Sonny's Blues, James Baldwin
"Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin
The following entry presents criticism on Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues."
One of the most eminent writers in post-World War II American literature, Baldwin garnered widespread critical acclaim for his story "Sonny's Blues," which was published in the collection Going to Meet the Man. Set in the early 1950s in New York City, the story is narrated by an unnamed man who relates his attempts to come to terms with his long estranged brother Sonny, a jazz musician. In this work, Baldwin drew on many of his own experiences to explore the issues of racial conflict, individual identity, and the complexity of human motivations.
Plot and Major Characters
In "Sonny's Blues" a conservative black teacher narrates his attempts to comprehend the alienated perspective of his brother Sonny, an unemployed jazz pianist and occasional heroin user. Upon hearing that Sonny has been arrested for possession of narcotics, the unnamed teacher refuses to become involved. As the story proceeds, he is led to a personal awareness of human frailty through the death of his young daughter. Recalling how his mother sympathetically comforted his father when his father's brother was intentionally hit and killed by a car driven by a drunken white man, the narrator acts on his mother's request that he offer the same sympathy to Sonny in times of duress. Listening to Sonny's jazz solo at a bar in Greenwich Village, the narrator is finally led to an understanding of universal suffering and of his brother's attitudes.
Major ThemesIn "Sonny's Blues" Baldwin presents an existential world in which suffering characterizes man's basic state. The story's principal characters, in addition to struggling through an absurd world devoid of inherent meaning, must also persevere in a society that tolerates racism. Baldwin addresses these issues by employing metaphors of darkness and anxiety, incorporating images of confinement, and offering portraits of life in contemporary Harlem. Music in "Sonny's Blues," specifically jazz music, is likewise utilized as a controlling metaphor to examine questions of heritage, society, and racial relations in America. Music as a means of communication between people is also considered a meaningful theme in "Sonny's Blues." Additional themes include brotherly love, familial relationships, and, as with Baldwin's longer works, the search for identity, specifically what it means to be an African-American male in mid-twentieth century American society.
"Sonny's Blues" is considered one of Baldwin's most compelling and effective pieces of short fiction, as well as a deft portrayal of the substantial role jazz music has played in American society in general and in the African-American community in particular. Many critics have evaluated "Sonny's Blues" against Baldwin's longer works, focusing on the themes of suffering and redemption. A few critics have noted inconsistencies in the story's tone; others have argued that Baldwin's treatment of social and political issues is too heavy-handed. Even so, "Sonny's Blues" is considered one of Baldwin's finest works, a succinct and moving exploration of familial and racial relations in modern American society.
SOURCE: "'Sonny's Blues': James Baldwin's Image of Black Community," in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 4, No. 2, July, 1970, pp. 56-60.
[In the following essay, which is generally regarded as among the most influential treatments of "Sonny's Blues, " Reilly examines Baldwin's sympathetic evocation of black community.]
A critical commonplace holds that James Baldwin writes better essays than he does fiction or drama; nevertheless, his leading theme—the discovery of identity—is nowhere presented more successfully than in the short story "Sonny's Blues." Originally published in Partisan Review in 1957 and reprinted in the collection of stories Going to Meet the Man in 1965, "Sonny's Blues" not only states dramatically the motive for Baldwin's famous polemics in the cause of Black freedom, but it also provides an esthetic linking his work, in all literary genres, with the cultures of the Black ghetto.
The fundamental movement of "Sonny's Blues" represents the slow accommodation of a first-person narrator's consciousness to the meaning of his younger brother's way of life. The process leads Baldwin's readers to a sympathetic engagement with the young man by providing a knowledge of the human motives of the youths whose lives normally are reported to others only by their inclusion in statistics of school dropout rates, drug usage, and unemployment....
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SOURCE: "The Black Musician: The Black Hero as Light Bearer," in Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature, The Dial Press, 1972, pp. 135-52.
