Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Baldwin emphasizes the theme of opposition between the chaotic world and the human need for community with a series of opposing images, especially darkness and light. The narrator repeatedly associates light with the desire to articulate or give form to the needs and passions that arise out of inner darkness. He also opposes light as an idea of order to darkness in the world, the chaos that adults endure, but of which they normally cannot speak to children.
The opposition of light and darkness is often paired with the opposition of inside and outside. Sonny’s problem as an artist is that inside himself he feels intensely the storm of human passion; to feel whole and free, he must bring this storm outside by gaining artistic control over it, by articulating it for some listener. Inside is also the location of the family, the place of order that is opposed to outside, the dark and predatory world.
These and other opposing images help to articulate Baldwin’s themes of opposition between the meaningless world and the meaning-creating community. The artist, by giving voice to the inner chaos of needs and passions, unites humankind in the face of the outer chaos of random and continuous suffering. The artist helps to create a circle of light in the midst of surrounding darkness.
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In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a new form of jazz music was being developed. The style, called "bebop," "bop," or later, "hardbop," centered on a very complex and abstract type of soloing during familiar tunes. Often in the solo, only the chords of the original melody would remain the same, and the tune would bear no resemblance to more traditional versions. The soloist would also play at blistering speeds. The earliest bebop musicians were trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, pianist Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker is often credited as the originator of the genre.
Bebop became very controversial at a time when jazz was gaining respectability, and many of the traditional jazz musicians opposed it. Where traditional jazz music and its more popular subform, swing, encouraged audiences to dance and enjoy themselves, bebop focused attention on the soloist and on his technical virtuosity. In this way, it was akin to other forms of modernist art, which exalted difficulty and formal experimentation. The English poet Philip Larkin expressed this association between bebop and modernist art when he condemned what he considered the three main figures of modernism, "Picasso, Pound and Parker," referring to artist Pablo Picasso, poet Ezra Pound, and musician Charlie Parker. Bebop was intellectualized where jazz and swing were pleasant and sensual, and the emotions that bebop expressed were often dark and...
(The entire section is 794 words.)
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Narration and Point of View
"Sonny's Blues" chronicles the relationship between two brothers at various points in their lives. Baldwin arranges the story's events to show the building of an understanding between the two brothers. Sonny's brother, who is never named in the story, narrates "Sonny's Blues." Although the story focuses on the events of Sonny's life, the fact that readers hear his brother's reactions to and feelings about Sonny's actions broadens the scope of the story to include the brother's life as well. Baldwin uses this double focus to bring out one of his most important themes: the growing understanding between estranged brothers.
The story is set in New York City, although at one point Sonny speaks in a letter from his prison cell upstate. Baldwin varies the time in which the story is set. By blending the time periods together with little separation or even clear notice, Baldwin establishes a sense of duration. Sonny's brother narrates the important events of Sonny's life as if they had happened at the same time. The fact that the events all share a sense of suffering or hardship or alienation hammers home the realization—which Sonny's brother finally arrives at in the jazz club—that suffering has been the dominant mode of Sonny's life. Baldwin arranges the story's events thematically—as opposed to arranging them chronologically—to emphasize their content, instead of their sequence or causality....
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For most of the story, Baldwin stays within the conventions governing the genre of social realism. The narrative breaks dramatically, however, in the closing scene at the jazz club: as the narrator tires to explain in words the powerful hold that the music has over him, the language becomes richer, the metaphors more extravagant and complex, and the evocations more elusive.
Sonny himself could not tell his own story so thoughtfully: by filtering his life through the eyes of another, Baldwin is able to offer a point of view that is not corrupted by self-pity or sentimental self-righteous indignation. The reader, moreover, may recognize that even though this is a story about Sonny and his transformation, the narrator, too, undergoes significant changes as he comes to embrace Sonny's chosen profession.
