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James Baldwin was one of America's finest and most influential writers. By the time he died in 1987, his books, such as The Fire Next Time, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Giovanni's Room, had become modern classics.
James Campbell knew Baldwin for ten years before Baldwin's death. For this book, he interviewed many of Baldwin's friends and examined several hundred pages of correspondence. He quotes from the vast and disturbing file that the FBI compiled on Baldwin and he discusses Baldwin's sometimes turbulent relationships with Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, and Marlon Brando, as well as his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. Elegantly written, candid, and original, Talking at the Gates is a comprehensive account of the life and work of a writer who believed that "the unexamined life is not worth living."
The Price of the Beat
'Ah! si j'avais à écrire une histoire des noirs, je devrais interviewer les blancs.'
James Baldwin, unpublished interview
with Christian de Bartillat, 1974
In February 1978, James Baldwin received an invitation to address students at Edinburgh University. It was an informal request—so much so, indeed, that it came without the endorsement of the university or of any student body, and with no mention of a fee or travelling expenses. In fact, it was scarcely more than a letter of response to Baldwin's writing, with a postscript asking him please to come to Scotland.
He was not short of invitations, but for some reason he accepted this one. Scotland was one of the few European countries he had yet to visit, and he was touched, or so he told me later, by the personal approach, and by the 'authority' of the letter.
My invitation to Baldwin to come to Edinburgh was not just 'personal': it was impossibly inept and naïve. I wrote without a thought in the world of how to pay his fee, whatever that might have been, of how to transport him from St-Paul de Vence to Edinburgh, of where to put him up for the night, or even of how to feed him while he was there.
When Bernard Hassell replied, saying that Mr. Baldwin would like to 'speak to the students of the Univ. of Edinburgh in April when he is on his way to California', I was elated—and then appalled. What was I going to do with him, assuming he got here under his own steam? Offer him a pallet on the floor and a pintin the pub? My resources would stretch to nothing grander—I had no resources. A literature tutor with whom I discussed the problem (it had suddenly become a 'problem') gently suggested that the great American writer might expect to receive some money once his obligation to speak to the students was fulfilled. I had even less experience of money than of arranging for famous people to visit ancient universities.
The whole thing collapsed, with just two days to go, when a telegram arrived saying that he was unable to make it after all, owing to a bad bout of flu, and that I should contact him to arrange an alternative date.
Disappointment was edged out by relief. I telephoned him at his home in St-Paul and he offered a date in August, when, alas, the students would be on holiday. We agreed to call it off. It was a 'dead letter', Baldwin said. He hoped he would visit Scotland one day. He said he liked my accent. We left it at that.
Or at least he did. Nine months later, I wrote to Baldwin again. By this time I had assumed the editorship of a small-circulation literary quarterly, the New Edinburgh Review, and I folded my letter into a review copy of a book: The Making of Jazz by James Lincoln Collier, a white American music historian. While there were many allusions to jazz in his essays, I prodded Baldwin, he had never devoted a piece to the subject on its own. Perhaps he might welcome the opportunity to do so?
There was no reply, so after some weeks I sent a reminder. 'It looked a fairly interesting book to me,' I wrote, 'and I thought the possibility of writing something might catch your fancy.' And I added matily, 'Hope this finds you well.' This elicited a note, scrawled at the foot of my own letter, which was returned to me: 'Would love to do a long piece: but cannot do it within the dead-line. Am not free before the end of May.'
It amounted to a written agreement. Again I was thrilled, but my joy had to compete with dread that, as before, it might fall through. A long piece? I thought of The Fire Next Time; I thought of 'The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy': perhaps Baldwin's next great long piece would appear in the New Edinburgh Review, and I would be his editor.