[In the following essay, Williams analyzes the figure of the musician in African-American literature, concluding that in Baldwin's fiction it functions as "the embodiment of alienation and estrangement, which the figure of the artist becomes in much of twentieth century literature."]
The Drifters are in the fetid bosom of Manhattan
Rocking the Apollo like an exploding battleship:
The bobbing Black crowd reach long upward
The short-skirted young girls dog in the aisles . . . The Drifters are in the big Apple tonight
sing us a song . . . SANG!
When I see them strut to the foot lights, faintly
smiling amongst themselves, giving measured "cool" response
to the screaming, the dancing, the reaching, and then looking
into the crowd and darkness, swagger a retreat with that
Elemental sexuality (that has been our only hope for so long)
I love those black bastards with all the heart I dare.
from "Neon Diaspora"
The conflict with whites over rights, privileges and status has played a large and important part in the history of Black people in...
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SOURCE: "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': A Message in Music," in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1974, pp. 231-33.
[In the following essay, Goldman examines Baldwin's use of musical structure and leitmotifs in the narrative and dialogue of "Sonny's Blues."]
In "Sonny's Blues" theme, form, and image blend into perfect harmony and rise to a thundering crescendo. The story, written in 1957 but carrying a vital social message for us today, tells of two black brothers' struggle to understand one another. The older brother, a straight-laced Harlem algebra teacher, is the unnamed narrator who represents, in his anonymity, everyman's brother; the younger man is Sonny, a jazz pianist who, when the story opens, has just been arrested for peddling and using heroin. As in so much of Baldwin's fiction, chronological time is upset. Instead the subject creates its own form. In this story of a musician, four time sequences mark four movements while the leitmotifs of this symphonic lesson in communication are provided by the images of sound. Musical terms along with words like "hear" and "listen" give the title a double meaning. This story about communication between people then reaches its climax when the narrator finally hears his brother's sorrow in his music, hears, that is, Sonny's blues.
The story begins when the narrator learns of Sonny's arrest in a most impersonal...
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SOURCE: "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': Complicated and Simple," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 353-57.
[In the following essay, Murray explores themes of self-identity, escape, loss, and transcendence in "Sonny's Blues."]
One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.
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...
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SOURCE: "James Baldwin's Blues and the Function of Art," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 143-48.
[In the following essay, Lobb discusses Baldwin's exploration of the nature and purpose of art.]
James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues," first published in 1957, has been anthologized several times since its inclusion in Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man (1965). It is a fine and immediately appealing story, but it has never received critical treatment adequate to its complexity. The best analysis—an essay by John M. Reilly [in Negro American Literature Forum, 1970]—rightly asserts the centrality of the blues in the story as a means of personal and social communication. In the last scene, Reilly sees the reconciliation of the narrator and his brother (which certainly does occur) and an affirmation of the blues as "a metaphor of Black community." But the meaning of the blues is, as I hope to show, rather wider than Reilly seems to think, and is part of a larger theme which is conveyed almost wholly through the story's images. "Sonny's Blues" is Baldwin's most concise and suggestive statement about the nature and function of art, and is doubly artful in making that statement through life situations.
Throughout most of the story, the narrator is unable to understand his younger brother Sonny, who is a jazz pianist. He feels guilt...
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SOURCE: "Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in 'Sonny's Blues'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 367-72.
[In the following essay, Byerman considers Baldwin's story "a study of the nature and relationship of art and language. "]
"Sonny's Blues" has generally been accorded status as the best of James Baldwin's short stories. It tells of the developing relationship between Sonny, a musician and drug addict, and the narrator, his brother, who feels a conflict between the security of his middle-class life and the emotional risks of brotherhood with Sonny. The critics, who differ on whether the story is primarily Sonny's or the narrator's, generally agree that it resolves its central conflict. If, however, resolution is not assumed but taken as problematical, then new thematic and structural possibilities are revealed. The story becomes a study of the nature and relationship of art and language. The commentary on the story has centered on the moral issue; the purpose of this essay is to focus on the underlying aesthetic question.
