Robert Gover made a difference for a generation and for generations to follow.
Presentation to the Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Chicago, March 2nd, 2012

Robert Gover is a genuine hero of American letters, and his One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding is a classic of the literature of social change that flourished in the mid to late 20th century. It is a book that has made a difference – and considering how our country is developing (is there a word for counter-developing?) that difference and those changes might very well be needed again.

About three weeks ago, I finished reading that novel for the fourth or fifth time. The first time was about fifty years ago when it was first published in the United States. And I am pleased to say that it holds up. It more than holds up. It is still belly-laugh funny and beautiful and insightful and exciting – it is comic and sexy and absurd and right-on accurate about these absurdities of American life. And it is as modern as when it was written even if we do have an African-American president now.

In 1962 – the year that Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding was published in the U.S. – I was drafted into the U.S. Army for a term of two years. Lucky for me. The U.S. was quietly getting ready to make war in Vietnam, but at the time that I was drafted, it was still the peacetime Army and would continue to be, at least in name, until November 1965 with Landing Zone X-Ray, the first official battle of the Vietnam war, by which time I was long back into my civvies.

Of course, I hated the army, but as the Danes say, Nothing is so bad that it is not good for something. My tour in the army, especially during basic training – the first eight weeks of my service, which seemed like eight years – -was the first time in my life I had ever lived with African-Americans.

In fact, the population of my Fort Dix, New Jersy basic training barracks was about forty percent black. Even nearly a century after the American Civil War, a black person in the United States could not get a fair deal – one of the jobs open to him or her was as a soldier.

So I shared barracks with Clyde T. Washington and Noble Timmins, Jr., Donald Thomas and Tyrone Thomas, Alfred R. Stroman, Richard A. Selby, Ivan L. Smith, and Tyrone McGraw, Sleepy Wayne Harrison, and Slim Hubbard, who’d been in the golden gloves in Phillie, Leon Johnson and Reginald Johnson and William Johnson (known as “Johnson, L” and “Johnson, R.” and “Johnson, W.”). There was also the cadre – Sergeant First Class McCutcheon, Staff Sergeant Alexander King and Corporal Tuckson, who used to march us to breakfast before sunrise those freezing dark New Jersey mornings, counting cadence to Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns – “Don’t You Just Know It” and “I Got the Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” This was cadence like it had never been counted before.

I’m not reciting all those names to kill time, but those names to me are a kind of litany, celebrating when my white butt was freed from the racial boundary in the land of the free. Those were the days, of course, that segregation still existed in the U.S., south and north. There was apartheid, and if I am grateful to the Army for one thing, it is that it made it possible for me, for the first time in my life, to have black friends. And to my surprise they seemed just as curious about me, most of them – a skinny, big-nosed curious friendly ofay who looked something like a cross between Buddy Holly and Woodie Allen.

That year or maybe a year later, I happened to pick up a novel by Robert Gover entitled One Hundred DollarMisunderstanding, and that book put the words to the situation which would laugh racism right out of the mainstream. It would take some years – some very hard years – and a lot of pain – it was as Langston Hughes put it, “laughing to keep from crying” – but Gover’s book was an advance standard bearer, and it came from the heart more than from the brain, but the heart-felt passion of it – of young smart Kitten and clunky white middle class racist liberal J.C. Holland – ran on first-rate intelligence.

I realized, reading that novel, that if my parents hadn’t been who they were, if my father, anytime he heard some disparaging racial slur had not been quick to say, “Negroes are just like us. They just want to do what they can for their families.” If he hadn’t made that point repeatedly, growing up as I did in a redneck northern neighborhood, I might have turned into a character like J. C. Holland, as ignorant a racist college-educated sonuvabitch as ever breathed.

When I read Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, I felt pretty much the way I felt when I saw Kubrick and Terry Southern’s Dr. Strangelove or when I read Henry Miller or Terry Southern or Joseph Heller or Warren Miller or listened to Bob Dylan – in short, I felt filled with delight, liberated with laughter or recognition as all the mind manacles fell off – as the cell doors of hypocrisy popped open – the racist ones, the jingoistic ones, the anti-sexual ones, the linguistic ones, the American terror of socialism, the insanity that had our world divided into black and white and east and west with nuclear missiles aimed every which way.

Of course, everybody heard what Robert Gover was saying, and it was ripe to be said. Henry Miller heard him and Herbert Gold did, Gore Vidal and Joseph Heller did and Jim Morrisson and Hunter S. Thompson did. Even goddamn Time magazine heard him! A whole generation heard him.

And me, in the midst of redneck Queens, I heard him, too. I remember reading that book, and my brain and my heart opening like a flower.

Robert Gover is fifteen years my senior, and I never imagined at 18 or 19 that I would have the privilege to actually meet the man one day. As Holden Caulfield says, When you finish a really good book, you just want to call the author up and ask him a lot of questions. Well a little more than 40 years later, I got to do just that, and Robert and I had one helluva conversation – we had a 6,345 word conversation which was published in The Literary Review in 2007.