Of course, we had no money. Our contributors received £20, perhaps £30 for a very long piece or an exceptionally good short story. They were supposed to be motivated by the energy of literature itself. I remembered reading in Norman Podhoretz's Making It that Baldwin had been paid about $12,000 by the New Yorker in 1962 for the article which became The Fire Next Time (the true figure was closer to half that amount). What on earth would he say to £20? In one issue of the New Edinburgh Review I had reprinted a short piece by William Burroughs—which I had actually got from him for free some years before for another little magazine—and then posted him a cheque for £10, to be drawn on my own bank account. Burroughs, disgusted, sent the cheque straight to his English agent, who returned it to me, stating acidly that I had insulted her client.
I telephoned Baldwin, said I was delighted that he had agreed to write something for the magazine, but mentioned my embarrassment.
'Don't worry about money,' he replied in an amicable, low-slung growl. I had a feeling that 'not worrying about money' could mean one thing to me and another to James Baldwin, so I persisted. If he wrote 4,000 words, we could stretch to an unprecedented £80.
'Eighty pounds?' Baldwin paused. 'That's O.K.'
The deal was done. We agreed a July deadline. On the appointed day, a telegram arrived.
I FEAR YOU HAVE AN ESSAY I CANNOT DO JUSTICE IN THE LENGTH PROPOSED
HAVE BEEN TRYING TO CALL YOU PLEASE CALL ME
JAMES BALDWIN IN ST PAUL DE VENCE
Cannot do justice in the length proposed? How long did Baldwin want to go? As far as I was concerned, he could have an entire issue of the magazine—he could have the next year's worth if he wanted it.
I called. This book had given him a great deal to think about, he said; it was a heavy burden to carry; I had forced him into a confrontation with something 'very important about my life'; he had been re-reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in the light of Collier's account, and there was a connection he needed to explore...
He told me to ring him at the end of the week, which I did, then again at the beginning of the week, then in the middle, then at the end, then at the beginning of the next week... Almost every time I rang a different person answered the phone. They got to know me. Friendly, confident, black voices. 'Oh, Mr. Campbell! How are you? Jimmy's not up yet. Can you call again in an hour?' Or else Baldwin would come to the phone: courteous, asking after my health, or about Scotland, or the weather... 'I'm working on the piece right now... but it's very hot down here.'
Finally, he wrote it. I don't believe he ever would have, had I not told him—ingenuously expecting contributors to hand in their copy when they said they would—that we had had the cover printed and that his name and photograph were on it.
'I'm on the cover!' Baldwin gasped. 'I'd better get to work.
When the essay arrived, it was not quite as long as I had hoped, and perhaps had been led to expect, though it was close to our original target of 4,000 words. No mention was made in it of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was called—the title was created first, as was often his practice—'Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption', after the final chapter of W.E.B. DuBois's seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk.
Following an introductory attack on the limitations of Collier's book, it settled into a meditation on the music which 'begins on the auction block'. It was not a great essay, in the style of 'Notes of a Native Son', but it was a good one, and it could not have been written by anyone else. It was driven by the need to affirm the connection between art and life: art was important because the life it sprang from was more important—
the slave mother.... weep[s], until this hour, for her slaughtered son.... whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the beat which is the key to music and the key to life.
Music is our witness and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognizes, changes and conquers time.
I did not actually meet Baldwin for almost another two years, and once again the encounter followed a somewhat comic pattern.
After 'Of the Sorrow Songs' was completed, he rounded off our dealings with an open invitation to visit him in St-Paul—'if you ever happen to be down this way'. He also gave me some phone numbers where I could contact him in New York, those of his brother and his mother, saying that they always knew where he was, and that we should keep in touch.
The hand of friendship extended in this way greatly flattered me, and I resolved to make sure that I would 'happen to be down this way' before long.
The opportunity occurred early the next summer, which I spent in Paris. I rang Baldwin from a telephone box. 'How are you, baby?' he asked. I was fine—and him? Baldwin chuckled. 'A li'l tight, a li'l tight.... but that's OK.' I explained that, if it was convenient, I would like to take up my invitation to visit him, in the middle of the following week. Baldwin didn't hesitate; he said he would be delighted. We fixed a day for my arrival, and I asked: 'Shall I phone you before leaving Paris?'