According to Jonathan Culler [in Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, 1975], resolution can be accomplished in a story when a message is received or a code deciphered. In most cases the message is withheld in some manner—through deception, innocence, or ignorance—until a key moment...
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SOURCE: "The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues'," in College Literature, Vol. XI, No. 2, 1984, pp. 178-85.
[In the following essay, Albert examines the connotations of jazz and blues images and allusions in Baldwin's story in relation to the themes of individualism and alienation.]
James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," a popular selection among editors of anthologies used in introductory college literature courses, is one of his most enduring stories because it is less polemical than many of his later efforts and because it offers several common literary themes: individualism, alienation, and "Am I my brother's keeper?" The story has also generated some perceptive critical views, some of which emphasize Baldwin's metaphorical use of the blues. However, none of the criticism bothers to look more closely at the significance of the jazz and blues images and allusions in relation to the commonly-agreed-upon basic themes of individualism and alienation.
A closer examination of Baldwin's use of jazz and blues forms and of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, the character Creole, and the song, "Am I Blue?" reveals some solid support for the basic themes, as well as some possible important thematic and structural flaws that might cause some readers to question whether Baldwin really understood the nature of the jazz/blues motif that he used. On the other hand, he may have intentionally...
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SOURCE: "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': Childhood, Light and Art," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, December, 1985, pp. 197-205.
[In the following essay, Clark analyzes Baldwin's use of light and dark imagery and the role of art in "Sonny's Blues."]
"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin is a sensitive story about the reconciliation of two brothers, but it is much more than that. It is, in addition, an examination of the importance of the black heritage and of the central importance of music in that heritage. Finally, the story probes the central role that art must play in human existence. To examine all of these facets of human existence is a rather formidable undertaking in a short story, even in a longish short story such as this one. Baldwin not only undertakes this task, but he does it superbly. One of the central ways that Baldwin fuses all of these complex elements is by using a metaphor of childhood, which is supported by ancillary images of light and darkness. He does the job so well that the story is a tour de force, a penetrating study of American culture.
One of the most important passages in this story is the description of Harlem's stultifying environment, a place where children are "smothered": "Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap." The implicit...
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SOURCE: "James Baldwin's Vision of Otherness in 'Sonny's Blues' and Giovanni's Room," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 69-80.
[In the following essay, Bieganowski compares the treatment of the theme of alienation in "Sonny's Blues" and Baldwin's novel.]
For several decades now, James Baldwin has maintained his position of importance among black writers through his novels, stories, essays, and interviews, generating continued scholarly interest. In her recent book on Baldwin [James Baldwin, 1980], Carolyn Sylvander points to the "nuclear ideas and beliefs" around which Baldwin's works have developed and grown over the years. For many readers, Baldwin establishes as the basis of his fiction "the quest for identity," for "true, fundamental being" and the dislocations of the modern world. For instance, Shirley Ann Williams summarizes the core of Baldwin's fiction [in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Keneth Kinnamon, 1974]: "Most of his characters have at the center of their portrayal an isolation from the society, the culture, even each other." While Baldwin's characters do show deep alienation from the world about them and certainly from other people, most significantly Baldwin's major characters show a profound alienation from themselves. That tension directs the energies of his stories.
One of the most recurrent but...
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SOURCE: "Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': The Scapegoat Metaphor," in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. IX, 1991, pp. 189-98.
[In the following essay, Robertson traces the development of the scapegoat metaphor in Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues."]
In James Baldwin's only book of short stories, Going to Meet the Man, "Sonny's Blues" stands out as the best, most memorable. This story is both realistic and symbolic, part autobiography and part fiction. So memorable is "Sonny's Blues" that a student once put it at the top of a list of thirty stories read for a course in fiction. She commented, "The story haunts you; its beauty continues in your mind long after the original reading and discussion." The story's haunting beauty comes from our participation in the scapegoat metaphor that creates the intricate tracery which holds the story together, forming a graceful spiral, a pattern of correspondences which informs and entices as it helps us to be free.
