James Baldwin Essay - Baldwin, James (Vol. 8)

Baldwin, James (Vol. 8)

Baldwin, James 1924–

Baldwin is a black American essayist, novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His work consistently reflects a moral purpose: to make art reflect a sense of reality and clarity, rather than the falsehood of illusion. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Of the fiction produced by American Blacks after the Hughes-Wright-Himes generation, James Baldwin's … Going to Meet the Man (1965) seems to me the most important single short story collection and its controversial title piece the most powerful story by a recent American Black writer. Out of such stock characters as a Southern sheriff, his sexually unexciting wife, and his brutally mistreated black victims, Baldwin has created another hideous parable of the sixties (a story still so shocking in its impact as to evoke more than one cry of protest when I included it in an anthology designed for university students three or four years ago). As in his essays and other works of nonfiction, "Going to Meet the Man" brings more forcefully to mind than any news stories or telecasts what it must mean to be black in a white man's world, a world in which the sheriff Jesse can say with all sincerity that he was a "good man, a God-fearing man … who had tried to do his duty all his life" and this after recollecting the events of the day and the young black he has almost beaten to death. The whole terrible paradox of irreconcilable forces and immovable objects is suggested…. (p. 235)

William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.

A decade ago, as an undergraduate, my colleagues and I spent hours poring over the works of James Baldwin. He seemed so sure-footed, then, so certain in his vision of this country, that his lacerating words were like balm to the black students who were on a whirligig in search of their identities. Because he existed we felt that the racial miasma that swirled around us would not consume us, and it is not too much to say that this man saved our lives, or at least, gave us the necessary ammunition to face what we knew would continue to be a hostile and condescending world….

Now Baldwin has published a long essay, "The Devil Finds Work," the 17th book bearing his name, but the event does not call for rejoicing. In fact it brings forth not a little pain, for this work teems with a passion that is all reflex, and an anger that is unfocused and almost cynical. It is as if Baldwin were wound up and then let loose to attack the hypocritical core of this nation. And to what avail? None that I can see, for although the book purports to be an examination of the way American films distort reality, its eclecticism is so pervasive, that all we are left with are peregrinations of the mind and ideas that jump around and contradict each other. And this from a man who was, for my money, the best essayist in this country—a man whose power has always been in his reasoned, biting sarcasm; his insistence on removing layer by layer, the hardened skin with which Americans shield themselves from their country. (p. 6)

Baldwin has said all [that he says in this work] before. And better. And one must be dismayed, finally, by the style of this book, which seems to be a rococo parody of his own work….

Well, what has happened to the finely honed delivery, the sense of assurance, the rootedness of this writer? I think that Baldwin, in love and at war with his society, suffers from the distance that he has put between himself and his beloved. And because a man who loves or fights as intensely as he does must constantly be replenished by contact with the object of his imagination, I wonder about the pleasures of his exile. For they seem to be, at best, quixotic, since America rides Baldwin and will not let him go. And so, "The Devil Finds Work" is disappointing because the author must repeat, from a distance, what he has been telling us for a long time, and what he knows we know that he knows. The possible force, then, is scattered, willy-nilly, to the winds, and all that vision and moral weight that fortified a generation, become as disturbing as the memory of a hurricane on a placid summer's afternoon. (p. 7)

Orde Coombs, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1976.

Roughly halfway through [The Devil Finds Work]—a long essay that indicts American films for distorting or evading reality—James Baldwin writes: "I think it was T. S. Eliot who observed that the people cannot bear very much reality. This may be true enough, as far as it goes, so much depending on what the word 'people' brings to mind: I think that we bear a little more reality than we might wish." One is surprised by the digression; it appears to rebut the spirit of his own argument against Hollywood.

