James Baldwin Essay - Baldwin, James (Vol. 5)

Baldwin, James (Vol. 5)

Baldwin, James 1924–

Baldwin, a distinguished Black American novelist, essayist, playwright, and short story writer, is as celebrated for his prose style as for his powerful evocation of the Black experience in America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

James Baldwin has followed the traditional pattern of the Man of Letters, the Man of Letters with a message, in utilizing almost every means of verbal expression to convey his warnings. But almost anyone so committed to directness of statement is likely to find the odd exigencies of theater more a hindrance than a help. One can tell the truth in novels, especially novels like Baldwin's, more or less directly; one must tell the truth in social essays. But a play is made up fundamentally of the lies of other people's lives. The truth is never in the parts, but in the sum, never stated, but experienced. In The Amen Corner…, a play derived, to some degree, from the same childhood experience as Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin was able to attain something of the stark sincerity of that memoir-novel, despite an excess of rhetoric over plot. But his more ambitious attempt, Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), betrays serious imaginative disability.

The play was obviously intended as an explosive race-war document…, "an attempt," as one reviewer put it, "to give the Caucasians in the audience a white inferiority complex." With some Caucasians the attempt succeeded all too easily, and reviewers paid pious acknowledgments to the justice of Baldwin's anger. But it is an essay in artless bullying, not a play. Its wicked South is faked, its white villains are flat collages of prejudice-clichés—and this despite Baldwin's professed moral experiment (in the wake of the Medgar Evars murder), his generous attempt to imagine a Southern lynch-killer as a human being. There are playable, even moving moments, bits of ritual drama ("Blacktown" talks to "Whitetown"), intriguing shifts back and forth in time. But the dialogue, for the most part, is hopeless: faked banter, faked poetry, doctrinaire racism, dated slang, all conflated with artificial violence and obscenity. The play rarely comes to life, enough life to hurt a serious listener, because Baldwin lacked either the skill or the patience to imagine completely the place, the story, or the people…. Baldwin is no playwright—he has difficulty imagining anyone not Baldwin. It provides a perfect example of the relinquishing of judgment by an undiscerning and intimidated white audience. (pp. 72-4)

Each of James Baldwin's three novels [Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, and Another Country] has been written out of some personal necessity of the author's, a necessity which it describes, conveys, and, hopefully, enables the author to transcend. Everything he writes—when he writes well—bears this sense of an inner necessity, of the whole of himself told and overcome. From no other contemporary author does one get such a sensation of writing as life; it is all so open and desperate and acute, minute by minute and word by word. The captivation of the reader, the feeling of rightness comes from Baldwin's absolute honesty, from his yielding, however unwillingly, to necessity. A reader feels the desperation—if the man had not written this book, and written it so, he could not have survived. Each book is a renewed effort to stay alive and upright through the finding and placing of perfect words. Each book is a staving off of death, a matter of survival.

If this is the case, it can scarcely be considered illegitimate or extra-literary prying to regard the novels as essentially about him, the man, James Baldwin. Autobiographical exactness, after all, is the very source of their sting, their astringent modern taste. It is not anti-literary, therefore, or anti-poetic, to talk of James Baldwin's family, or experience, or pain, in these novels, rather than John's or David's. It is no more nasty to write of his inversion than of Proust's. When a writer makes it so clear that he is not lying, one should do him the honor of believing him.

There is more than one kind of honesty in writing, of course. A self-dissolving symbolist may tell truth as well as a self-displaying realist, and Baldwin's honesty is only his, the latest variety: the need to tell "all" the truth, with no pretenses, no fictions, no metaphors—the quality one associates with his best essays. Such a need (cf. Mailer, Genet) may ultimately render unusable all the standard props of fiction. In this new, needful, stripped-bare kind of nervous truth, one tells far more than is customarily told, in order to stay this side of insanity. Baldwin allows himself, for example, none of Ellison's objectivity, very little of his distance from his fictions. Like Richard Wright, ultimately, he is probably more a symbolic Negro than a typical one; but, again, like Richard Wright, he is no less useful, or even less necessary, for that.

Each novel, for Baldwin, has been a stage; a stage to be lived through, transformed into words, then exorcised and transcended. The next novel begins a new stage, and the process goes on. This does not, of course, mean that he will ever reach the shores of fulfillment and rest. It seems, in fact, highly unlikely, unless he should begin to lie.