Perhaps most crucially, though, Baldwin disrupts the chronology of Sonny's story: the narrative opens with the news of Sonny's arrest, moves forward to Grace's death and Sonny's release, moves backward to chronicle Sonny's slide into addiction and the deaths of their uncle and then their mother before concluding in the present moment of the nightclub scene. By refusing to present the events of the narrative in a sequential manner, Baldwin offers a strong commentary on the need to actively reclaim a past, and to work towards reconstructing a history for oneself.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
For a short story that focuses on just one central character, "Sonny's Blues" invites a remarkably wide-ranging set of questions regarding its form and content.
1. Music, and specifically the history of African American music, is an important subject in this story. Sonny plays jazz, of course, but the title also refers to the musical genre of the blues. The story opens with the narrator listening to the sound of R&B filtering through the open door of a barroom, and later he and Sonny stop to listen to gospel revival on a street corner. One might try to trace the connections between these styles of music and how they relate to the African American experience.
2. Sonny's story is not told in a linear, chronological sequence. The tale begins with his arrest and moves through a series of flashbacks before ending up in the present at Sonny's performance. Why would Baldwin choose to disrupt the chronology in this manner? How would the impact of the story differ had Baldwin began with the death of the brothers' uncle? How might Baldwin be commenting upon the difficulty of presenting history and clear narratives of history?
3. The story of Grace, the narrator's daughter who dies of polio, occupies just a few paragraphs in this story, and yet her tragedy can be said to be extremely important to the themes of suffering, innocence, and guilt. How does her death impact the narrator's relationship with his brother?
4. The ending...
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As is the case with many of Baldwin's more than twenty works of fiction and non-fiction, the perceived need to escape from a threatening and oppressive environment is a central concern in this tale of an aspiring jazz pianist growing up on the "vivid killing streets" of Harlem in the late 1950s. Narrated by his unnamed older brother through the use of multiple and extended flashbacks, the story chronicles Sonny's life from his return to New York after a stint in the Navy to his fall into addiction, his arrest for peddling heroin, and his appearance on the stage of a downtown nightclub. Sonny's downfall and subsequent redemption are set against larger social issues of racism, poverty, drug abuse, and crime: Baldwin suggests that these problems are endemic in a community unable to offer other, more positive and liberating outlets to its denizens.
The narrator recognizes that his brother's self-destructive proclivities are not unique, but rather representative of an entire generation of young aimless black men who "were growing up in a rush" and "whose heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage." This rage gets channeled into solipsistic and nihilistic practices, and the implication is that Sonny's retreat from the world around him is engendered by a whole host of external forces which prevent social mobility.
While racism is not explicitly identified as the primary source for Sonny's...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: Jazz innovators, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Bud Powell either live in or spend a great deal of time playing in New York City. Clubs such as the Village Vanguard and Birdland are world-famous for their revolutionary jazz offerings.
Today: After a long period of drought, bebop-influenced jazz (now viewed as "traditional") is again popular in New York City. Players such as Joshua Redman and Roy Ayres, known as "Young Lions," bring the old sounds back to the old clubs like the Vanguard and the Blue Note, while jazzman Wynton Marsalis has an office at Lincoln Center, the epitome of musical classicism.
1950s: Heroin is an underground drug, synonymous with jazzmen, beatniks and low-lifes. Although many artists, musicians, and urban dwellers are addicted to the drug, the general population is primarily unaware of its existence.
Today: Heroin use is surging among young people after decades of unpopularity. Musician Kurt Cobain of the group Nirvana kills himself in 1994 after battling unsuccessfully with a heroin addiction.
1957: In Little Rock, Arkansas, federal troops are needed to integrate Central High School after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus refuses to let black children enter the building.
1997: President and former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton seeks to integrate his White House Cabinet, hoping to make...
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Topics for Further Study
Read about the development of bebop jazz music in the 1940s. Who were some of the important figures? How was bebop different from traditional jazz? Why was it controversial?
How were black people treated in Northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s? How did daily life in the North differ from daily life in the South for a working-class black family? Was Sonny's brother, with his middle-class life, an exception?
Investigate the role of the church in Harlem today. What services does the church provide? How do the roles of religious institutions in neighborhoods like Harlem differ from their roles in other parts of the city?