'Only if you have time,' he said. 'Call me when you get to Nice.'
I said I would. 'Goodbye, then.'
In fact, I did not call before leaving, not wanting to tempt a postponement. As a present, I bought a record of the great pianist Mary Lou Williams, and took the early-morning train from Paris to Nice. Nine hours later, I crossed the road from the station to a café, where I dialed Baldwin's number. For the first time in our telephone life, he picked up the receiver himself.
'Hey, baby, how are you? Where are you?'
'I'm in Nice.'
Baldwin exploded. 'You're in Nice, man! Oh baby....' his voice decelerated to a crawl, 'you should've let me know.'
Before I had a chance to protest that he himself had said it was unnecessary to call in advance, he asked: 'Do you have any French money?' Yes, of course I did. I had been in Paris for weeks. 'OK, look. Take a cab to St-Paul de Vence. Do you know any French? Ask the driver to let you down at a restaurant called the Colombe d'Or. He'll know it. I'll be there.'
I reached the Colombe d'Or but he wasn't in the bar. When I asked the barman about 'Monsieur Baldwin', he shrugged and looked vague. I lugged my bag across the road to the large café which took up one side of the place, and waited in the open air, watching the men playing boules. Within quarter of an hour, Baldwin appeared at the junction about fifty yards away: small and slight, in sunglasses and a short-sleeved shirt, with a mincing walk; looking all around, he seemed like a stranger himself. My mental image of him was out of date. With grey in his hair, he was no longer the young man I had read and read about.
He took off the sunglasses.
'Are you him?'
We went into the Colombe d'Or, where the barman now looked very pleased to see both of us. I was not an autograph hunter; I was Monsieur Baldwin's—Jeemy's—friend.
He seemed nervous and shy. After two or three drinks, he asked: 'Where are you staying?'
I must have betrayed my alarm, because he answered for me: 'You're welcome to stay down at the house, if you like.'
Bernard Hassell joined us. He stared at me wonderingly and said my name very slowly as we shook hands, as if what he saw was the solution to a puzzle.
He went ahead, taking my bag with him, and Baldwin and I walked downhill together from St-Paul on to the road which led to the village of La Colle, and, before that, to Baldwin's venerable stone house. It was 14 July and very hot. Baldwin gave me a drink and we stood in the garden talking as the celebratory fireworks began to be launched from the village on the hill. He looked me in the eye. 'You're home,' he said.
It was not until long afterwards, thinking once again about my awkward entrance and the abundant hospitality in the week that followed, that I realized he had forgotten all about our conversation of a few days before. 'A li'l tight,' he had said over the line to Paris. I don't think he ever remembered. When he asked, 'Do you have any French money?' (I was to discover that he was quite used to people coming only to borrow money), he thought I was newly landed from Edinburgh.
Each time I suggested I might leave, Baldwin or Bernard would tell me to stay another night. 'There's a party tomorrow evening in Grasse,' Bernard said one day. 'Why not hang around for that?'
We travelled in a taxi, which was waiting for us when we came out several hours later. As we went through the door to the house, Bernard leading, a well-known English thriller-writer was standing by the entrance. Our arrival had been keenly anticipated. He grasped Bernard's hand.
'James Baldwin. I'm so pleased to meet you. We travelled on the same plane together from Paris to Nice the other day. I saw you in first class and I thought to myself, that must be James Baldwin.'
Bernard withdrew his hand 'I'm Bernard Hassell. That's James Baldwin.' Later, he sneered: 'Sees a black man travelling first class and thinks he must be James Baldwin. Shit.'