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) was the first stage, Baldwin's baptism of fire. It is the testament of his coming to terms with, his defining and transcending, the experience of his boyhood—his family, his religion, his Harlem youth. (The story is told again in "Notes of a Native Son"; it is told a third time, far less honestly, in The Fire Next Time.) The telling was necessary for Baldwin, in the same way that telling Look Homeward, Angel was necessary for Thomas Wolfe. Go Tell It on the Mountain has, in fact, much the same kind of effect as Wolfe's great novel, the effect of autobiography-as-exorcism, of a lyrical, painful, ritual exercise whose necessity and intensity the reader feels. The impact on a reader, in books of this sort, appears to be in direct relation to the amount of truth the author is able to tell himself. At the end of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the hero, John, has "come through"; one presumes that Baldwin had as well. (pp. 119-21)

Baldwin is as unafraid of glorious prose as he is of honest prose, and the book is woven out of both. But the strength, at last, is that of his own personal necessity, a necessity that the reader can vicariously share. It is the strength of a harrowing prayer, simple and felt, of a small tragic truth that enlarges the heart. The book is carven with love. Because of its peculiar kind of necessary, very personal truth, it remains one of the few, the very few, essential Negro works.

Giovanni's Room (1956) served its purpose too, I suspect. Baldwin's personal uncertainties are not limited to the racial, religious, and familial. (pp. 123-24)

It is certainly one of the most subtle novels of the homosexual world, not as poetic and outspoken as Genet's, not as trashy as John Rechy's; but the emotions are more to be observed than to be shared. It has something of the lyrical allusiveness of Go Tell It on the Mountain, of its squeezing, sonnetlike smallness—Giovanni's room is the perfect symbolic setting, as cluttered and oppressively closed as one of Pinter's settings. But the effect, on the whole, is slight. (p. 124)

Another Country, and the sick truths it tells Americans about themselves, had to wait for the emergence of a new style: a style one may designate as New York-1960's…. It is used, at its shrillest, most wide-open, by Baldwin, Edward Albee, LeRoi Jones, Norman Mailer, Lenny Bruce, The Realist, the new Grove Press novelists, some of the Jewish Establishment journalists and critics (The New York Review, The New Leader, Partisan Review), and probably by hundreds of New Yorkers whose names we will never know. It has correspondences with softer manifestations like pop art, Jules Feiffer, Nichols and May, A Hard Day's Night. Jane, Vivaldo's "beat chick" in Another Country, is a splendid specimen: she is brittle, bitchy, fresh from the shrink, with sex like broken glass; a frenzied neurotic with every nerve bare and bleeding loud, first cousin to Lula in The Dutchman.

This style almost entirely carries the book, a style of screaming, no-holds-barred verbal violence. The revolving sequence of events, the inter-ringing figures of the sex dance (everyone mixing with everyone else), even, ultimately, the characters in the dance themselves, white and black, homo-, hetero-, and bi-sexual, exist primarily to provide voices and vehicles for the screamy exchanges, the ear-piercing insults, the excruciating displays of mutual torment. (pp. 125-26)

The race war, as depicted in this novel, is a difficult thing to understand. First of all, Baldwin has almost entirely excluded "average" people, the simple white American bourgeoisie or lower orders, whose prejudice is so obvious and so stupid it bores even more than it disgusts him. The few representatives of that world, the upstairs world, who foolishly drop into the plot are usually dissolved into steam with single drops of acid. (A pair of white heterosexual liberals, the Silenskis, so square they are married and have children and make money, degenerate into the crudest samples of sick America before the book is through, despite Baldwin's obvious efforts to be fair. Their racial liberality, it develops, is as fragile as their sexual assurance. So much for "normal" people.)

So all we have left to fight the race war are a few outlaw blacks and highly emancipated whites. In such a context the war loses its social relevance (except perhaps symbolically), and takes on the dimensions of a private duel. But the issues are no less clear. "Somewhere in his heart the black boy hated the white boy because he was white. Somewhere in his heart Vivaldo had hated and feared Rufus because he was black." Baldwin tries, or at least the top of his mind tries, to keep the sides equal, and the fighting fair. The white combatants, Leona, Vivaldo, especially Eric, are created with affection and care: these are no evil, ill-understood Wrighteous puppets. But the Negroes have all the trumps. It is they, always, who carry the whip, and no white lover, friend, or reader dares to deny them the right. (pp. 126-27)

At their most intense, these race-war combats always transmute into sex combats—which illustrates Baldwin's theory of the fundamentally sexual character of racism. This aspect of the novel, however, is even more unsettled and unsettling, because of the case Baldwin is trying to make for inversion. (p. 128)

The over-lyrical poeticizing of homosexual love is one of the real flaws of the book. Surely Genet's pictures, or even Baldwin's in Giovanni's Room, of the foul and fair of inversion, are more just. (pp. 129-30)

