Baldwin, James (Vol. 17)
James Baldwin 1924–
American novelist, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter.
Since the publication in 1953 of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin has been an important presence in American letters. This first, semiautobiographical novel described with great compassion the events leading to the religious conversion of an adolescent boy growing up in Harlem. It earned Baldwin extravagant praise, some critics greeting him as the newest major black writer to follow in the steps of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. On the strength of it Baldwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship which he used to live in Paris.
During the next ten years of his voluntary exile he produced three collections of essays, two novels, and two plays. The plays, Blues for Mr. Charlie and The Amen Corner, received mixed reviews when first presented; most critics felt the effectiveness of the central monologues did not carry over into the rest of the writing. However, both have been revived on occasion by drama companies across the country.
All but Baldwin's first novel have been extremely controversial. Giovanni's Room, the story of a fatal relationship between two white men, was viewed by some as a tour de force and by others as an embarrassment. His investigation of sexual and racial politics took him into Another Country, a novel whose exploration of the use of power in interracial relationships provoked even more heated debate. Those who praise Baldwin's novels do so for his passionate language and his ability to make his world live. Most frequently, they are criticized as vehicles for Baldwin's political views, lacking depth of characterization. This difference of opinion has intensified over the years.
The reception accorded his essays has always been much more approving. Many people were ready to claim him as the foremost American essayist following Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. Although his essays document the oppression of black people he has refused to categorize himself with writers who talk only of anger and despair. It is perhaps his patience, his desire to be proved wrong in his assessment of the moral failure of white Americans, that has made the literary establishment consider him a spokesperson for black people.
Since his return to the United States Baldwin has accepted this role with some reluctance, stating that he can speak only for himself. Yet he has participated in two published conversations loosely conducted about the topic of race: A Rap on Race with anthropologist Margaret Mead, and A Dialogue with poet Nikki Giovanni. In these, as well as in all his other works, Baldwin shows himself to be a man deeply interested in the future of Western society, determined to do what he can to help compassion win out over the destructive forces within. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Harvey Curtis Webster
Mr. Baldwin's first novel ["Go Tell It on the Mountain"] is written as skilfully as many a man's fifth essay in fiction. His handling of the flashbacks so that they show the past without interrupting the drama of the present is masterful. His penetration of the mind of John, especially in the scene of his conversion, is as valid as anything in William James's "Varieties of Religious Experience" and as moving as the interior monologues in [William] Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." Although Mr. Baldwin does not have either [Richard] Wright's or [Ralph] Ellison's capacity to take all modern problems as his province, he never descends into the provincialism that has made so many Negro novels read like footnotes to [Gunnar] Myrdal's "An American Dilemma." "Go Tell It on the Mountain" fulfils a great deal, promises more.
Harvey Curtis Webster, "Community of Pride," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1953 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVI, No. 20, May 16, 1953, p. 14.
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James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain" … is a first novel of quite exceptional promise, centering on a church in Harlem…. The Temple of the Fire Baptized is the scene of a conflict between a growing boy with a real vocation and his preacher stepfather, a compulsive lecher whose sense of guilt, rather than a true call, has brought him to the pulpit…. Mr. Baldwin … gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of the intellectual seediness and poverty of this kind of religious life and of the secular life that produces it….
But for all its abundant virtues there is something lacking in the book; its perfections are wooden and it is without vitality in spite of its realism. When one compares it with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," the deficiency immediately declares itself. Ellison's novel was emotionally disturbing and extremely serious, but it was also rich in comic invention…. Mr. Baldwin's God-intoxicated lecher, with his roving eye and his inflamed conscience, which always arrives on the scene too late, carries farce with him wherever he goes, and if one treats him with Kafkaesque solemnity, the life goes out of him and the spiritual tragedy of his congregation loses a dimension…. Mr. Baldwin's novel is humorless, and the result is that it seems not more dignified or more understanding but less penetrating.
Anthony West, "Sorry Lives," in The New Yorker (© 1953 by The New...
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James Baldwin writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself. As an essayist he is thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing and amusing. And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing.
In "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin surveys in pungent commentary certain phases of the contemporary scene as they relate to the citizenry of the United States, particularly Negroes. Harlem, the protest novel, bigoted religion, the Negro press and the student milieu of Paris are all examined in black and white, with alternate shutters clicking, for hours of reading interest. When the young man who wrote this book comes to a point where he can look at life purely as himself, and for himself, the color of his skin mattering not at all, when, as in his own words, he finds "his birthright as a man no less than his birthright as a black man," America and the world might well have a major contemporary commentator.
Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.
Langston Hughes, "From Harlem to Paris," in The New...
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Mr. Baldwin has taken a very special theme [male homosexuality] and treated it with great artistry and restraint [in "Giovanni's Room"]. While he is franker about the physical aspects of male love than other writers who have written on the subject, he manages to retain a very delicate sense of good taste so that his characters never really offend us even when they appear most loathsome, most detestable. This truly remarkable achievement is possible because of Mr. Baldwin's intense sincerity and genuine ability to understand and to pity the wretches involved….
Of all the ills and vices of men it would seem that homosexuality is the one least demanding of patience and consideration, but Mr. Baldwin has managed to instil in one reader, at least, a greater tolerance, a fresher sense of pity.
David Karp, "A Squalid World," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIX, No. 48, December 1, 1956, p. 34.
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Giovanni's Room is the best American novel dealing with homosexuality I have read….
[From a recounting of the plot, Giovanni's Room] sounds like a painful novel, which it certainly is. It also sounds like a meretriciously fashionable-sensational one, which it is not…. He successfully avoids the cliché literary attitudes: overemphasis on the grotesque, and the use of homosexuality as a facile symbol for the estrangement which makes possible otherwise unavailable insights into the workings of "normal" society and "normal" people; in short, the Homosexual as Artist.
Not that Giovanni's Room is without faults. The novel's ending … is somewhat lame, his descriptions of the hero's emotions run too heavily to beating hearts, trembling, bright lights, overwhelming stirrings, falling, drowning, the bottom of the sea. Also, Baldwin's blond-athlete-type hero, like Norman Mailer's in The Deer Park, never wholly emerges from dimness.
Nevertheless, these shortcomings only slightly detract from the book's impact. If David, the American, remains even more lumpish than he is supposed to be, Giovanni, the experienced European more vulnerable than a child, is beautifully and economically realized. Baldwin insists on the painful, baffling complexity of things….
The Europe-versus-America theme is basic to Giovanni's Room. The Europeans' epigrammatic summations...
