Dues for Mr. Baldwin
James Baldwin, though one of the giants of 20th-century American letters, has often been marginalized, relegated to the ghetto of writers who write about race. This perception of Baldwin solely as a "black writer" -- and thus one whose interest lies primarily in the sociological or the documentary -- undercuts the real importance he has had in the development of postwar American literature. This month The Library of America celebrates Baldwin's place at the heart of American culture with two new volumes of Baldwin's most influential work.
The first of these two volumes, both edited by Toni Morrison, collects Baldwin's early fiction, including the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, and Another Country, and the short story collection Going to Meet the Man. The second brings together nearly all of his published essays, including those published in such earlier volumes as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, as well as many collected here for the first time.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the stepson of a Baptist preacher. He experienced his own conversion at age 14 and spent the next three years as a Pentecostal minister. By the time he was 17, however, he'd been introduced to the Greenwich Village art and music scenes. Baldwin left the church at the end of his senior year in high school, and began his life as an artist.
Baldwin is most remembered for his writings on race, which began (as he says in his autobiographical introduction to Notes of a Native Son) with a number of reviews of books on "the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert." Throughout his career, however, Baldwin concerned himself less with "the black experience" per se than with the entire milieu of beliefs and prejudices that foster the painful relations experienced between the races.
But even from his first novel, Baldwin complicated this view of race relations in America with the equally thorny problems of sexual relations. Baldwin, by the age of 18, thought of himself as homosexual; the first, inarticulate leanings of a young boy toward members of his own sex can be seen in Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953. Inspired by Baldwin's own experience, this novel portrays a young boy growing up in Harlem who buries his conflict with his parents -- and the inner conflict surrounding his feelings about a young preacher at his church -- by experiencing his conversion, finding himself "saved" from his sins, both actual and potential.
Giovanni's Room, published in 1956, takes up these latent issues of sexuality and masculinity and makes them the central area of exploration. David, the novel's narrator, attempts throughout the novel to account for a sexuality he perceives as aberrant, while telling the story of the young man, Giovanni, whose life has been destroyed by David's inability to deal honestly with him.
It is interesting to note, however, that in this first real exploration of the issues of sexuality, Baldwin used white characters -- as though he were equipped, at this early point in his career, to confront issues of either racial or sexual prejudice, but not both. By the time of Another Country, however, Baldwin has brought these two fields of inquiry together. This third novel, published in 1962, is perhaps his most complex evocation of an entire social milieu, fraught with conflicts over the battle lines of race and sex. In it, Rufus Scott, a promising young black jazz musician, is driven to suicide after a disastrous affair with a young white woman brings all of his uncontrollable anger about the division between black and white into his daily life. The fallout from his death, as it affects each person whose life he touched, creates a hostile, unstable world in which all such conflicts are dragged agonizingly to the surface.
In addition to being a novelist, Baldwin was a prolific essayist and playwright. He spent much of his life "commuting" between Paris and New York, as well as shuttling between genres. His essays demonstrate his deep involvement in both the literary and the political worlds, confronting the same set of interwoven conflicts as his novels, but in the turbulent social setting of postwar America. Published in 1963, The Fire Next Time is perhaps Baldwin's most influential work, a penetrating analysis of the racial divide in the United States that serves as both a message of hope and a warning:
"If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create the consciousness of others -- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"
Baldwin died in 1987 of esophageal cancer, but while he was among us, he spoke loud and long about the many battle lines that divide our country. These new Library of America editions are the ideal format for that voice, which deserves to be preserved, treasured -- and most of all, read.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Baldwin's impassioned essays have been at least as influential as his novels in exposing the racial polarization of American society. This massive compilation reproduces in their entirety his early essay collectionsNotes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963)as well as his later, less successful book-length essaysthe pessimistic, doom-laden No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976), a semi-autobiographical gloss on American movies. The book charts his trajectory from eloquent voice of the civil rights movement to disillusioned expatriate increasingly prone to grandiloquence and angry rhetoric. Also included is a miscellany of 36 articles, polemics and reviews, 26 of which were previously collected in The Price of the Ticket (1985), published just two years before Baldwin's death from cancer in France at age 63. Novelist Morrison's editing of this omnibus, which includes a chronology and notes, should help rekindle interest in Baldwin, whose recurrent themesthe African American search for identity, the hypocrisy of white America, the urgent necessity for lovemake his work timely and challenging. BOMC and Reader's Subscription selections. (Feb.)
