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CRITIC AT LARGE

He Shared The Passion--but Not The Bitterness

June 29, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

"I have to write to be happy, whether I get paid for it or not," Ernest Hemingway wrote to Charles Scribner in 1940. "But it's a hell of a disease to be born with."

I found the quotation in a slim volume called "Ernest Hemingway on Writing," edited by Larry W. Phillips (Scribners, 1984), which was given me a little while ago by my colleague Paul Rosenfield.

When I browse through it, as I do very often, I am struck again and again by the links among all writers. The obsession, the pain and the psychic, non-cash rewards described by one of the nation's best, most famous and best-paid writers are common to writers who haven't yet, or maybe never, caught the brass ring, never earned enough to pay their postage, let alone their rent. But they can't stop until, for whatever reasons, the words stop coming, as they stopped for Hemingway.

"I love to write," Hemingway also said. "But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can't expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do."

When I hear that note, with its mixed overtones of pleasure and frustration, I think also these days of my friend James Thomas Jackson, a writer who shared the pain and the passion and who died of cancer earlier this year.

James Thomas was not an unpublished writer. Over the years we ran several of his pieces in Sunday Calendar and he had also appeared on the Op Ed page, as well as in other publications. The voice, and occasionally the punctuation (he was fond of dashes), were unmistakable.

He wrote about black artists--poets, playwrights, actors, actresses--he admired, and whose struggles he could identify with because his own struggles had begun early and never really stopped. What those of us who knew him will remember most, I suspect, is that with all the grounds he had for bitterness, James Thomas rarely surrendered to it.

He never denied the realities of his life, and they lent flashes of anger and a kind of wry understatement to his work. ("Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged"--Hemingway, "The Green Hills of Africa.")

But he lived for the possibilities of his life as a writer, and if he looked back, it was to see that he had come further, perhaps, than he might have hoped in his early years, even if it was not far enough.

He was born in Temple, Tex., and grew up in Houston, where education was separate and unequal, and he got his high school diploma as a GI drafted into the Air Force. In uniform he read with the thirst of a man emerging from the Sahara, and felt the first stirrings to write.

James Thomas served in Europe, was discharged in 1948, spent two years traveling this country, then re-enlisted, went back to Germany and served in the Army of Occupation until 1953. He had been working ever since, right up to the week he went into hospital for the last time, on a novel called "Shades of Darkness," based largely on his Army experiences in Germany.

He let me read a large chunk of it, and it was personal, powerful and ironic. The irony, the terrible irony, is that when the Army is at last integrated, the truck company of his story, a proud, well-disciplined outfit, is broken up and his protagonist, a non-com in the former outfit, is put to washing trucks--back to menial status under white control, in the name of progress.

But the novel seemed to me to be about the stirring of change, the teasing but indelible intimation that things could be different. If Germany was not free of anti-black prejudice, it wasn't hard-line Texas, either. It is a look at war and postwar Europe I don't believe we've had from anyone else.

James Thomas went back to Houston after his hitch, tried to write, found a helpful and encouraging friend in the novelist and Houston Post columnist David Westheimer ("Von Ryan's Express"). Westheimer remembers that once, when James Thomas was denied admission to a Houston theater, he went home and burned books by white authors. It was one of his rare surrenders.

In 1965, he decided to move to Los Angeles. With magnificent timing, as Westheimer recalled in a column, James Thomas arrived in Watts on the first night of the riots, turned around and drove into the desert and slept in his car until things calmed down.

Not long after, he became a charter member of Budd Schulberg's Watts Writers Workshop and was published in its 1967 anthology, "From the Ashes." The friendship with Schulberg never stopped, and they had corresponded earlier this year about the 20th anniversary of the workshop coming in August.

Even after his first bouts of illness, James Thomas kept at the typewriter, extending and revising "Shades of Darkness," doing poems and articles, supporting himself as a house painter, office cleaner, caretaker, yardman--anything to keep the rent paid, never letting himself or his friends imagine that tomorrow would be anything but better.

"I'll go down fighting not to be a loser," he told Westheimer in a letter. Without meaning to, he gave lessons in hope, persistence and the writer's passion to all his friends. The pamphlet handed out at his memorial service contained part of an unpublished poem by James Thomas Jackson called "Earthville:"

So I am

Home,

As the naked failure.

With rhetorical dreams of Emerson,

Whitman and Mr. Sandburg.

Home, partner, with a head full of

Blithe, embroidered hopes and fountain

Springs of books to be.

Home, man, still, to a religious faith....

In shoes with well-worn soles. . . .

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