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To transcend the sterile categories of "Negro-ness," whether those enforced by the white world or those erected defensively by Negroes, became Baldwin's central concern as a writer. He wanted, as he says in "Nobody Knows My Name," his brilliant new collection of essays, "to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer."…
Freedom cannot always be willed into existence; and that is why, as Baldwin went on to write two accomplished novels and a book of still more accomplished essays, he was forced to improvise a protest of his own: nonpolitical in character, spoken more in the voice of anguish than revolt, and concerned less with the melodrama of discrimination than the moral consequences of living under an irremovable stigma.
This highly personal protest Baldwin has released through a masterly use of the informal essay. Writing with both strength and delicacy, he has made the essay into a form that brings together vivid reporting, personal recollection and speculative thought….
[Especially] noteworthy are three essays on Richard Wright, which range in tone from disturbed affection to disturbing malice and reflect Baldwin's struggle to achieve some personal equilibrium as writer and Negro by discovering his true feelings toward the older man….
One great merit of his essays is their honesty in reflecting his own doubts and aggressions, and in...
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Mr. Baldwin [in "Nobody Knows My Name"] proves to be a steady and exact observer of himself and of others. He also qualifies eminently as a person for whom our society has not troubled to provide an identifying niche. In evidence of this, it is enough to say that he couples an uncomfortably acute intelligence with a measure of personal pride and that he is a Negro.
For convenience, we might divide Mr. Baldwin's essays into two heaps. The larger heap will contain his observations on a number of particular events that illuminate the peculiar situation of the Negro in a white world…. Their relation to the author's search for identity often is not an intimate one, but he argues for their inclusion on the ground that "the question of color, especially in this country, operates to hide the graver questions of the self." And certainly no reader would wish them deleted, for the irrelevant but adequate reason that they are splendid works of reporting and argument. The second and smaller heap of essays will contain Mr. Baldwin's direct assaults on the problem of identity. In them, observation and argument give place to analysis of states of mind. They are, so to speak, attempts to sketch his own mental landscape by way of getting his bearings in the world. And they also are, on the whole, so much less successful than our first batch of essays that they might be the work of a different pen….
The most conspicuous feature of...
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Notes of a Native Son remains, in my opinion, Mr. Baldwin's best book, either in fiction or non-fiction: it is more complex and more forceful than any of the others, more inward with the experience it seeks to describe and at the same time more detached from it. (p. 497)
We hear too often in these essays the voice of his will rather than the voice of his sensibility; there are too many examples of rhetoric, of exhortation, of uplift, of reproach, in the book, and they undoubtedly weaken the impact it makes. But the moral to be drawn from these faults is not at all that writers should eschew the political struggles into which their own deepest inclinations draw them. Anyone who might be inclined to draw that moral should try to imagine what the consequences to his work would have been if Mr. Baldwin, feeling as he does, had denied his own deep impulsions, and had turned away from the public struggle, in order to protect his "art." (p. 498)
In nothing is Mr. Baldwin more of an American, and more of an American Negro, than the reluctance with which he discusses questions of power. Reluctance may seem an odd word to use about someone who at a certain point writes of himself: "Well, I know how power works, it has worked on me, and if I didn't know how power worked, I would be dead." But Mr. Baldwin makes my case, indirectly, when he goes on to say, "I have simply never been able to afford myself any illusions...
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[Nobody Knows My Name] is confirmation that James Baldwin is one of America's finest writers. The essays are uneven; some are slight and dated already because of their subject, some simply deserve more thought than Baldwin has devoted to them. But in this book and in his earlier Notes of a Native Son he has frequently written with a combination of passion, insight and intelligence to which his prose is equal. What sets Baldwin apart from even the best of his contemporaries is that he is an unproclaimed moralist whose arguments and insights rest on traditional and, in the best sense, even conventional values. (pp. 288, 290)
James Finn, "Critics' Choices for Christmas: 'Nobody Knows My Name'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXV, No. 11, December 8, 1961, pp. 288, 290.
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[In "Another Country," James Baldwin] studies the homosexuals and Negroes, often in parallel scenes. His plotting urges toward the breakdown of the barriers and the recovery of common humanity in love, a love that, in this book, invariably climaxes in sexual bouts. These are told frankly and pretty well, the homosexual ones somewhat better because they are less hectic and abrupt. The divisive barriers, on the other hand, he explores as far as sexual jealousy, and there are scenes of violence.
Unfortunately the persons of "Another Country" exist in a kind of vacuum: they do not have enough world to grow in, so love does not lead to community, procreation, productive collaboration, character change or even personal security. The author merely affirms their love to be important. And since there is not enough on-going world to support the jealous, their jealousy comes merely to sullenness and separation, without insight, liberation or useful grief….
It is puzzling how most of Baldwin's people make a living…. Nobody even mentions any political action or concerted protest, or reasons about the causes and possible remedies of the social situation in which all are trapped….
There is no doubt that this tenuous kind of involvement is in fact the daily experience of millions of people in our society, and they ought to have their Homer. But to make them live, a writer would have to concentrate precisely on...
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[In] Another Country, there are no effective controls—of form, of language, of moral content, of theme…. [Metaphorically, the "country" of the title] is that misty region on the nether side of society where alienated men and women act out the racial and sexual—and, improbably, the international, or at least the Franco-American—encounter. The characters—black and white, beat and square, irresolutely straight and avowedly homosexual—are in their variety meant to describe the topography of that other country, and to dramatize the way life is lived there….
Baldwin loses control almost immediately, and never recovers it; and the manner in which he fails lies at the heart of the novel's totally disabling flaws. With catastrophically absurd and chaotic results for the work as fiction, and as criticism of life, he takes his metaphors, his allegory, literally: not illuminating in some imaginative and contingent sense, but equivalent in an exact and mathematical one, so that the torments of race and sex, each mirroring the other, are fought out on the same battleground, with the same weapons, to the same issue….
[Because] he misnames the acts and feelings which are the essence of his novel, Baldwin compounds confusion, adding moral to aesthetic failure. We watch it happening on every page. The point of view shifts erratically; the tempo flags; scenes lose their force and drift into limbo; dialogue...
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Edgar Z. Friedenberg
[When] I finished [Another Country], I felt as if I had become one of the minor characters in it, though less real and utterly outclassed sexually.
Even this is no threat. One cannot get lost in Baldwin's work because it is completely contiguous with reality; an extension of it in depth rather than a substitute for it. There is no sense of transition, merely of immensely heightened awareness and vividness and moral understanding….
