High Cotton, 1992
Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature, 2002
Born in Indianapolis, Darryl Pinckney (PIHNGK-nee) had a comfortable middle-class childhood. The idealism of the 1950’s flavored his midwestern youth, which he later said he found unspectacular until he traveled from his native Indiana and discovered his blackness. Meanwhile, he attended high school in the suburbs and developed a love for English history and literature, fantasizing about the day he would get to go to England.
Pinckney was a member of the fourth generation of his family to be college-educated. He attended Columbia University, later commenting on his time there that he found himself surrounded by intellectual “weirdness.” Nevertheless, he developed confidence and style in his writing classes. Pinckney tinkered with radical thoughts and attended a few black militant gatherings, but his interest in militancy was short-lived. He went on to graduate study at Princeton University. After leaving the academic environment, he took a number of jobs, eventually attaching himself to writer Djuna Barnes, performing odd jobs and relishing the experience of living around the reclusive author of Nightwood (1937). Pinckney whimsically submitted a book review of Gayle Jones’s Corrigidora (1975). Published, the review opened doors for further work, and The New York Review of Books began to publish his writing. Eventually his freelance status evolved into a staff position.
He lived in Europe for a time, drifting between London, Paris, and Germany, finally settling in Berlin, where he collaborated with an Eastern German playwright, Heiner Müller, writing texts for the theater. Pinckney had grown tired of the commercialism of the United States, and he enjoyed the separation from his homeland. He participated in the culture of students and intellectuals who moderated the pace of Berlin. Pinckney likened his self-imposed European exile to that of James Baldwin. Pinckney’s isolation allowed him, perhaps for the first time, to consider his African American roots. Before the publication of High Cotton in 1992 he had written for such publications as Granta, Vogue, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review as well as The New York Review of Books, establishing himself as a new, independent voice in African American critical writing. His essays discussed authors including Jean Toomer, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. He received Guggenheim and Ingram Merrill grants to pursue his writing, and he was given the Whiting Writers Award in 1986.
High Cotton contains strongly autobiographical elements, and parts seem as much memoir as novel; Pinckney once hinted that he was born with the subject matter he addresses in the book and had long intended to write about the generational differences in African American life using relatives’ stories and personal histories. Among the novel’s characters is Uncle Castor, expatriate jazz musician from Paris, who tells the unnamed narrator tales of adventure while engaging in such idiosyncratic behaviors as drinking coffee sucked through a sugar cube perched on his lips. Grandfather Eustace, a Harvard-educated, strict Congregationalist minister, is one of the central figures; unrelenting and misunderstood, he periodically antagonizes the young narrator by making him question his view of the world. Upon Eustace’s death, the narrator travels down south to take care of the family farm in Georgia. He finds no bucolic homeland but rather shopping malls and business strips–and racism. The youth’s nostalgic dreams and visions of the Deep South fade. The term “high cotton” refers to ease of living: If one is chopping high cotton, life is easier than stooped picking. In this case, it is the black middle class–including the novel’s narrator and Pinckney himself–that flourishes in taller crops.
Pinckney has taught at Columbia and been a visiting lecturer at Harvard. In 1995 The New York Review of Books published three long critical essays by Pinckney on autobiographies by African Americans: “Promissory Notes,” focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century accounts of growing up black, “The Professionals,” on black journalists, and “Black Aristocrats,” on works portraying the lives and culture of people in the black middle class. In 2002 he published Out There, based on a series of lectures given at Harvard which assess the literary contributions of three black writers, Vincent O. Carter, J. A. Rogers, and Caryl Phillips.