It also seems to contradict the charge of refusing to confront reality that Baldwin has consistently brought against white Americans. Throughout his career as a moral essayist and social critic—one of the more distinguished such careers in our language—a principal point has been that most whites shun things as they are, especially relating to blacks, by taking refuge behind safe and comfortable illusions and by falsifying whatever they are not quite able to sidestep. He has tried to pursue these Americans, to corner them with what he holds to be the truths of their country and their inner lives. Does his mild dissent from Eliot suggest that he has had a measure of success?…

[The] heart of his case against Hollywood is a critique of the invalid terms in which movies re-create the world, and of the "inadmissible fantasies" in which they too often deal. Whether or not the film industry and its millions of uncritical subscribers will be impressed is open to argument, but Baldwin's formulation will find support among more thoughtful moviegoers and certainly among those, like blacks, who hunger in vain for valid celluloid representations of their lives.

In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin takes a sometimes tortured retrospective look at a number of the films he has seen since his boyhood in the 1930s. (p. 18)

Baldwin misses in movies what he found initially in the church and later in the legitimate theater. In both, he explains, "a current flowed back between the audience and the actor: flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood—as we say, testifying." Compared to the exchanges and validation of truth and experience occasions of that kind allow, the cinema is inherently false: "The camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is the language of dreams."

Nevertheless, some time ago Baldwin allowed himself to be talked into going to Hollywood to write a screenplay based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. What, beyond the stipends, could he have dreamed would satisfy him? And why, as soon as he realized what would inevitably happen, did he not turn right around and go back home?

After allowing himself to fall into the further trap of accepting a "technical" assistant, who set about translating virtually every scene Baldwin wrote to fit the perceptions of the studio, he finally realized that the film was being produced "in the interest of entertainment values." Baldwin walked out at that point, "but the adventure remained very painfully in my mind, and indeed, was to shed a certain light for me on the adventure occurring through the American looking glass."

That is an astonishing conclusion from a man who has just spent the greater part of his book leading us to believe he was quite hip to everything taking place in the American looking glass. And it is only one reason why, despite Baldwin's largely effective case against Hollywood, I found myself curiously dissatisfied and disappointed with The Devil Finds Work.

Other baffling moments of inconsistency also fray the thread of Baldwin's argument. The book lacks, too, the natural and sustained fluency that marks his better efforts and enables us to recognize the urgency and validity of his passions. Parts of this essay are labored, as if it were an uphill task he had grittily committed himself to complete—or, thinking now of his title, a little work he had found for his idle hands.

In addition, his constant digressions from the main theme, to report on everything that floats into his mind, repeat far too much of what he has said a number of times before. One of the things he says about In the Heat of the Night could be said of The Devil Finds Work—that there is in it "something strangling, alive, struggling to get out."

A final disappointment is perhaps not Baldwin's fault: He has succeeded in raising expectations so high that scrutiny of his work and demands on his excellence grow more rigorous and merciless with each new book he writes. Our expectations, though, may be as unrealistic as they are unfair, and certainly on the basis of his past work Baldwin has earned from us a number of things, not the least of which is our patience. Still, he would further justify that patience by bringing us fresh news—about himself and ourselves—and not going over familiar territory. (pp. 18-19)

Jervis Anderson in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 24, 1976.

I have always seen two James Baldwins: an opportunist who took on subjects and opponents as fashion dictated, and a first-rate novelist and essayist who told us things about ourselves that most Americans needed to know but mostly refused to accept. I never quite trusted his early attacks against Native Son, but I thought his own Go Tell It on the Mountain was—and still is—one of our finer novels. The Devil Finds Work has left me with a slightly different picture. I see in it an older and wiser man who need no longer look for the opening to get himself listened to, but who at the same time has stuck with his old topics in spite of great changes in his audience. Moreover, this book falls far below his earlier works like Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. Yet, it has given me an affection for its author that I have never had before.