Another Country is, in its implications, in some ways a profoundly conservative novel. In this respect, it resembles The Last of the Just, though I am less certain that the inferences one draws from that work are what [André] Schwarz-Bart intends. With Baldwin I am sure; his level of technical competence is so high that a reader has roughly as much choice about how to respond as he would to a skillful executioner. He may, to be sure, misunderstand what is happening to him, but this will not affect the outcome.
What is conservative about both books is their emphasis on the need for roots, even though they be bitter roots, and poisonous. (p. 23)
Throughout the novel [the fate of the exile] is the leitmotif, on which countless variations are sung…. Trust and continuity among human beings, good and bad, are what even the poorest community affords its members; that is what makes it a community, Another Country is not...
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In spite of all that has been written about the Negro in America in the last decade or so, I think there is no more lucid, revealing and corruscating record than [Notes of a Native Son]. The intensity of feeling is matched by the brilliance of the thought, and it is difficult to grasp the moral effort that must have been required to bring to the surface, to place under the harsh light of critical examination, things that both black and white have for so long kept buried deep. (pp. 113-14)
Another Country is a novel whose parts are more successful than the whole, and the achievement in these parts is of such a high order and of such particularity that we will not, I think, find their counterpart in American writing.
The first section of the novel, which is devoted primarily to Rufus, could stand as a complete short work. Rufus, much of whose value we are asked to take on trust, is gradually worn down and destroyed by forces that he cannot totally comprehend, nor can the reader—though he may recognize them as familiar—for they flow from no single identifiable source. But Rufus exists as a person, the forces that destroy him are palpable, and the grotesque and terrible prayer that is wrenched from him when he plunges to his death reverberates.
There are other passages where Baldwin is equal to his intentions…. And those are enough, not entirely to save the book but to make it more...
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James Baldwin is a disarming man, against whom it is necessary to arm ourselves. Which, oddly enough, may be what he is trying to tell us.
[In The Fire Next Time he] has written an indictment of Western civilization—more precisely, of that civilization's religion, of "the white God"—that is carefully and consciously "outrageous." He edges toward us—in every sentence—his credentials as the most sensitive and discriminating articulator of Negro suffering; while, fully aware of the incongruity, he constructs an intricate sympathy for the crudest kind of Negro racism, that of Elijah Muhammad and his Black Muslims. There is virtuosity, even a dark gaiety in his anger: he does not try to hide the logical weaknesses in his argument, considered solely as an argument. He candidly bases his view of religion on his special experience of "the church racket": at the age of fourteen, he became a boy preacher in order to break the hold over him of his father, an hysterical minister who, after torturing his children with hatred and piety, starved himself to death….
Up against an audience that has its Freud by heart, an indictment of religion based on this experience is almost bound to misfire; to be read as the private fight of an Oedipus, not as part of the public struggle of a race for recognition. Baldwin knows this; knows, nonetheless, that he can give the game away and still win it. (p. 408)
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Baldwin's power is his ability to express situations—the situation of being a Negro, and of being white, and of being human. Beyond this, he is perhaps too impatient to be a good novelist, and although he is a powerful essayist [as shown in The Fire Next Time] his experiences are so colored with feelings that he seems unable to relate the thoughts which arise from his feelings to parallel situations that have given rise to other men's thoughts. (p. 256)
Mr. Baldwin would admit, I think, that when (and this is quite often) he is guided by his emotions he finds himself in a position not far from that of the Black Muslims. He quite rightly resents the claims of whites that they are superior to colored people. But in fact he thinks that the colored are superior. (p. 257)
Mr. Baldwin asserts that the white American does not recognize death because he does not recognize life. He does not recognize the "constants" of life in himself, and therefore he does not recognize them in the Negro. If he recognized the Negro as a being like himself, then he would recognize in himself those constants which he acknowledges in the Negro. Thus the black can "save" the white by making the white conscious of his humanity….
Although Mr. Baldwin considers love is the only answer to the American race problem, it is not at all evident from his book that he loves white Americans, and at times it is even doubtful...
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I envy whoever writes of James Baldwin a century from now. That his work will then be discussed I have no doubt, since of all writers in English of our era his style is most classic, his theme one of the most relevant. But it is because of this theme, precisely, that it is so hard to criticize his writing now.
Baldwin's essential theme is life-death-passion-honor-beauty-horror … the perpetual theme since the Greeks and long before, the only one worthy of a great artist and of which, as writer and man, he has proved himself so worthy. (p. 119)
[Baldwin] is a premonitory prophet, a fallible sage, a sooth-sayer, a bardic voice falling on deaf and delighted ears. These qualities emerge best in his "essays" (for such one must call them, though they are so agonized and hortatory that the word hardly fits), and far less decisively in his novels. If I say I do not think his novels convey his intentions so effectively—if I say in fact that he is "not a novelist"—no doubt this will vex him but, if so, I think mistakenly…. [Most] of all it is because I see—or hear—James Baldwin as a voice, a presence, a singer almost, that I feel the mode of direct address—to us in his own person, and not through invented "characters"—expresses his talent and his message best. (p. 121)
The first quality in these essays is their extraordinary tone. Baldwin was just over thirty when the first collection...
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Baldwin has come to represent for "white" Americans the eloquent, indignant prophet of an oppressed people, a voice speaking … in an all but desperate, final effort to bring us out of what he calls our innocence before it is (if it is not already) too late. This voice calls us to our immediate duty for the sake of our own humanity as well as our own safety. It demands that we stop regarding the Negro as an abstraction, an invisible man; that we begin to recognize each Negro in his "full weight and complexity" as a human being; that we face the horrible reality of our past and present treatment of Negroes—a reality we do not know and do not want to know.
This message has always formed the core of Baldwin's autobiographical writings. (pp. 239-40)
The word "identity" recurs over and over again in Baldwin's autobiographical essays. The essential question, for himself and for the American audience that he assumes is white, is: Who am I? or: How can I be myself? In his answers to these questions we see the strength that places several of Baldwin's autobiographical essays among the best in American literature; we must see there also several inconsistencies and errors that may be the inevitable price of his method.
As he has rearranged them, without regard for chronology, in his books, these essays give great importance not only to the question of identity but to Baldwin's recurrent answer:...
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Mr. Baldwin is a preacher and a rhapsodist. "Blues for Mister Charlie" is an angry sermon and a pain-wracked lament. It draws together the humiliation, degradation, frustration and resentment felt by millions relegated to second-class citizenship and transmutes the accumulated bitterness into a roar of fury. Listen attentively to Mr. Baldwin if you want to know the Negro who now is emerging from behind the noncommittal mask.