At the party, Baldwin performed the role of celebrity superbly. Theatricality was central to his nature. No less characteristic of him than his integrity was his self-dramatization, a certain campness in his poise, an unflagging willingness to perform, and a weakness for flashbulbs and recognition in public places. He was as likely to allude to Marlon Brando and Sammy Davis, in discussing his contemporaries, as he was to mention Saul Bellow or Ralph Ellison. I remember him half-sitting on the round table in the middle of the floor, one foot up on a chair, at the centre of a ring of people. He was telling a funny story about the difficulty he had in getting Giovanni's Room published. I noticed how he undercut his pride with a self-deprecating humour, but without compromising it. He told them how the writing of The Fire Next Time came about almost by accident.
'I was supposed to write about Africa for the New Yorker, but it didn't work out. I couldn't. So I had to do something for them, to prove I hadn't been in Africa for three months jerking off—on their money!'
He had a precise and practised delivery, a fond wit, and a tremendously engaging way of throwing back his head and laughing when you said something funny or when you shared one of his jokes. He was at home with the adoration and the awe, but he appeared genuinely trusting and generous with people, irrespective of colour, class or gender. He knew he was a celebrity and an exotic species, yet far from indulging himself in the attention he commanded, he seemed to give something in return to each of his admirers individually.
In the taxi on the way home—Bernard had gone on ahead—I asked him why he did it, why he played the role, somewhere between prince and court jester, to people who clearly were autograph hunters. All they knew about Giovanni's Room and The Fire Next Time was that somebody famous had written them, and that they were rubbing shoulders with Somebody.
Baldwin had no time for my superciliousness. 'I've smashed enough glasses!' he said in the back of the cab, widening his enormous eyes and fanning the fingers of one suddenly upraised hand. 'I've made enough speeches! That doesn't help. People have to learn to touch—each—other.'
He liked the fact that we had, as he put it, 'worked together', and enjoyed introducing me to people as 'one of my editors'. He asked me to read the typescript of an essay he had just finished, and some poems; the essay was for Playboy and was the original for his book about the Atlanta child-killings, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. It was stamped with many of Baldwin's fine hallmarks, but I could see that the compact, epistolatory, intimately lyrical manner of the 1950s and early 1960s had deserted him for good, as a singer's voice will coarsen or a painter's style congeal. I liked the poems less, but of one long poem, 'Staggerlee wonders', I said that it fascinated me to find his voice released from the necessity of discourse and left free to play in the abstractions of verse.
Baldwin looked at me as if I had said something original when in fact I had been struggling to find anything to say at all. 'Released from discourse', he kept repeating, over and over again. 'Released from discourse.'
By chance, I found out that he was being paid a huge sum for the Playboy article, which was not much longer than the one he had written for the New Edinburgh Review. Yet, without being asked, he offered to write for the New Edinburgh Review again. Such magazines were important, he said. Reputations were established in their pages. He had started out in journals like that himself.
Later, I saw that writing for a little magazine like the New Edinburgh Review brought him an alternative wealth: it put him back in touch with his early days in Paris. Not in the nostalgic way that flicking through the pages of one of his first books might have done, but by enabling him to be as he had been then, one of a circle of young writers, artists and editors, when such magazines were the only ones to open their pages to him. He had known the honour inherent in intrinsically necessary creative work, and it had given him the courage to go for broke, become a writer or nothing at all. In the New Edinburgh Review, he welcomed the opportunity to hark back to those values, that climate, that writer; to write on behalf of the energy of literature itself.
His achievement really had been to plant seeds in stone, to carve a form out of rock, the rock of ages. 'The rock claimed me,' he said. It was a religious calling, primarily, a mission for the sake of the have-nots, which had got tangled up in an American mix of aggrandisement, gold and fame. The whiff of puritanism coming off the pages of a small, amateurish journal from Scotland rallied the struggling artist in him—the artist he was trying to revive.
He did not rise before noon. The newspapers came, one in English, one in French, and in fine weather he sat outside at the canopied table where dinner had ended well after twelve the night before, and drank a Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks.