Early Novels and Stories features the complete text of Baldwin's novels Go Tell It On the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, and his short story collection Going To Meet the Man. Most of Baldwin's writing is autobiographical and deals with his coming of age as a black man in America and later as an expatriate in France, as well as coming to terms with his homosexuality. Written between 1953 and 1965, these stories broke down walls. Collected Essays offers an impressive array of Baldwin's nonfiction and includes nine essays never before collected. Presented here are the complete texts of the collections Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, and The Devil Finds Work. Topics range from racism to literature to social issues. Along with corrected texts, these feature scholarly notes, a chronicle of the author's life, and more. Both volumes are essential for all collections.
Appropriately, it is the work from his early years -- his first article appeared two days after Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and his reputation peaked with the publication of "The Fire Next Time" in the year of the March on Washington and the deaths of four black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church -- that is most heavily represented in Toni Morrison's astute selection for the library of America. These two volumes, one of essays, one of fiction, contain the work that must determine if Baldwin's writing, judged as literary accomplishment, can sustain the burden of grateful memory....Sensibility, not intellectual rigor, dominates the essays. Like his artistic idol, Henry James, Baldwin had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. -- Michael Anderson, New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again. In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other. The children probably suffered, though they have since been kind enough to deny it, and in this way I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities over and over and over again; in this way, in fact, I read just about everything I could get my hands onexcept the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read. I must also confess that I wrotea great dealand my first professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to be seen in print, occurred at the age of twelve or thereabouts, when a short story I had written about the Spanish revolution won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church newspaper. I remember the story was censored by the lady editor, though I don't remember why, and I was outraged.
Also wrote plays, and songs, for one of which I received a letter of congratulations from Mayor La Guardia, and poetry, about which the less said, the better. My mother was delighted by all these goings-on, but my father wasn't; he wanted me to be a preacher. When I was fourteen I became a preacher, and when I was seventeen I stopped. Very shortly thereafter I left home. For God knows how longI struggled with the world of commerce and industryI guess they would say they struggled with meand when I was about twenty-one I had enough done of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. When I was twenty-two the fellowship was over, the novel turned out to be unsalable, and I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviewsmostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert. Did another book, in company with photographer Theodore Pelatowski, about the store-front churches in Harlem. This book met exactly the same fate as my firstfellowship, but no sale. (It was a Rosenwald Fellowship.) By the time I was twenty-four I had decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problemwhich, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print than it was in lifeand I packed my bags and went to France, where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talentwhich attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the nextone is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next. When one begins looking for influences one finds them by the score. I haven't thought much about my own, not enough anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speechand something of Dickens' love for bravurahave something to do with me today; but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.)
One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and this is not special pleading, since I don't mean to suggest that he has it worse than anybody else) is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only twoFor or Againstand I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better than no change at all.
But it is part of the business of the writeras I see itto examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at length, with nothing to be articulate about. ("You taught me language," says Caliban to Prospero, "and my profit on't is I know how to curse.") Consider: the tremendous social activity that this problem generates imposes on whites and Negroes alike the necessity of looking forward, of working to bring about a better day. This is fine, it keeps the waters troubled; it is all, indeed, that has made possible the Negro's progress. Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer's prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to useI had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mineI would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this schemeotherwise I would have no place in any scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world. And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
One writes out of one thing onlyone's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
I don't think the dilemma outlined above is uncommon. I do think, since writers work in the disastrously explicit medium of language, that it goes a little way towards explaining why, out of the enormous resources of Negro speech and life, and despite the example of Negro music, prose written by Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh. I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else. I don't think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart. But in the work of Faulkner, in the general attitude and certain specific passages in Robert Penn Warren, and, most significantly, in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginningsat leastof a more genuinely penetrating search. Mr. Ellison, by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life.
About my interests: I don't know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love to eat and drink-it's my melancholy conviction that I've scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it's impossible to eat enough if you're worried about the next meal)and I love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I don't like people who like me because I'm a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
FATHER, SOLDIER, SON
Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam
By NATHANIEL TRIPP
Copyright © 1996 Nathaniel Tripp. All rights reserved.