Mr. Baldwin is not quite so good with the white man. His fearful, unreconstructed white Southerners are close to caricature. His account of their ignorant, superstitious, malevolent opinions is probably well-founded. One can hear similar obscenities in the North.
But a dramatist makes his point most forcefully when his antagonist is drawn from strength. Mr. Baldwin's most effective white character is Parnell, the one decent white man. Parnell fails the Negro, and this failure not only is pitiful but also intensifies the play's anguish and wrathful militancy….
Mr. Baldwin passes a miracle in evoking a wounded human being in a few piercing sentences. He can also write long, soaring speeches that shake the theater with their passion. But these speeches are not a theatrical gesture. They lay bare the heart of the Negro's suffering and explain the iron of his determination.
Howard Taubman, "Common Burden: Baldwin Points Duty of Negro and...
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[The direction Blues for Mr. Charlie] takes is an expression of the will of one of the characters, Richard's father, who searches for the meaning of [his son's] murder for himself, for his son, and for the man who committed it….
[Richard] is rich with anger, and yet in the very first scene with his father, he surrenders to him the pistol he has brought back with him from the North, an act for which he will in the end have to pay with his life.
Why does he surrender the pistol? Meridian himself does not demand it, although his values may seem to. Instead, at his son's provocation, Meridian admits that the mother was in fact pushed, and did not slip as apparently he had once tried to make his son believe. Richard now gives him the gun supposedly because Meridian has given up the truth, and given it up to him. But this truth his father speaks only verifies what Richard had already known. Surrendering the gun at this point, then, is either psychological perversity on Richard's part (a clue to a motive of which he himself is unaware), or sentimentality on the part of the writer, who may so want a scene of loving and forgiveness between a father and a son on the stage that he will have one even if it means destroying the most authentic facts about his own characters. Or else it is just so much piety about that word truth. Whatever the cause, at the most important dramatic moment of the act (and maybe of the...
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C. B. COX and A. R. JONES
Baldwin attempts to deal honestly with a number of sexual relationships most of which were taboo to previous writers. In Another Country it is suggested that security, order and common sense are illusions, and that only people like Rufus, Vivaldo, Cass and Eric, who submit themselves to the mystery and chaos of their emotions, are truly alive…. For Baldwin and his characters, sexual experience involves an entry into an unknown violent country…. Most people fear this journey into the unknown and never dare to examine the reality of their sexual impulses. In his treatment of sex, Baldwin has much in common with the writers examined by Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony. The descent into sexual experience is a journey undertaken only by certain heroic kinds of people towards a truth which is both painful and beautiful. In the novel sex is linked with images of infection, disease, poison, yet it is only through sex that the characters can overcome their isolation, and express their tenderness for each other. (pp. 116-17)
For Baldwin, therefore, to live, to perceive reality, is to submit oneself to suffering and chaos. Breakdown, neurosis, even suicide are a proper reaction to the human condition, for otherwise we are escaping from the truth. (p. 117)
Much of the novel suggests that homosexual relationships are the most real and satisfying for a man. As in David Storey's Radcliffe or Angus Wilson's...
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Mr Baldwin's enlistment in the cause of Civil Rights was bound to change his writings. It seems he has sacrificed them, or some of their resources…. His earlier essays were rich and good. But the intermittently powerful rhetoric of last year's The Fire Next Time—a fire kindled, it's the kind of thing that happens with such documents, in the asbestos pages of the New Yorker—has become the brutal and unqualified rhetoric of the present essay [Nothing Personal].
No one who visited America before the drive for Civil Rights properly began will doubt that there were decent people there whose lives were virtually unaffected by the racial situation…. Mr Baldwin should not pretend that such people don't exist. Nor are they any worse than people in other countries, where, equally, innocence is ignorance, and where there are comparable guilts and offences. According to Mr Baldwin, the American experience is corrupt and predatory, with trivial exceptions; and has been so since the first white foot was planted on the continent. No one smiles. No one sings. There are no lovers. If it were easy to suppose, as he must surely do, that what he says here will help the Negroes, this extravagance would not matter much. As it is, the essay may inflame a bookish and converted few, but as a piece of propaganda it's more like a piece of exhibitionism.
Mr Baldwin's recent essays can be very portentous, leaning on...
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Nothing Personal pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America, but the people likely to buy this extravagant volume are the subscribers to fashion magazines, while the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic….
Baldwin's attacks are significant less for their familiar content than for the conditioned response they are expected to provoke in the reader—and, especially, for the format in which they appear. But lending himself to such an enterprise, Baldwin reveals that he is now part and parcel of the very things he is criticizing….
James Baldwin's rage is here inspired largely by opportunism, but while the photographer [Richard Avedon] is taking advantage of the times, the writer is letting the times take advantage of him. Once direct and biting in his criticism of American life, Mr. Baldwin has repeated his revolt so often that it has now become a reflex mannerism that curls his fingers around his pen and squeezes out empty rhetoric. In Nothing Personal, certainly, Baldwin has either adapted his ideas to the intellectual chic of the women's magazines, or he is putting his readers on….
The author of Notes of a Native Son was a highly aware and complicated individual; the author of Nothing Personal, and the rest of his recent writings, is merely a self-constituted Symbol, bucking hard for the rank of Legend....
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Robert A. Bone
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) is the best of Baldwin's novels, and the best is very good indeed. It ranks with Jean Toomer's Cane, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a major contribution to American fiction. For this novel cuts through the walls of the storefront church to the essence of Negro experience in America. This is Baldwin's earliest world, his bright and morning star, and it glows with metaphorical intensity. Its emotions are his emotions; its language, his native tongue. The result is a prose of unusual power and authority. One senses in Baldwin's first novel a confidence, control, and mastery of style which he has not attained again in the novel form. (p. 5)
Baldwin sees the Negro quite literally as the bastard child of American civilization. In Gabriel's double involvement with bastardy, we have a re-enactment of the white man's historic crime. In Johnny, the innocent victim of Gabriel's hatred, we have an archetypal image of the Negro child. Obliquely, by means of an extended metaphor, Baldwin approaches the very essence of Negro experience. That essence is rejection, and its most destructive consequence is shame. But God, the Heavenly Father, does not reject the Negro utterly. He casts down only to raise up. This is the psychic drama which occurs beneath the surface of John's conversion….