Baldwin's professed subject in The Devil Finds Work is the white American film, and his thesis is that white American film makers have, from Birth of a Nation to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, falsified the American racial experience in a most obvious and destructive way. This is not a very new thesis or a very hard one to defend. It is hard to make it sound compelling and important when the social protest that it embodies has generally begun to dissolve. (p. 25)

The Devil Finds Work is not simply a rehash of The Fire Next Time. Nor is it revolutionary in the 1963 sense. There is something, in fact, a little decadent about it, autumnal, like a fruit that has ripened just a little past the proper time for picking. It is on the down side of growth, without the crisp firmness of its earlier stages. In a way, this essay closes out a vital period, and is therefore occasion for sadness. Not only does it mark the disappearance of many conditions that made Baldwin's earlier work so exciting but it suggests that Baldwin's powers really have declined. Yet, contradictorily, what I want to write about is the depth and wisdom of this book, which comes from a man of letters whose life has been twisted and strained in multiple ways but who has kept his eyes open and his mind sharp. Baldwin uses the movies here as a pot for mixing a number of ingredients, principally his own spiritual and intellectual evolution and white America's assiduous clinging to its self-delusory dreams of reality. (pp. 25-6)

This is not, in other words, a book on conventional film criticism. But we wouldn't expect it to be. Baldwin has never worked that way. He has always taken the personal route. In examining his own emotions and reactions, it is as if he is examining those of the nation. This has been his importance to us all. In his excursions into his psyche, delineating with Dostoevskian shamelessness the details of his hurting bruises and wounds, he has often spoken for all of us, has offered himself as a metaphor of our self-inflicted national injury. Thus, in The Devil Finds Work, the main character is Baldwin himself, and the movie we watch unfold is about Baldwin's increasing understanding of himself and the American film industry, and through it, America itself. (p. 26)

Something has happened to Baldwin's style here, and to his ability—or willingness—to develop a point clearly and coherently. His sentences are jerky, convoluted, full of suspended phrases and interminable modifications. His discussions seem to be going somewhere, then terminate in a dead end, like an unfinished freeway or stairs that lead to a blank wall. His prose and his ideas struggle. Why? This is what every reviewer will be asking. What has happened to one of our master essayists? And every reviewer will have his own theory….

[This is] mine. Baldwin has changed like the rest of us. But unlike the rest of us, he has not developed a new emphasis. He has taken the old subject of race and made it even more personal. In doing so he has seen new complexities amidst the old themes, and a social system whose contradictions are ever more obviously more conflicting than contrasting. In probing perhaps more deeply than ever before into American racial practices he has turned up a conclusion that no white will be comfortable with: that prejudice, to put it simply, is so much a part of the culture that to eradicate it means to replace the culture with something else. He does not state this with the younger confidence of thirteen years ago, or warn us of an Armageddon—"the fire next time!" He is, indeed, almost inarticulate…. But old warrior that he is now becoming, he knows the truth with a sadness that goes beyond bitterness and despair. Who can express such knowledge easily?

I am disappointed in this essay. I think it fails as a coherent piece. But that is almost like saying that the aging bear has failed, caught finally in a trap it always knew was there, contemplating its wound and, in extraordinary patience, waiting for its fate. (p. 27)

Jerry H. Bryant, "American Dream Language," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 3, 1976, pp. 25-7.

When James Baldwin goes wrong (as he has taken to doing lately), it usually seems less a failure of talent than of policy. Of all our writers he is one of the most calculating. Living his life on several borderlines, he has learned to watch his step: driven at the same time by an urge to please and a mission to scold.

In his early days, the twin urges came together to make very good policy indeed. White liberals craved a spanking and they got a good one. But then too many amateurs joined in the fun, all the Raps and Stokelys and Seales, until even liberal guilt gave out. And now the times seems to call for something a little different. The Devil Finds Work … shows Baldwin groping for it—not just because he's a hustler, at least as writers go, but because he has a genuine quasi-religious vocation. In the last pages he richly describes a church ceremony he went through as a boy, akin to attaining the last mansions of mysticism: and you have to do something after that. Your work, even your atheism, will always taste of religion.

