James Baldwin is widely regarded as one of the United States’ most important writers in the latter part of the twentieth century. Baldwin’s writing career spanned more than four decades and is remarkable for its wide diversity of literary expression, encompassing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. He was considered the most important American writer during the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s on the issue of racial inequality. The repeated thrust of his message, centered on being black in a white America, touched a responsive chord. Disgusted with American bigotry, social discrimination, and inequality, he exiled himself in France, where he poured out his eloquent and passionate criticism. Baldwin also wrote with compelling candor about the Church, Harlem, and homosexuality. He often fused the themes of sex and race in his work. Today, Baldwin’s essays are considered his most important contribution to literature.
“The Man Child”
Baldwin’s “The Man Child,” the only story in Going to Meet the Man that has no black characters, scathingly describes whites, especially their violent propensities. The central character is Eric, an eight-year-old. The story opens as he, his mother, and his father are giving a birthday party for Jamie, his father’s best friend. In the next scene Eric and his father walk together and then return to the party. After a brief summary of intervening events, the story moves forward in time to a day when Jamie meets Eric, entices him into a barn, and breaks his neck. The story described thus, its ending seems to be a surprise, and it certainly is a surprise to Eric. In fact, his sudden realization that he is in grave danger is an epiphany. “The Man Child” is thus a coming-of-age story, an account of a young person’s realization of the dark side of adult existence. Eric, however, has little time to think about his realization or even to generalize very much on the basis of his intimation of danger before he is badly, perhaps mortally, injured.
The story, however, contains many hints that violent action will be forthcoming. A reader can see them even though Eric cannot because Eric is the center of consciousness, a device perfected, if not invented, by Henry James. That is, Eric does not narrate the story so the story does not present his viewpoint, but he is always the focus of the action, and the story is in essence an account of his responses to that action. The difference between his perception of the events he witnesses (which is sometimes described and sometimes can be inferred from his actions) and the perception that can be had by attending carefully to the story encourages a reader to make a moral analysis and finally to make a moral judgment, just as the difference between Huck Finn’s perception and the perception that one can have while reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) at first stimulates laughter and then moral evaluation. Eric’s lack of perception is a function of his innocence, a quality that he has to an even larger extent than has Huck Finn, and thus he is less able to cope in a threatening world and his injury is even more execrable. If the measure of a society is its solicitude for the powerless, the miniature society formed by the three adults in this story, and perhaps by implication the larger society of which they are a part, is sorely wanting.
To be more specific about the flaws in this society and in these persons, they enslave themselves and others, as is suggested very early in the story: “Eric lived with his father and his mother, who had been captured by his father on some faroff unblessed, unbelievable night, who had never since burst her chains.” Her husband intimidates and frightens her, and his conversation about relations between men and women indicates that he believes she exists at his sufferance only for sex and procreation. Her role becomes questionable because in the summary of events that happen between the first and last parts of the story one learns that she has lost the child she had been carrying and cannot conceive anymore. The two men enslave themselves with their notions about women, their drunkenness (which they misinterpret as male companionship), their mutual hostility, their overbearing expansiveness, in short, with their machismo. Eric’s father is convinced that he is more successful in these terms. He has fathered a son, an accomplishment the significance of which to him is indicated by his “some day all this will be yours” talk with Eric between the two party scenes. Jamie’s wife, showing more sense than Eric’s mother, left him before he could sire a son. Jamie’s violent act with Eric is his psychotic imitation of the relation of Eric’s father to Eric, just as his whistling at the very end of the story is his imitation of the music he hears coming from a tavern. Eric is thus considered by the two men to be alive merely for their self-expression. His father’s kind of self-expression is potentially debilitating, although somewhat benign; Jamie’s version is nearly fatal.
“Going to Meet the Man”
“Going to Meet the Man” is a companion to “The Man Child,” both stories having been published for the first time in Going to Meet the Man. Whereas the latter story isolates whites from blacks in order to analyze their psychology, the former story is about whites in relation to blacks, even though blacks make only brief appearances in it. The whites in these stories have many of the same characteristics, but in “Going to Meet the Man” those characteristics are more obviously dangerous. These stories were written during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and Baldwin, by means of his rhetorical power and his exclusion of more human white types, helped polarize that movement.
The main characters in “Going to Meet the Man” are a family composed of a southern deputy sheriff, his wife, and his son, Jesse. At the beginning of the...
(The entire section is 2448 words.)