The scapegoat metaphor is developed through several images, the most important of which is music, with its links to suffering and brotherhood. But we are only dimly aware of this scapegoat pattern until we see the final, startling biblical image of the scotch and milk drink, "the very cup of trembling," which follows Sonny's playing of the blues and which clarifies the story's meaning. This "cup of trembling", then, is at...
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SOURCE: "Baldwin, Bebop, and 'Sonny's Blues'," in Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature, edited by Joseph Trimmer and Tilly Warnock, National Council of Teachers of English, 1992, pp. 165-76.
[In the following essay, Savery places Baldwin's treatment of music within its historical and cultural context.]
Well before James Baldwin died in 1987, the literary critical establishment had made up its mind about him. Thus, there was hardly any surprise when Lee A. Daniels's front page New York Times obituary lauded, "James Baldwin, Eloquent Essayist In Behalf of Civil Rights, Is Dead." Equally unsurprising was Mark Feeney's Boston Globe "Appreciation" entitled "A Forceful Voice on the Issue of Race." What James Baldwin had become was, to a large extent, black America's interpreter of black America to and for white America. As such, Baldwin was essentially mummified into the "Voice of the Civil Rights Movement," a historical relic of the 1950s through the 1970s. But even in this position, Baldwin was not always on solid ground. In 1963, the same year Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, considered by many his quintessential work, Amiri Baraka called Baldwin, in "Brief Reflections on Two Hot Shots," the "Joan of Arc of the cocktail party" and characterized his work as "the cry, the spavined whine and plea" (later published in 1966)....
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SOURCE: "No Other Tale to Tell: 'Sonny's Blues' and Waiting for the Rain," in Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1995, pp. 195-209.
[In the following essay, Tsomondo compares Baldwin's and Charles Mungoshi's view of history as evinced in "Sonny's Blues " and Waiting for the Rain.]
In Tropics of Discourse Haydn White, identifies a marked hostility to historical consciousness in twentieth-century literature. The modern writer, he observes, "uses the historian to represent the extreme example of repressed sensibility in the novel and theatre." White cites Gide, Ibsen, Malraux, Camus, Huxley, and Sartre among others. He traces the hostility to history back to Nietzsche, who maintained that history cheats man by leading him to believe that whatever is worth doing has been done, thus robbing him of "that impulse to heroic exertion" that humanizes, if only temporarily, his absurd world. Man's memory, according to Nietzsche is the source of a false morality that encourages indulgence in debilitating voyeurism.
White's twentieth-century writer is Eurocentrically defined; and Nietzsche's history assumes an uninterrupted vista down the corridors of time, aided by the supposition that whatever has been done is deemed "good" in some universal sense. George Eliot's Casaubon, whom White sets forth as the English exemplification of the "perils of antiquarianism" may serve also to...
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Jones, Harry L. "Style, Form, and Content in the Short Fiction of James Baldwin." In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O'Daniel, pp. 143-50. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977.
Considers "Sonny's Blues" "the most perfectly realized story" in Going to Meet the Man.
Levensohn, Alan. "The Artist Must Outwit the Celebrity." The Christian Science Monitor 57, No. 301 (November 18, 1965): 15.
Positive assessment of Going to Meet the Man, with particular emphasis on "Sonny's Blues."
Mosher, Marlene. "Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues'." Explicator 40, No. 4 (Summer 1982): 59.
Notes religious allusions in "Sonny's Blues."
——. "James Baldwin's Blues." CLA Journal XXVI, No. 1 (1982): 112-24.
Explores Baldwin's use of the blues as a metaphor in "Sonny's Blues."
Ognibene, Elaine R. "Black Literature Revisited: 'Sonny's Blues'." English Journal 60, No. 1 (January 1971): 36-7.
Examines the principal themes in "Sonny's Blues."
Pratt, Louis H. "The Fear and the Fury." In James Baldwin, pp. 31-49. Twayne Publishers, 1978....
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