When he showed me his study in the lower part of the house—what he called 'the torture chamber'—I noticed many books on the shelves on black subjects and by black writers. On the table was a novel by Ishmael Reed, a member of the west-coast avant garde and the new enfant terrible of Afro-American letters. Baldwin had publicly expressed admiration for Reed's work, but Reed had scorned and insulted him, saying that Baldwin was 'a hustler who comes on like Job'. Like the taunts from other quarters about his homosexuality, it wounded Baldwin deeply.
It hurt him to discover that writers of Reed's age regarded him as part of an older generation, as being 'past it', when he was not yet sixty. Hardly had he got used to being a grand old man than they were trying to extinguish him, just as he had shut off his own mentor, Richard Wright.
Baldwin would not accept retirement. 'I am just beginning as a writer,' he proclaimed one evening in the Colombe d'Or. A phone call had come through to the bar from Playboy, redirected from the house by Bernard, saying that they liked his piece. Baldwin looked as if he had won a prize. He raised his glass. 'I am just—beginning—as a writer!'
He wanted to find his way back to the artist he had been before the outbreak of the civil rights war called him to national service. He had wandered off-track. But now the map had changed. Ishmael Reed had changed it. Alice Walker had changed it, and Toni Morrison. Ralph Ellison, who had published Invisible Man in 1952 and very little since, was still changing it. Was Ellison, more or less a one-book man, going to outpace the prolific Baldwin at the post? Baldwin's intention, stated first in 1964, to 'challenge the language' to contain his experience, had not come to much. His intellectual powers were uniquely strong and subtle, but he required an aesthetic stimulus, a new rapport with characters and ideas. Without that, high standing as an artist, which at the outset his career had promised, would elude him.
In my view, at that time, the terms 'black writing' and 'black writer' did not fit him anyway. I had no difficulty in avoiding concepts like those. Baldwin the novelist was an old-fashioned American realist. No more was I, a non-American, inclined to think of him as a black writer than of Mailer as a Jewish writer, or Robert Lowell as a Boston writer. His subject, like theirs, was our common predicament. In fact, I could see that Baldwin and I shared a culture—Calvinism—and fragments of a common history. Born 'James Jones', he bore the name of a Celt, as I did. One of his preoccupations was the miscegenation of the races in America and he himself had white relations. Perhaps Celtic blood flowed through his veins.
If he was forced to take the view from the margin, that again was something I was familiar with—Burns, Scott, Stevenson, MacDiarmid and all Scottish writers down to my own generation were also on the outside looking in, and had seen themselves as such. 'Jimmy noticed that you billed him as an American writer in the New Edinburgh review,' Bernard told me one day, 'and not as a black writer. He liked that.'
So what about launching this new beginning from a port where not all the natives were black? What about women's liberation as a subject? Vietnam? The US Indians? What about an essay on the differences between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as he'd been explaining them to me last night? What about Henry James, what about Hemingway?
My motives were partly selfish: I wanted to see, hear, feel, Baldwin's virtuosic prose range over subjects that were important to me. I had just written something about Hemingway, for example; it wasn't bad, but it wasn't outstanding. I longed to focus Baldwin's pen on it, as if it were a shining light, to create something 'unexpected', as William Shawn said of The Fire Next Time.
'Hemingway?' Baldwin looked puzzled. 'I don't think so. Faulkner, maybe. Something, you know, that I could connect with.'
Later, however, he told me he had re-read The Sun Also Rises, and had liked it better than he had expected to. So perhaps he could have connected, after all, and written something fresh and distinct about Hemingway, about the Paris expatriates of the 1920s and the novels they wrote.
But I had begun to see, by then, that the black writer he had become was standing in his way.
Excerpted from Talking at the Gates by James Campbell. Copyright © 1991 by James Campbell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I. No Story, Ma
II. Lord, I ain't No Stranger Now
III. A Severe Cross
IV. Tear This Building Down
V. The Price of the Beat
Afterward to the 2002 Edition
Abbreviations Used in Notes