And what is the misunderstanding at the heart of Gover’s novel? It is about a hundred dollars, of course – four twenties and two tens – because in his extremely ignorant vanity, the 19-year-old middle-class, white, racist, so-called liberal college boy, J. C. Holland, thinks he shouldn’t have to “pay for it,” whereas Kitten, in her 14-year-old wisdom wants her hundred dollars for the weekend of pleasure she has given J.C. – “You got some o’ me and I got some o’ you.” (page 202)

But it is also a misunderstanding between races, between social classes, between men and women, between kinds of intelligence, spheres of American behavior, a misunderstanding of words and language and syntax. J. C. Holland tries “to explain (to Kitten) the difference between normal marital sexual relations and abnormal perverted illegal immorality.” (p. 140)

When Kitten is learning to read, she comes “t’this one big word mean fuck.” Her teacher says it is pronounced “COP YOU LATE,” and Kitten asks, “it mean fuck, how come it don’ jus’ say fuck.”

And Kitten is told the word fuck is bad, but Kitten cannot understand how a word can be bad, so she is informed “COP YOU LATE” is “like White, an- fuck is like Black… COP YOU LATE got loot, an’ fuck is down an’ out broke.” (page 197)

This is, in fact, at a time when the word “fuck” could land you in jail – as Lenor Kandel learned in San Francisco when she published the poem, “To Fuck with Love,” or as Lenny Bruce learned when he stood up in public and said the word. It was a time when University of California at Berkeley students were going around with signs around their necks on which was printed, “Fuck, Verb.” It was a time that kids – like me – had one language they used in the streets and another language they used at home and in school, a language cauterized of the poetry of sex, a proper language, and you didn’t really question that there were two sets of words and two kinds of behavior – one that included sex and one that did not include sex – until somebody stood up and started seizing back our right to speak what we wish to, what the bill of rights guarantees us the right to.

So this was the atmosphere in which Robert Gover created Kitten, and Kitten’s intelligence is such that she questions. She asks why. Whereas J. C. Holland buys all the hypocrisy about “obscenity” and the space race, the arms race, and racism.

Kitten, listening in on the TV news with J. C. Holland (pp 111 and 121), points out that it is insane that a man has been pronounced sane and therefore qualifies to be submitted to the insanity of execution. Kitten asks her question that nobody seems to want to ask — about that, about everything – “How come they wanna do that for?”

Kitten’s intelligence is such that it dares venture where J.C.’s won’t or can’t – questioning the mad affairs of state and international politics, whereas J.C. blindly accepts the status quo. Further the language of Kitten is rhythmic and musical and from the body:

“He so fishfry flush he kin hardly get his mothahumpin’ hands roun’ that wad!”

“I jes dee-diddly-dam well know him!” (p. 40)

“And then he axin’ bout roun’ the worl’? An’ alla time so jimjam jittery he ain’ gonna make it t’the corner.” (p. 41)

“…rump-thumpin’ knucklehead dumb…” (p. 133)

“…he wrinkle up one minit and he snort the next…” (p. 136)

“…he do more o’his dum rantin’ and ravin’ and big-word noise…” (p. 136)

“…he pop and hop and go runnin’ roun’ like he ‘bout t’fly…” (p. 87)

The poetry J. C. Holland has to offer in return is as limited as his world view and out of touch with the rhythms and functions of his body: “By gosh,” he says, and “Holy Christmas,” and “Ha ha,” and “for crying out loud,” and ”for gosh sakes,” and “good gracious,” and “what the heck!” and “rear end.” “Prick yourself, you may be dreaming,” and “Truth is stranger than fiction.” But aware of his linguistic short-comings, he says, “I wish I were a paid professional writer so I could describe it to you.” And he says, “That girl was not bad-looking for a non-white,” then he is quick to assure the reader that he himself is “far from a prejudiced white person” and that his foray into a non-white ill repute house” is purely “educational and sociological.”

The trick of a good trapeze act is it has to look easy. One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding – like the best of acrobatics – looks easy, it reads easy, it makes you smile, it makes you laugh out loud. But I make no mistake when I say that it didn’t come easy because it took courage to go up against the tide. And Robert Gover documents that – in his introduction to Hopewell’s edition of the book – and praise to Christopher Klim for helping make this possible. In that introduction, Robert Gover tells about how much against the tide he was.

We were still marches away from the dissolution of segregation, marches and assassinations. It takes courage to stand up and make a statement like One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding at a time like that. In fact, it still takes courage in the United States of today.

Praise to one hell of a courageous man and writer: Robert Gover.


One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, Robert Gover. Titusville, N.J.: Hopewell Publications, 2005. New York: Grove Press, 1962.