Baldwin, James (Vol. 13)
Baldwin, James 1924–
Baldwin is a black American essayist, novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His work consistently reveals 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, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
James Baldwin has made a reputation by exploiting social paradoxes, so it should not be surprising to trace his literary antecedents to neither Richard Wright nor Harriet B. Stowe, but to that Brahmin, Henry James…. The amphibian elegance of [Baldwin's] syntax comes naturally to an artist obsessed by dualities, paradox. The Atlantic Ocean separated James's mind into opposed hemispheres, and the gulf of color so cleaves Baldwin. The antipodes of their worlds propose a dialectical art. (p. 52)
Baldwin's characters suffer no more from their color than James's suffer from their money—these are only the peculiar conditions of their suffering. The problem for both is more universal—the opacity of their culture and the question of their identity within it. For Baldwin assumes, in the consequences of his culture, the crisis of his identity, the reflective burden of Western Man. His color is his metaphor, his vantage. But in his despair, he is closer to Henry Adams than John Henry.
Both Baldwin and James were victims of a "mysterious childhood accident." Only their society's different reaction to puberty sets them apart. It is not so much a question of how it happened, but the consequences. "I'm the reaction against the mistake," says Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, and Baldwin certifies this most finally for his contemporaries. "They were so other," James elaborates in A Small Boy and Others, "that...
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Go Tell it on the Mountain is concerned with the initiation of John Grimes, a fourteen year-old Negro boy. He is exposed to the bitter realities of ghetto life and sees at first hand the consequences of the resulting tensions in terms of individual lives. In the course of the book he undergoes what is apparently a profound religious conversion—a conversion which seems to reconcile him with his situation….
But his conversion does not represent an acknowledgment of religious truth or an acceptance of his father's bitterness or his mother's passivity. It is a desperate expression of his own need for love and his desire for a sense of identity and common brotherhood. Yet his own mixed motives create a difficulty for the reader which is reflected throughout Baldwin's work. The central ambiguity of the book arises from the confusion between Eros and Agape. John's conversion is not the result of spiritual revelation but of a homosexual attraction which he feels for Elisha, a young Negro convert…. While setting out to establish the desirability and viability of compassion, Baldwin can only visualize this love in terms of sexual alliances, more particularly in terms of homosexual relationships. The physical is made to stand for the metaphysical but the intensity of the sexual relationship subverts its symbolic effectiveness. Throughout his work it is the homosexual, virtually alone, who can offer a selfless and genuine love because...
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As a writer Baldwin is as obsessed by sex and family as Strindberg was, but instead of using situations for their dramatic value, Baldwin likes to pile up all possible emotional conflicts as assertions. But for the same reason that in Giovanni's Room Baldwin made everybody white just to show that he could, and in Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone transferred the son-father quarrel to a quarrel with a brother, so one feels about Another Country that Baldwin writes fiction in order to use up his private difficulties; even his fiction piles up the atmosphere of raw emotion that is his literary standby. Why does so powerful a writer as Baldwin make himself look simpleminded by merely asserting an inconsequential succession of emotions? (p. 222)
[In] Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin dropped the complicated code for love difficulties he uses in his novels and simplified himself into an "angry Black" very powerfully indeed—and this just before Black nationalists were to turn on writers like him. The character who calls himself "James Baldwin" in his nonfiction novel is more professionally enraged, more doubtfully an evangelist for his people, than the actual James Baldwin, a very literary mind indeed. But there is in Notes of a Native Son a genius for bringing many symbols together, an instinctive association with the 1943 Harlem riot, the streets of...
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A decade ago James Baldwin, more than any other author, seemed to liberal white Americans to personify as well as to articulate the outrage and anguish of black Americans struggling to put an end to racial oppression and to achieve their civil and human rights…. Though as Northern as Martin Luther King was Southern, James Baldwin preached a more secular and apocalyptic but not really dissimilar sermon: the redemptive force of the love of a prophetic, interracial few could, even at that late date, yet prevail over the bigotry of the white majority, and so "end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world." If these brave words today seem both naïve and anachronistic, the reason is partly the nation's recent habit of giving more publicity than credence to its seers, of lavishing attention while withholding belief. (p. 1)
A proper understanding of Baldwin and his work must take into account a complicated amalgam of psychological and social elements sometimes thought to be antithetical. If, like most major black writers, Baldwin has extracted from his private ordeal the symbolic outline of his race's suffering, he has done so without obscuring the uniqueness of his personal experience. (p. 2)
However much he may revile the historical role of Christianity in the enslavement of black people, The Fire Next Time attests that [Baldwin] has never forgotten the compensatory values...
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Donald C. Murray
In the world of "Sonny's Blues," the short story by James Baldwin, the author deals with man's need to find his identity in a hostile society and, in a social situation which invites fatalistic compliance, his ability to understand himself through artistic creation which is both individual and communal. "Sonny's Blues" is the story of a boy's growth to adulthood at a place, the Harlem ghetto, where it's easier to remain a "cunning child," and at a time when black is not beautiful because it's simpler to submerge oneself in middle-class conformity, the modish antics of the hipster set, or else, at the most dismal level, the limbo of drug addiction, rather than to truly find oneself. Sonny's brother, the narrator of the story, opts for the comforts of a respectable profession and his specialty, the teaching of algebra, suggests his desire for standard procedures and elegant, clear-cut solutions. On the other hand, Sonny at first trafficks with the hipster world…. Eventually, however, as if no longer able to hold his own through all those other sounds of enticement and derision, Sonny is sentenced to a government institution due to his selling and using heroin. (p. 353)
Playing upon the homonym of Sonny, Baldwin writes that, for the narrator's brother, "all the light in [Sonny's] face" had gone out.
Images of light and darkness are used by Baldwin to illustrate his theme of man's painful quest for an identity. Light...
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