Another Country has, in its frantic new writer's world called New York, much of the same necessity, the same quality of desperate exorcism as Baldwin's earlier works. But things here are less under control. Almost all of the thinking, the non-imaginative thinking of Baldwin's essays is sandwiched into the fiction, bearing a suggestion that the man is now writing more from his ideas than his imagination. The piercing one-note tone of repetitiousness of so much of this long book supports this dissatisfying notion. Another dangerous sign is the confusion of narrative authority, very like the confusions of self-identity which mar so many of Baldwin's latest and weakest essays. His own opinions mingle with those of his characters, subjectivity jars with objectivity in such a way as to indicate that the author is unaware of the difference: i.e., that James Baldwin, through the 1950's the sole master of control in American prose, in the 1960's has begun to lose control.

What is there to salvage and prize? A number of things. More often than not, between the explosions, Another Country reminds the reader that James Baldwin is still one of the genuine stylists of the English language. (p. 130)

He is the most powerful and important American essayist of the postwar period, perhaps of the century. Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name will maintain their place among the small collection of genuine American classics. They have already been adopted as standard texts and models of style in American college courses; and this is not just a "vogue," an offshoot of the Civil Rights movement. Two such books would sustain any reputation, as long as men can tell the true from the false. (pp. 135-36)

Baldwin has shown more concern for the painful exactness of prose style than any other modern American writer. He picks up words with heavy care, then sets them, one by one, with a cool and loving precision that one can feel in the reading. There are no bright words in his best essays, no flashes, allusions, delusions, no Tynanesque "brilliance." His style is like stripped conversation, saying the most that words can honestly say. If it hurts, if it ties one down and hammers its words on one's mind, it is simply the effect of his won't-let-go rigor. There is good and bad prose, there is moral and immoral.

This does not of course imply that the style is flat, because it is not like champagne. Baldwin is fully aware of the ambiguities and ironies implicit in his subjects (primary among them the sick paradox that calls itself America), and he weaves these same ambiguities and ironies into his prose. He is also drivingly and constantly self-critical, which is why his writing is so strong and clear, his thinking so often unassailable. His paragraphs work like a witty colloquy of two sharp minds, Baldwin's and his critic's, one within the other: the devastating qualifiers, the cool understatements, the parentheses, the litotes, the suggestions and quiet parallels display the double mind of the self-critic at work.

Writing like this can be more harrowing, more intense than any of the works we are considering [elsewhere in the book]. As Baldwin himself admits, Negro literature "is more likely to be a symptom of our tension than an examination of it," and this includes his own three novels, his plays, and his stories. The exhilarating exhaustion of reading his best essays—which in itself may be a proof of their honesty and value—demands that the reader measure up, and forces him to learn. (pp. 136-37)

David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing By American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is Baldwin's 13th book and it might have been written, if not revised for publication, in the 1950's. Its suffering, bewildered people, trapped in what is referred to as the "garbage dump" of New York City—blacks constantly at the mercy of whites—have not even the psychological benefit of the Black Power and other radical movements to sustain them. Though their story should seem dated, it does not. And the peculiar fact of their being so politically helpless seems to have strengthened, in Baldwin's imagination at least, the deep, powerful bonds of emotion between them. "If Beale Street Could Talk" is a quite moving and very traditional celebration of love. It affirms not only love between a man and a woman, but love of a type that is dealt with only rarely in contemporary fiction—that between members of a family, which may involve extremes of sacrifice….

"If Beale Street Could Talk" manages to be many things at the same time. It is economically, almost poetically constructed, and may certainly be read as a kind of allegory, which refuses conventional outbursts of violence, preferring to stress the provisional, tentative nature of our lives. (p. 1)

The novel progresses swiftly and suspensefully, but its dynamic movement is interior. Baldwin constantly understates the horror of his characters' situation in order to present them as human beings whom disaster has struck, rather than as blacks who have, typically, been victimized by whites and are therefore likely subjects for a novel. The work contains many sympathetic portraits of white people….

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is a moving, painful story. It is so vividly human and so obviously based upon reality, that it strikes us as timeless—an art that has not the slightest need of esthetic tricks, and even less need of fashionable apocalytic excesses. (p. 2)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1974.

The scene [in "If Beale Street Could Talk"] is Harlem today, a long way from Beale Street, but James Baldwin means to tell a story that will move us like one of the great old blues songs—a lyric cry of pain and gritty endurance from the heart of a young black woman whose man is in jail….