This quality of Negro life, unending struggle with...
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The fact that one has to wait until the final minutes of "The Amen Corner" for Sister Margaret to come truly alive is a clue to the shortcomings of Mr. Baldwin's early work. The structure of the play is elementary. The characterization is halting, and points are made obviously and repetitively.
Even in the much later "Blues for Mister Charlie," Mr. Baldwin had not mastered the dramatic form. "The Amen Corner," though it is not guilty of excesses of rhetoric, is often like an outline rather than a fully realized stage work. But unlike more craftsmanlike and emptier pieces, "The Amen Corner" has something to say. It throws some light on the barrenness of the lives of impoverished Negroes who seek surcease from their woes in religion….
One feels in "The Amen Corner" that Mr. Baldwin is only beginning to measure himself against the theater's challenge. Often his approach is tentative and tenuous. But here and there he fleshes out his thesis—that for too many poverty-stricken Negroes religion is an evasion of living—with dramatic eloquence.
Howard Taubman, "Frank Silvera and Bea Richards Head Cast," in The New York Times (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1965 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).
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Edward A. Watson
There are several remarkable things about [Go Tell It on the Mountain], the most impressive of which is Baldwin's ability to make the experiences of the story immediate and definitive. He achieves this end through the use of his facile way with words and the oratorical flourish of the preacher. The immediacy is more strongly felt when we realize that Baldwin himself is preaching to us, not only in the way he knew as a boy preacher, but also as a persuasive writer reaching out to an audience. Also, his use of the flash-back technique without halting the action of the conversion is a formidable achievement especially for a first attempt in the novel. It would not be too much to compare Baldwin's success at narration with Conrad's success in Nostromo, though the latter is a far more ambitious and creative work. There is also the success of "sounding the sense" of the language of the novel; because the novel is about a religious experience, Baldwin's style moves with the poetic freedom of certain parts of the Old Testament and with the restraint of the New. His portrayal of the Negro is as honest as it is sympathetic, never falling to that type of sentimental bathos that characterizes so much of the description of Negroes in other stories. Baldwin's great mistake, however, was to believe that his characters could be regarded as Negroes "only incidentally." For the experiences of the novel are those of the Negro and cannot be confused with the...
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Going to Meet the Man, Baldwin's first collection of short stories, is closer in spirit, tone, and achievement to his best critical work than it is to his "sensational" fiction. These are stories beautifully made to frame genuine experience in a lyrical language. They are, for the most part, free from the intellectual sin of confusing the Negro's (and/or the white man's) tragedy with the homosexual's psychic deformity. They sing with truth dug out from pain….
The stories in Going to Meet the Man demonstrate with stunning effect that James Baldwin has no need of racial or sexual special pleading. Free of these, at his best he is a rare creature.
Daniel Stern, "A Special Corner on Truth," in Saturday Review (© 1965 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVIII, No. 45, November 6, 1965, p. 32.
(The entire section is 136 words.)
The stories in [Going to Meet the Man] add nothing to Mr. Baldwin's stature, nor do they diminish it by much. Five have appeared in print before; the other three are new and, for the most part, disappointing. Taken as a whole, the book traces the author's progress from "The Rockpile" and "The Outing," halting first steps toward the first novel, to his most recent work, which suffers from its journalistic conception. With the possible exception of the first two, all the stories tend to tear themselves apart. At best, they are composed in a prose oddly balanced between sheer banality and rhetoric as thick as jam. (p. 137)
While his writing labors under a burden of irrelevant subtlety, his perceptions lack bite. Too often in these stories Mr. Baldwin is held spellbound by his sensitivity; it is like a wall between him and his characters. If he fails to make the verbal incisions necessary to expose his subjects, it is often because he takes for granted precisely those things which should be in question, e.g., the dimensions of his characters, the implications of their actions. (pp. 137-38)
Most of the stories are too long and at the same time too schematic. Given the author's procedure, this effect seems inescapable: Mr. Baldwin frequently restricts himself to a preconceived scenario which he tediously fills out, discovering nothing unexpected in the process. The characters, much of the time, are only there to...
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The continuing battle which Baldwin has waged with the spirit of Richard Wright, a battle which started in 1949 with the publication of his essay, 'Everybody's Protest Novel', is symptomatic of that tension which he was later to see, more sympathetically, in [Langston] Hughes's poetry. As evidence of this tension within his own work on the one hand he admits to a determinism not essentially different from Wright's and admits that 'we cannot escape our origins, however hard we try' while on the other he generalises from this and seeks to find in the Negro's experience an archetype for the human condition…. It is Baldwin's ability to maintain this distinction in his novels which raises his work above the naïve absolutism of Wright's. This does not imply that as a novelist he abandons faith in the validity of his own experience but that this experience is seen in the broader context of the human condition…. It is [his] ability to penetrate beyond the immediacies of injustice and prejudice … which marks his work off from that of those writers for whom the novel is an extension of the pamphlet. Like Arthur Miller he is concerned with man rather than men and the savage perception which characterises his essays survives now with the added depth and perspective of the artist. (pp. 126-28)
[We] might be forgiven for detecting [echoes of Albert Camus in Blues for Mr. Charlie]. For the grotesque code of honour which brings Richard...
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Baldwin's language from his first writings has been distinguished. Precise, well-ordered, very sophisticated, it could describe extreme experiences with chill casualness, and apparently trivial experiences with a simple but effective use of extreme language that conveyed the underlying importance of the apparently trivial….
The material of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is not sensational in itself. In a particular and important way, violence is ever present and very important in the book, but there is no relishing of it, no gory details….
The author of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is concerned with what moves his people. He is able to show us what moves them, on the very deepest levels. The fear and hate and the profound love that move his characters will also, I believe, be "moving" to any reader. Baldwin avoids melodrama, but he seizes again and again on the simple basic human relations of child and parent, male and female, friend and lover, that give us whatever our hearts have of human emotion. (p. 67)
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is a masterpiece by one of the best living writers in America. Which is not to say, naturally, that it will comfort or cheer you much. Very often, unless you are much different from me, the book will move you to tears. (p. 69)
John Thompson, "Baldwin: The Prophet as Artist,"...
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["Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone"] is a simpleminded, one-dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters, a polemical rather than narrative tone, weak invention, and poor selection of incident. Individual scenes have people talking too much for what the author has to say and crucial events are "told" by one character to another rather than created. The construction of the novel is theatrical, tidily nailed into a predictable form.
