Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Socialist Realism and the Success of Famous All over Town

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Socialist Realism and the Success of Famous All over Town

Article excerpt

The novel Famous All Over Town, first published in 1983, used to be a highly regarded contribution to Chicano literature. (1) The poignancy and realism of the coming-of-age story were heightened because it was told in the first person and by someone who had personally experienced life on the increasingly mean streets of East Los Angeles. Moreover, the author's own success served as a beacon for Hispanic youth looking for positive role models: Danny Santiago had overcome adversity, had risen from the ghetto of ethnicity and written a bestseller. If he could do it, so could they. A pop-rock song by Evyn Charles entitled "Famous All Over Town" echoed the book's message: "We're gonna be famous / All over town / Everyone will know / Your name and mine / I'm doing it for us." (2) Mainstream critics were equally impressed. The book won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award for fiction in 1984 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the PEN President's Award a year later. (3) Teachers and librarians added Famous All Over Town to lists of required and recommended reading for those seeking authentic documents of the minority experience. In an article entitled "The Diversity Connection: Taking Responsibility for What We Teach," Eileen I. Oliver pointed out that the book "helps students connect with life in the barrio." (4)

The reception turned negative and indeed hostile when John Gregory Dunne revealed "The Secret of Danny Santiago" in the New York Review of Books (16 August 1984). (5) "Danny Santiago" was the pseudonym of Daniel Lewis James (1911-1988), scion of a well-to-do white American family. He was educated in Classics at Yale and already in his seventies when he wrote the book. In short, he was neither Chicano nor from a lower-class background nor uneducated nor young. The reaction ranged from consternation to anger. How could James have managed to dupe the publishers and the critics? How did an elderly affluent white author dare to appropriate the voice as well as the topics of minority writing? The Before Columbus Foundation sponsored a symposium at the Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco on the question "Danny Santiago: Art or Fraud," with the consensus opinion of those who participated leaning toward the accusation of fraud. (6)

The problem of how to respond to Famous All Over Town now that it can no longer be taken as a straightforward document of the Hispanic experience has become enmeshed with two ongoing controversies. Both are concerned with authenticity. One attempts to salvage works such as James's under the rubric of "literatura chicanesca," that is, as "a body of literature written about the Chicano/a experience by a non-Chicana/o writer." (7) Even though they lack the key credential of membership in the other community, writers familiar with and sympathetic to the group might well be able to produce reliable accounts, much as anthropologists do in fieldwork. This would legitimate James's text, since he and his wife had acquired an extensive knowledge of the Hispanic community. (8) There is some suggestion that James felt himself to be so close to the members of the Hispanic community that he felt that he could speak from their vantage point. Nevertheless, he remained uneasy about presuming to do so: "Verdugo, Rios and many other Latinos whom he had come to know well during those 25 years supported his work and his identity as Danny Santiago: they did not understand and thus could not appease Danny's apprehensions regarding disclosure of the James behind the Santiago." (9)

Another effort attempts to redeem James as an author from the charge of literary fraud by arguing that the novel is about his own life rather than that of the fictional narrator. Famous All Over Town would thus be a revealing, genuine document that reflects James's personal experience of political oppression. The plausibility of this suggestion rests upon the fact that James--who had developed strong communist sympathies during the 1930s despite his upper-class origins and who had collaborated on the script for Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator--saw his Hollywood career destroyed when he was blacklisted in 1951. …

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