[The] music from everywhere in "If Beale Street Could Talk" isn't authentic blues but the stuff that's piped into elevators. Baldwin is never able to find a convincing voice for Tish [the protagonist] who has a dire tendency to utter Words To Live By. "Trouble means you're alone," for instance….

I think I know a bad novel when I see one, though this one fooled me for a while. James Baldwin is a writer one takes seriously;… it would be a pleasure to be able to praise his first novel in six years. There are scenes that give one hope: a shouting Sunday service, a family summit meeting to discuss Tish's pregnancy. But "If Beale Street Could Talk" is an almost total disaster.

Walter Clemons, "Black and Blue," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 27, 1974, p. 82.

Baldwin is a professional fugitive, he is always on the run; from his colour in Giovanni's Room, a love story between pure whites; from his class in Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone; and now the final trick as he escapes from his own sex in If Beale Street Could Talk. These social and sexual cells are so vague as to almost defy belief, but Baldwin is clear about his freedom: it consists of the small open space known as romance, that last straw in an ocean of uncertain uncertainties….

Baldwin always stays very close to his material; the structure of the novel is tied to a kind of self-reflectiveness which disobeys the conventional laws of narrative, and the narrative itself breathes with Baldwin's own life as he returns yet again to that primal vision which apparently remains untarnished with the passing of his years. This is the poor, black world of streets and stoops and store-front faith which Baldwin can summon with incantation and which he pours all over himself in an effort to keep his vision clean.

There is that same, impassioned prose—a relic of the evangelical past which leads to sub-headings such as 'Troubled About My Soul' and 'Zion'—and Baldwin constructs the language as if it were the hallowed container of sacred meanings. His novels are attempts to push and pull these truths into some recognisable human shape and perhaps these truths, the gods of that familial hearth which Baldwin has preserved throughout his work, are almost human. They are those of 'life', 'feeling' and 'experience' and Baldwin tills those acres of silent passion which are generally supposed to pass between people at moments of intensity, and which are beyond mere words.

That is why he has never aspired to a casual, Yankee mimeticism, and the model for his black allegories lies somewhere around D. H. Lawrence rather than his ostensible mentor, Richard Wright, whose own writing is nothing more than white journalism plus blood. Baldwin has an impassioned and quasi-Biblical manner which allows him to denounce and lament like a funky Johnny Ray. Its advantages are fervour (if fervour is an advantage) and grace, but what it gains in heat it loses in light, and there is precious little veracity or detail within his sermons. If Beale Street Could Talk is composed largely of cardboard, since stereotypes are the only possible vehicles for the single-mineded passions, wordless joys and lengthy silences which Baldwin insists upon discovering in every basement. White policemen and spinsters are always very bad, young blacks and young lovers are thoroughly and undoubtedly good. But even cut-outs can be daubed with a little fresh paint, and Baldwin is adept at that mawkish and slightly camp diction which passes for conversation amongst blacks: "Now the cops who put him in this wagon know that the dude is sick. I know they know it. He ain't supposed to be in here—and him not hardly much more than a kid." This is the fantasy of urban America, and in this garish light we may steal away from Baldwin, leaving him to rouge his wounds in public. (p. 22)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 6, 1974.

Twenty years ago, James Baldwin, the one-time lay preacher, made American Negro gospel-fever the centre of his first book, Go Tell It on the Mountain. In [If Beale Street Could Talk] the 'holy rollers' are much less sympathetically drawn: he sees them as unresisting inheritors of a vicious, alien religion….

Just as American womanhood is just now beginning the struggle to exist in her own imagination, so the American Negro has begun to free himself from the prison of a reflected image formed of the stereotypes of the white imagination: he has begun to invent himself.

If Beale Street Could Talk celebrates this new-found capacity for self-creation. It is a sort of fable about the Negro's quest for cultural freedom in the alien environment of present-day New York…. [The] black race makes itself finally in its own image.

Disturbingly, however, this image seems to exist simply in opposition to everything white. Though Baldwin has done much to free the American Negro from the 'Uncle Tom' and 'Sambo' clichés of white fiction, he now portrays the white American with equal cartoon crudity. It is as if the black American must now begin to invent the white American, his white American, in order to discover his own identity. Thus, the description of Bell, the cop—one of only two white characters in the book—goes: 'He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed in all that shit…. Like his heroes, he was kind of pin-headed, heavy-gutted, big-assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington's eyes.' But between the extremes of black and white, even on Beale Street, there are surely some other shades.

David Thomas, "Too Black, Too White," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of David Thomas), July 25, 1974, p. 125.