It becomes clearer with each book he publishes that Baldwin's reputation is justified by his essays rather than his fiction. It may be that he is not a true or "born" novelist. But it must be said that his essays are as well written as any in our language; in them his thought and its utterance are nothing less than majestical. He has, also, the virtues of passion, serious intelligence and compassionate understanding of his fellow man. Yet it would seem that such gifts, enough for critics and moralists and other saintly figures, are not enough to insure the writing of good fiction….
What the "I" person cannot be is a bore, or a moralist in a straight-out polemical way. In Baldwin's book the "I" person hero is both….
The flashbacks showing Leo Proudhammer as a child growing up in Harlem are the most successful sections of the book. His alienated, bitterly religious father (who appears often with slight variations in Baldwin's fiction) and Leo's brother Caleb...
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Composed mostly in flashback, [Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone] follows Proudhammer through a bitter Harlem childhood, the birth of ambition toward the stage, a long love affair with a white actress, a homosexual love alongside that, the beginning of political awareness, a step toward identification with his people's new militancy.
A half-dozen themes, none of which is realized, none brought to any conclusion in the imagination, they exist almost as mutually exclusive, as though in setting out to do a big, complex, invented life Baldwin had been unable to find a principle of coherence for its parts…. [What] is missing is any sense of artistic inevitability, any conviction that things have to be this way and no other, that one scene prepares the next, one image its successor, one emphasis of language its corollary or alternative….
His chief problem is that he cannot find a rhetoric that isn't dictated by what is expected, in literature, from the particular theme, or fictional situation, or drama. Thus, in writing about his hero's childhood and wishing to establish the gulf between the boy's father's pride and his sons' knowledge of his abjection, he falls into an overblown prose…. When he wants to be grave and philosophical about his hero's deepest human connections, he writes sententiously and obviously…. (p. 28)
The point about such writing is that it isn't incidental, a...
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The particular social condition Baldwin diagnoses in his essays is the same one that makes the creation of a fictional world virtually impossible for a Negro novelist. His essays subtly explore the ambiguities and ironies of a life lived on two levels—that of the Negro, and that of the man—and they have spoken eloquently to and for a whole generation. But Baldwin's feelings about the condition—alternating moods of sadness and bitterness—are best expressed in the paradoxes confronting the haunted heroes of his novels and stories. (p. 169)
The possible modes of existence for anyone seeking refuge from a society which refuses to acknowledge one's humanity are necessarily limited, and Baldwin has explored with some thoroughness the various emotional and spiritual alternatives available to his retreating protagonists….
Harvey Breit has likened [Go Tell it On the Mountain] to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but it seems to me, both in its strengths and weaknesses, to be much closer to another great autobiographical novel, [D. H. Lawrence's] Sons and Lovers. Baldwin is perhaps not Lawrence's equal in his ability to realise the physical presence of the world of objects—there is too much of [Charles] Dickens in his descriptions—but John Grimes' response to the suffocating world of his childhood reminds one very strongly of Paul Morel….
John, like Paul Morel,...
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Mike Thel Well
[Although Another Country] has its faults, and the most distracting of these have to do with an uncharacteristic note of sentimentality and too much of a self-consciously aphoristic and apocalyptic rhetoric, its accomplishments and its importance far outweigh these. Whether or not one agrees with the vision of the meaning of contemporary experience presented, no one denies that the book is an accurate, perceptive and truthful expression of the texture, feel and consistency of that experience. That is the first and major responsibility of the novelist. My own feeling and that of everyone I talked to when the book first came out was, despite anything else, "He is telling it like it is." I can not remember anyone, white or Negro, who did not feel that the book spoke directly and fiercely to many aspects of their own particular experience.
Equally important in evaluating this book, is a consideration of the place it represents in the body of Baldwin's work, and what that work represents in the flux of the American literary culture. Returning to New York with his perceptions sharpened, and with a vision that combined the freshness of the stranger with the knowledge of a native, he was able to excavate and display patterns, relationships, insights which had never been presented in quite the same way, with courage and candor. And this book, the book he was compelled to write more for truth and relevance than for "Art," is...
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The fact that [Baldwin] equated playwriting with improving a troubled world [as he did in an observation made in high school] explains his theory of drama quite clearly. It may also explain why he is not a better playwright and why he has not written more plays. While the theatre brings the most immediate response for the propagandist; it also brings adverse criticism…. It is perhaps vital to note that although he used similar theses and argued the same points in his fiction and in his plays, he used different major characters in his plays which essentially remove Baldwin, his own model-hero, from the center of the work. For some reason the drama forces him to change his attitude toward his material….
Whether he is writing fiction or drama, however, Baldwin has parlayed a youthful "agony" into a philosophic view of life. (p. 172)
The major problem in the "agony way" is one of identity. (p. 173)
The significance of his continuing search for an identity or for a certain meaning in life may be clearly seen in the major themes of his works as well as his own numerous activities. He is clearly a man of great sensitivity who wants to be loved for what he is and for what he says…. All of his heroes show this need for love…. Love was a paradox for Baldwin, and it was also the major answer he found for his "troubled world." It is one of the few "positive affirmations" which his characters discover....
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James Baldwin has long been a champion of the Person over the People. The fight against racial and other injustices, he argued as early as Notes of a Native Son (1955), begins with the heart's purification of hatred and despair. For Baldwin, the fight was with oneself: "my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart." Salvation must be personal before it can become social and political. (p. 37)
More than ever before, Baldwin fits much of his commentary [in No Name in the Street] into an ideological framework, albeit one in which the devil is more recognizable than the savior…. But the dramatic center of the book is not here; the center, in fact, is closer to the personal struggle in the earlier work than to a political thesis or to special pleading. To miss this point about No Name in the Street is to exchange its very vitality for propaganda, which can then be dismissed. The loss would be great.
The titles of the book's two sections—"Take Me to the Water," "To Be Baptized"—suggest a rite of passage. The operative order follows the titles of the sections: in the first section, we see Baldwin in Paris or New York, identifying with Algerians, or giving a friend the black suit he wore to Martin Luther King's funeral …, or going to the American South to pay dues; in the second section, we see Baldwin moving...
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[One has] the feeling that Malcolm X's life and death do not furnish the best vehicle by which even an immensely talented writer can express in cinematic terms the problems of race in America today. And finally one wonders if Baldwin himself was right to accept this particular job. In his recent prose works his evangelical fervour has been meshed with a marvellous, high style reminiscent of the masters of Rye, Sussex, and Oxford, Mississippi and seeming more natural to him than Harlem, Argot. The upshot, in [One Day, When I Was Lost] …, is the suggestion of a job of work energetically and demotically written and not altogether inspirited. Plenty of heart, if you like, but not enough soul. (p. 643)
Anthony Bailey, "Black and White," in New Statesman (© 1972 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 84, No. 2172, November 3, 1972, pp. 643-44.