And this is the first problem we come across in the new book. Because the subject is movies, and most movies simply do not accommodate such religious passion. So his tone sounds false. He may or may not feel that strongly about movies (it's hard to believe), but sincerity isn't the issue. A preacher doesn't have to feel what he says every Sunday: rhetoric is an art, and Baldwin practices it very professionally. But the sermon's subject must be at least in the same ball-park as the style, or you get bathos, the sermon that fails to rise.

Since Baldwin is too intelligent not to notice this, we get an uneasy compromise between old habits and new possibilities. The folks pays him to preach (to use his own self-mocking language), so he turns it on mechanically, almost absent-mindedly, lapsing at times into incoherence, as if he's fallen asleep at the microphone. But since getting mad at the movies is only one step removed from getting mad at the funnies, he escapes periodically in two directions, one bad and one good.

The bad one is to change the subject outrageously in order to raise the emotional ante: thus there are several references to how white people like to burn babies that totally stumped me. A prophet should disturb all levels of opinion and must therefore be something of a precisionist. But this stuff passes harmlessly overhead. Blacks have been known to kill babies too, in Biafra and elsewhere, but nobody said they like it. People apt to be reading Baldwin at all have long since graduated from this level of rant. He may write for the masses, but he is read by the intelligentsia.

But his second escape at times almost makes up for the first: which is simply to talk about movies according to their kind, with amusement, irony and his own quirky insights. More writers should do this: we were raised as much in the movie house as the library, and it's pretentious to go on blaming it all on Joyce. In Baldwin's case a movie case-history is doubly valuable because his angle is so solitary, shaped by no gang and deflected by no interpretation, and shared only with a white woman teacher, herself a solitary. Nobody ever saw these movies quite the way he did, or ever will.

Unfortunately the childhood section is tantalizingly short, and the adult's voice horns in too often, but some fine things come through: in particular the way the young Baldwin had to convert certain white actors into blacks, even as white basketball fans reverse the process today, in order to identify. Thus, Henry Fonda's walk made him black, and Joan Crawford's resemblance to a woman in the local grocery store made her black, while Bette Davis' popping eyes made her not only black but practically Jimmy himself.

This is vintage Baldwin: and if he lacks confidence in his softer notes he shouldn't (his sentimental notes are another matter). He does not automatically have to lecture us on every topic he writes about. In this more urbane mode, his racial intrusions often make good sense. (pp. 404-05)

He talks at one point of the seismographic shudder Americans experience at the word homosexual, but he handles it pretty much like a hot potato himself: talking around and around it without quite landing on it. Again this is policy (the word homosexual does go off like a fire alarm, reminding us to put up our dukes) but in this case, I think, too much policy. When Baldwin holds back something it distorts his whole manner. The attempt to seduce is too slick. And this, just as much as his compulsion to preach when there's nothing to preach about, diverts him from his real lover, truth. He is not seeing those movies as an average black man, but as a unique exile, and the pose is beginning to wear thin.

So, the tension remains. He has been away a long time and I'm sure he has a story to tell about that, perhaps his best one yet. It is hard to believe that in Paris and Istanbul his mind was really on American movies: but they might have been something in the attic that he wanted to get rid of. And the attempt is worthwhile if only for the sake of some sprightly lines … and random bangs and flashes. He even talks several times of human weakness (as opposed to white weakness)—including his own: which suggests that the hanging judge may be ready to come down from his perch and mix it with us.

But for now he remains up there wagging his finger sternly at the converted and the bored. And with so many clergymen, he too often deduces Reality solely by intelligence in this book, and while he has more than enough of that quality, it tends to fly off in bootless directions unless anchored by touch. He is right to love the stage. His art needs real bodies. But anyone who sees reality as clearly as Baldwin does must be tempted at times to run like the wind; and perhaps, for just a little while, he's done that. After all, that's what movies are for—even for those preachers who denounce them the loudest. (pp. 406-07)

Wilfred Sheed, "The Twin Urges of James Baldwin," in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 24, 1977, pp. 404-07.