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When asked in interviews about his formative influences and literary forebears, Baldwin has claimed a debt to many nineteenth and twentieth-century authors—Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner among them. Certainly the social issues which concerned the realist writers of the past century—particularly the degradations faced by the urban poor and the oppressive environment which inhibits creative and intellectual growth—resonate in Baldwin's work, while Faulkner's representations of race relations, if not necessarily his modernist formal techniques, have informed Baldwin's sensibilities.
Baldwin's work has obvious affiliations with Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, a text which, like "Sonny's Blues," chronicles the rage of a young black man caught up in a hostile urban landscape. Despite his many reservations about the novel, Baldwin saw himself as participating in a tradition of which Wright is a central figure, as is evident from the title of his 1955 collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin has also talked at length about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and the humiliations and degradations faced by Ellison's black characters in this text find a renewed expression in "Sonny's Blues."
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As one story among eight in Going to Meet the Man, "Sonny's Blues" gains depth and coherence when read against the others in the collection. The title story in particular, which recounts through a series of flashbacks the emotional core of a sadistic white Southern sheriff who brutalizes his black prisoners during the Civil Rights movement, offers a compelling counterpoint to the frustrations and anger felt by of Sonny and his brother.
Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell it On the Mountain, was published just four years before "Sonny's Blues," and in this story (which also incorporates many autobiographical elements of Baldwin's life) a young man's initiation into adulthood is marked by religious, racial, and familial strife. Another Country, written in the early sixties, has as one central character, Rufus Scott, a disillusioned jazz drummer whose experiences of racial prejudice and feelings of alienation from family and society can be read productively against the character of Sonny.
For an important political and historical gloss on "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin's personal essays and cultural criticism provide much insight, In Notes of a Native Son and in particular the early essay "The Harlem Ghetto," Baldwin discusses what it is to be a black man in America at mid-century. The Fire Next Time, perhaps his more celebrated collection of essays, claims in part that concepts of identity based only on skin color are...
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What Do I Read Next?
Go Telll it on the Mountain, Baldwin's landmark novel about the condition of African Americans in the United States.
Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin's highly regarded collection of essays which discuss race issues.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is another landmark novel about the position of blacks in American society.
Mexico City Blues (1959) by Jack Kerouac is a song-like novel written in the style of jazz compositions. Kerouac was a leader of the Beat Movement in literature, a group of New York City writers in the 1940s and 1950s who were influenced by the milieu of Harlem, bebop jazz music, blues, and drugs.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bigsby, C.W.E, Introduction to The Black American Writer, Vol. 1, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969.
Howe, Irving, "Black Boys and Native Sons," in Dissent, Autumn, 1963.
Macebuh, Stanley, James Baldwin: A Critical Study, Third Press, 1973.
Pratt, Louis H., Twayne's U.S. Authors Series: James Baldwin, G.K. Hall & Co., 1978.
Reilly, John M., '"Sonny's Blues': James Baldwin's Image of Black Community," in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Keith Kinnamon, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Albert, Richard N., "The Jazz-Blues Motif in Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues'," in College Literature, Spring, 1984, pp. 178-85.
This article discusses the use that Baldwin makes of music in "Sonny's Blues," and explains the role that jazz and blues play in the African-American tradition.
Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America Yale University Press, 1958.
A classic, if somewhat dated, historical evaluation of the place of the novel in the African-American literary tradition and the place of African-American novels in American literary history. A "Postscript" concentrates specifically on James Baldwin.
Hakutam, Yoshinobu, and Robert Butler, The City in African-American Literature, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
Containing two essays specifically about James...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Fabré, Michel. “James Baldwin in Paris: Love and Self-Discovery.” In From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Hardy, Clarence E. James Baldwin’s God: Sex, Hope, and Crisis in Black Holiness Culture. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.
Kinnamon, Keneth, comp. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Miller, D. Quentin, ed. Re-viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981.
Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.
Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Tomlinson, Robert. “’Payin’ One’s Dues’: Expatriation as Personal...
(The entire section is 193 words.)