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James Baldwin's screenplay adaptation of [The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley] now published as One Day When I Was Lost, is no substitute for the original. Unfortunately, it is not much worth reading at all, except for those who have a special interest in Baldwin's career and its curious downward spiral during the last years. What ever has happened to him, anyway? He seems to have become increasingly isolated from America and its problems, perhaps even from himself, during the 1960s. This screenplay, about which there was a lot of talk just a few years ago, may have been a last major effort on his part to come to terms with something important in his own life. Perhaps on this level Baldwin has succeded—or else why let us see it at all? He certainly has not written a produceable script. It is, first of all, about twice as long and three times as talky as any movie would dare be today. Secondly—and more important—it carries no sense of story with it at all. It would, I think, be utterly incomprehensible to one who had not read the Haley book. All in all, it was probably unwise of Baldwin to publish One Day When I Was Lost, for it adds nothing to Malcolm and can only detract from its author's reputation.
Bruce Cook, "'One Day When I Was Lost'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1973 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co.,...
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To consider the latest novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk …, is to re-evaluate more than a decade of Baldwin-watching. My response to his work has shifted from admiration of the arrogance of the early essays to rejection of the Old Testament predictability of the later fiction. Admittedly, the rejection of Baldwin's logic as a spokesman reflected a growing disenchantment with specific strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin's early work neatly fit that time, in terms of the assault on the so-called liberal conscience. Yet the history of the Sixties will be charted as a maze through which all of us were propelled, its horrors and beauties blurring thought, leaving us to sit in this apparent fall-out period to finger scars and wonder at the dazzle behind the eyes. (p. 51)
Because of expectations, because of change, If Beale Street Could Talk demands the look behind. In this novel we have a synthesis of so many of Baldwin's literary concerns. Familiar is the brooding sensitive cat reared in Harlem, his struggle toward some sense of clarity and achievement in his art and life and the forces which compel him toward some form of destruction…. Familiar, too, is the attack on the use of religion to shut out the horror of the streets, that horror a reflection of the horror and mystery within one's experience. The presence of the fathers, driven before the sons to destruction, has also been typical. But...
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A "protest play," unfortunately, always has a hard time of it artistically, and even more so if, like Baldwin, the playwright doth protest too much. And not only too much but too much too soon. Right at the outset [of Blues for Mister Charlie] we are clobbered with a tirade which is an inflammatory inventory of all the injustices toward the Negro, and, justified as these grievances are, they strike a false note: … Baldwin would shudder at the thought of having written a pop-art play. But that is what it is: pop art and agit-prop. (p. 48)
What is most serious is that the play pretends to be about racial injustice and the Negro's struggle for his human rights, while it is actually about something else. I am not saying that Baldwin is deliberately deceiving us, which would be bad enough, but that he is deceiving himself, which is, artistically speaking, worse. (p. 49)
It seems to me that Blues for Mister Charlie is a homosexual play, which would be fine if it came out and admitted it. But so far from doing this, it actually sneers at homosexuality: according to Richard, all white women, however eagerly they make love to Negroes, have "got some piss-assed, faggoty white boy on a string" whom they will cravenly marry. Yet persecuted blacks and persecuting whites seem to become subliminally identified with victimized but sexually free, noble homosexuals and tormenting, sexually frustrated heterosexuals; it...
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[With The Devil Finds Work] James Baldwin has written a commentary on the movies as visionary, and unusual, as D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classical American Literature.
The nature of his theme is hinted at in a recalling of a moment (the moment) of apostasy—when Baldwin decided to go to a proscribed theatre matinée, and in so doing, put in peril his religious calling…. He sees The Exorcist as an example of the power to possess that movies may have in an age almost without faith—and dismisses it for its 'hysterical banality'. In dismissing it, though, he enriches us by invoking once more his vision of life as an experience both terrible and terrifying (favoured adjectives in his apocalyptic). He believes that black people, and certain other threatened (and threatening) social outsiders, are the last custodians to this experience—which movies, in general, betray.
Apart from The Birth of a Nation (appalled, he acknowledges it to be a masterpiece: 'an elaborate justification of mass murder,' 'it has the Niagara force of an obsession') and You Only Live Once …, all the films he writes about veer somewhere between the fourth- and fifth-rate. But minute sins can be the pretext for great sermons, and James Baldwin rails at length, and sonorously, against the emollient distorting of terrifying lives that occurs in Lady Sings the Blues, or Lawrence of Arabia,...
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The Devil Finds Work is a sermon with a celluloid text….
To take the movies as a source for instances of wilful bad faith is hardly a case of tendentiousness….
[There] are times here when Hollywood's falsenesses—even in such well-meaning pieces as In The Heat of The Night, The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner—are assumed to be more deliberate than they are likely to have been. There is only one thing which Hollywood tries to do on purpose and that is to make money….
I am not sure that [Baldwin] will ever be satisfied. He is so full of pity and terror that it would need a tragic medium more noble, more generally honoured than anything contemporary culture can provide to purge him of them. Baldwin has been one of the few essential novelists of our time and one cannot but regret the impatience which has driven him to the kind of free-associational prose libre he delivers here….
[The] irony of his position is that only in art can he make a statement of the profundity and the complexity to which his wounding capacity to see both sides has given him the key. Yet it seems that he now flinches from the full use of his art, the art of the novel…. To be true to his talent, Baldwin must resume the redeeming work of honouring specificity; true to his anger, he must remain in a world of generalising denunciation, a Jeremiah without a...
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Of all the well-known novelists of the day, James Baldwin is among the warmest, the most companionable, the least ironic. So many contemporary writers seem incapable of presenting loyalty, innocence or happiness, especially family happiness, but Baldwin inhabits these feelings with great naturalness and intensity. He can show, as he does more than once in Just Above My Head, parents and children exchanging gifts at Christmas or during a reunion. The family members have tears in their eyes, not of regret but of anticipation, not of loneliness but of love. Looked at merely as a literary fashion (and it is, of course, much, much more), the direct depiction of such ardor is unique today; one has to go back to Dickens to find a similar impulse in a major writer, though in Dickens the happy moments are all too often bathetic, whereas in Baldwin they glow with the steadiness and clarity of a flame within a glass globe….
