‘Laugh at your peril. It could happen.’”

AuthorWarren Miller
Length143 pages
Book Rating6

Except it isn’t hilarious (it wasn’t meant to be, though it is funny) and it definitely couldn’t happen. Not then and not now. It’s a serious fairy tale in the “Animal Farm” tradition, with the older book’s humor but without that book’s pessimism.

Still, you can’t blame the author for the cover blurb. Can’t even really blame the publisher, as they’re attributing it to TIME. But it sure makes for a hilarious cover now, over thirty years after “Siege of Harlem” was written.

The author makes an interesting choice of story-telling conceits: he relates his tale to Arthurian legend. He takes the names of the two main characters, and the parts of the three main characters, in the Arthur saga, although he switches the male names around. “Art Rustram” is Lancelot, “one of the finest and purest young men I have ever met up with in all my days and time”; “Lance Huggins” is Arthur, the new president of Harlem; and “Crystal Brindle” had the role of Guinevere, with a touch of George Orwell’s Mollie the Horse. The scene where Crystal meets Art is hard for me to read without thinking of Lancelot picking up Guinevere in John Boorman’s movie, “Excalibur”.

Lance Huggins might also be a tribute to Nathan Huggins, who authored “Harlem renaissance” in 1973.

Their name for outsiders, who are whites since all blacks moved to Harlem (laugh at your peril!), is “Majority Man” or the “Privileged People”. Their capitol building is the “Black House”.

The story is told from the perspective of one of Harlem’s soldiers, who started as a member of the militia and later was assigned to the Black House Guards. He was often in the Black House when important events were happening; he was also one of Art Rustram’s hand-picked soldiers later in the book. At the story’s telling he is a grandfather, telling the story of Harlem’s founding to his grandchildren: Ngomo, Sekou, Mboya, Shabad, Jomo, Ahmed, Diego, and probably a few others.

The fictional story-teller wasn’t from Harlem; he went there in a Buick with an ice cream salesman, dropped off at 125th Street (now Huggins Boulevard) along with the woman who would become his wife (and the children’s grandmother). When the call went out, Blacks from around the United States converged on Harlem.

I don’t think the ‘real’ author was from Harlem either; the story is well-written, but the mannerisms of speech don’t ring true. The storyteller often says things like “Tooby sure it was...” and “I’ll get to that bimeby, honey.” Miller’s ethnicity is apparently up for grabs. The Literature Resource Center lists him as black. An article in the Negro American Literature Forum discusses his ability as a white author to raise issues of importance for blacks. In fact, in that article the author discusses the nature of the story, that many readers become unsure whether the author is black or white. For me, the use of slang points to a white author. But the story itself is told in a straightforward manner which indicates someone with firsthand experience of the subject being satired. (And I should also point out that the question didn’t even come up until I decided that the book needed more exposure, and I decided to review it.) According to Glen Love, in the aforementioned Negro American Literature Forum article (thanks to Robert Nedelkoff for pointing this source out to me), Miller lived for a few years on East 96th street in Harlem. The excerpts that Love reproduces from “Cool World” read differently, and better; I think the effect Miller might have been going for in his Georgia narrator’s occasional slang was to contrast an uneducated but wise and beloved founder with the now educated black youth of Harlem, the grandchildren. And while I think the occasional use of slang detracts from the story, the use of meter in the narrator’s speech is very well done.

According to the Literature Resource Center (which source I’m not trusting very far right now), Warren Miller spent most of his academic career at the same school. (At some point he also worked in PR and sales in New York.) He received his Bachelors and Masters from the University of Iowa, and remained there as an “instructor of literature during [the] 1950s”. From the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, he wrote six novels, a few pseudonymous novels, and some children’s books, and then he died of lung cancer in 1966. One of his novels was something called “The Cool World,” which has apparently nothing to do with the animated cartoon of the eighties. As important as his work seems to have been considered by those who reviewed it in the sixties (of course, you can’t always trust cover blurbs, but I tend to agree with their estimation of his quality of writing), there is nothing available on him today. Even most of his books are no longer available on the on-line stores like Amazon, and Amazon seems to go out of their way to list out-of-print books that they will never carry.

A quick search of the local libraries turned up “Looking for the general,” an odd science fiction book, in hardcover, with no “about the author” blurb. A search of the Web and Usenet brings up little but a few scattered individuals trying to sell used copies of his books. Do a search on “Warren Miller’s The Cool World” on Google and you can find out more about the director of the movie adaption than you can about the author of the book the movie was based on. Miller apparently felt burned by the stage adaptation, and didn’t want anything to do with the film adaptation.

In the April 19, 1992, “Los Angeles Times,” in a review of Jess Mowry’s “Way Past Cool”, Robert Ward mentioned, in passing: “Like... Warren Miller’s great novel ‘Harlem’ (a book that should be in print permanently)”. While it isn’t in print now (and I suspect Ward was lamenting that it wasn’t in print then), you should be able to find it at on-line used bookstores. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at a brick-and-mortar used bookstore. I picked mine up for a quarter at a library booksale.

Ah, Ozymandias, I knew him well!

It is hard to discuss the implied importance of this book at the time of printing without some information about how the author interacted with those times. However, I don’t think it is going out on a limb to say that the kind of importance attached to the work (“it could happen!”) says more about the reviewers and the publishers than it does about the work. This is a well-written work, but it was, I’m sure, clearly written as a fairy tale, as an allegory. That may have been part of why he was so blatant with the Arthurian “allegory”: to pound our heads with what this story is. It is an insight into the perspective of major reviewers in the sixties that one reviewer could say, and his newspaper publish, that a story in which Harlem secedes from the Union and every single black person in the United States moves there, is a warning of something that could really happen. (Actually, every single black person but one.)

Right. The storyteller, an old man now, was 15 when Lance Huggins, former U.S. Congressman, called blacks to Harlem, and to hear the narrator tell it, they all but one did, and she died from loneliness. The narrator leaves his town of Smudgeville (where they have no lights) and goes to Harlem in an ice cream truck, on the way meeting a twelve-year-old who will become his wife.

About the only tie-in to the real world was the mention of “Strom Thurmond’s Light Horse”, a rumored cavalry division training for an attack on Harlem. That’s history, I guess. Strom Thurmond’s still around.

Once in Harlem, he joins the militia, and quickly works his way up into Lance Huggins’ personal guard. From there he is able to view the rise and turbulations of Harlem’s quest for independence.

It’s a good story; if you like “Animal Farm” you’ll probably enjoy this satire (assuming you can find it). Though it isn’t as sharp as it could be, it’s still well worth reading, and it is too bad that it isn’t available any more. In many ways it, like its reviews, is a product of its time, and that also is an interesting trip.

The Siege of Harlem

Warren Miller

Recommendation: Purchase