[The book's most remarkable character is Julia]. Julia is a hypocrite, an eerily controlled monster of vanity and manipulation bent on destroying her mother and seducing her father. Of such stuff melodramas are made, and Baldwin drains every bit of juice from this juiciest of material. True melodrama, however, with its demand for villains and heroes, is a failure of compassion, and Baldwin is above all a wise and compassionate writer. Accordingly, once Julia achieves her monstrous goals …, she turns in terror from...
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It isn't hard to see why James Baldwin in particular has chosen to shape his sixth novel along the lines of a saga in the contemporary mode. His fiction has often been attacked, notably by younger black writers in the 1960's, as too personal, too patently a working-out of inner conflict at the price of distorting the realities of race and racial conflict in America….
It may well be that "Just Above My Head" is Baldwin's attempt to answer such criticism. The novel takes in 30 years in the lives of a group of friends, who start out preaching and singing in Harlem churches, survive (or do not survive) incest, war, poverty, the civil-rights struggle, as well as wealth and love and fame…. (p. 3)
From this account, one would guess that "Just Above My Head" would be sprawling, hellish, joyous, as well as thick with political, economic and social reference. The curious fact is that it's so narrow, so tame. Baldwin's focus is still the private self; he has given us another of his warm, melancholy, basically likable novels and hasn't really made use of his elaborate generational-historical scheme…. The truth is that outward events as such do not call forth Baldwin's artistry. He does not care deeply enough as an artist about their concreteness. Even when Arthur and his entourage are attacked by racist police in an Atlanta street, Baldwin the novelist is only interested, only compelled to art, by the protective...
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It is Baldwin's sentimental and poorly argued attempt to present homosexuality as some form of superior erotic enlightenment that continually slackens the power of Just Above My Head. The sentimentality results from a tendency to overstatement, pretension, and pomposity, as well as the creation of situations and responses the sole function of which is to prove the degradation of black people at the behest of racism and sexual convention. The degradation is wrought with existential cliches to demonstrate that suffering and alienation form the high road to awareness, and that he or she who is most painfully alienated is somehow most human and, as Robert Bone once angrily pointed out [see excerpt above], stands as guiding priest or priestess at the intersections of human ambivalence….
Baldwin loves the black church for the depth of its music and its great feeling of collective exaltation, but hates it for its provincialism; he seeks in his writing to combine the language of the Bible and of his church people with that of Henry James and the hip argots of the streets and jazz. The results are frequently ineffectual especially when the characters are made to vent long monologues about love and danger, nakedness and loneliness, outrage and self-pity—the subjects Baldwin belabors most. Then his lecture voice takes over and everybody sounds about the same.
Yet there are many instances when the literary power that...
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[Despite Baldwin's] absorption in culture's complexities and conundrums, despite his indictments of racism, his deepest impulses are religious, mythological and romantic. Certain themes emerge again and again in his work: that race does not exist, finally, except in a moral dimension; that we are one another's history and thus cannot abuse one another without abusing ourselves; that salvation and damnation are real, and depend upon our ability or our failure to love. Race and sex are the arenas in which we fight for love. Our racial and sexual histories are the opponents that must be bested….
[Love] is the principle that binds people in his novels—love between fathers and sons, men and men, men and women; love among blacks and love between blacks and whites. It is usually threatened: society stifles the parental love we expect and thwarts the romantic love we seek. Familial love, in Baldwin's books, has a sweetly elegiac quality. Erotic love, heterosexual and homosexual, has the dramatic, ecstatic fervor a preacher employs when describing the glories of heaven. For Baldwin, as for D. H. Lawrence, sex is a comprehensive metaphor—too comprehensive, I fear. Still, it is wrong to accuse him of lacking a historical sense; that sense is apocalyptic, not analytic. History provides the landscape and weapons for our spiritual battles. The battles themselves take place in another dimension, where words like truth and freedom replace those...
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[Just Above My Head is] a melancholy piece of creation. Swollen …, meandering, awkwardly colloquial, and pretentiously elevated by turns, the book agitatedly contains four or five major themes that never are brought into coherence with one another. Dealing with experiences that clearly have meant a great deal to Baldwin, it is a novel stuck halfway between life and art, with none of the originality or fatefulness of either.
The mélange of themes I mentioned includes family relationships, religious passion and its repudiation, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Baldwin's narrator, one Hall Montana, is in many respects his alter ego in a damaging sense. This is especially so in the bitter anti-white strain that runs spasmodically and inelegantly through the book …, although there is one section, an apologia for homosexuality that seems quite unrelated to the rest of the novel but at least has an eloquence lacking everywhere else, in which Baldwin's taking over for his fictional character seems appropriate….
The intricacies of [personal] relationships are worked out against a political background that is never sharply seen but whose remembered atrocities seem to feed Baldwin's diffuse and inexpressive rage….
Montana is "trying to piece together this story … attempting to stammer out this tale" and to do this he has "had to strip myself naked."...
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The novelistic walls of "Just Above My Head" bulge and leak. But the form Baldwin chooses to write in no longer matters. His great and peculiar power is to re-create the maddening halfway house that the black man finds himself in in late-twentieth-century America. Baldwin is a prophet, a master of exhortation. Only weariness makes his voice crack. (p. 219)
Whitney Balliet, "Father and Son," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 41. November 26, 1979, pp. 218-19.
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Moralistic fervor, a high literary seriousness, the authority of the survivor, of the witness—these qualities made Baldwin unique. In his best work, he is drawn to the ways in which life can go wildly wrong, to examinations of the damage done the individual by society. Another bloodied stone is always waiting to be turned over. A sense of mission has guided Baldwin's development as a writer. He was truly born with his subject matter, and yet for a long time his work showed a feeling of distrust for the promises of "pure" literature, a sense of its impotence, both personally and as a political weapon. In his youth Baldwin wanted to be identified not as a black but as a writer. It is a conflict he has never resolved.
Just Above My Head is a long and ambitious novel in which we find again many of Baldwin's obsessions. He returns to the Harlem and the church of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953); to the homosexuality of Giovanni's Room (1955) and Another Country (1962); and to the social and political outrage that has inspired all his work. Whether the visions of the past are still vivid is another question….
[The voice of Hall, the narrator,] is not very fluent and this makes for something of a strain in such a long work. The burden of editorial omniscience, including what his brother felt while having sex, forces Hall's imagination to do more work than it can bear…....
(The entire section is 1016 words.)