Baldwin, James 1924–
Baldwin, a Black American novelist, essayist, and playwright, is best known for his novel Another Country. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
James Baldwin's Another Country is a novel about love and hate, and more about hate than love. In its totality and with all due allowance for occasional weaknesses in the writing, it is one of the most powerful novels of our time. The complexities of love have seldom been explored more subtly or at greater depth, and perhaps the power of hate has never been communicated with a more terrifying force.
Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1962 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, July 7, 1962; used with permission), July 7, 1962.
James Baldwin [is] unquestionably one of the most brilliant young writers in America today. A mad reality confronts all our writers today. But it is more mad—and possibly even more maddening—for Baldwin, a Negro, who, because of his brilliance, his eloquence, his honesty, his courage, his superb intelligence, has become a spokesman, in a sense a captive spokesman, for his people and, as well, a kind of minister without portfolio for both black and white on black-and-white relations….
If Go Tell It on the Mountain is his most free, most creative book, Notes of a Native Son is his most natural and graceful one. So much of the essays derives from the novel, or the other way round. The pattern has not yet been fixed, the pressures have not yet multiplied. It is a portrait of the author not in search of a theme. All thought flows, all is grace, because Baldwin is writing solely from himself, from an inner necessity, which generates a variety of approaches and an affluence of themes and variations. It is a most satisfactory book of essays, new, contemporary, tempered and exhilarating. If there are mysteries in the collection, they are good mysteries, that is, rewarding, and the dominant clarities require them….
Nobody Knows My Name is a rare and great book, yet one senses in it a kind of tragedy—not flaw, but tragedy. Society has somehow got hold of him in the wrong sort of way. Some subtle deflection has set in. The essays correspond to a part of himself only. He is engaged profoundly, yet partially. There are, one feels, enormities in Baldwin that are not engaged—curiosity, mysticism, bawdiness, laughter, poetry (dark and haunted), tenderness. Is he doing, metaphorically, what Lenin did, refusing to listen to Beethoven because it made him gentle? In order to be most effective must one become monolithic, steel, Stalin?
Harvey Breit, "James Baldwin and Two Footnotes" (© 1963 by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 5-23.
James Baldwin's most valuable quality as a writer is authenticity…. Baldwin is a very conscious artist in all his fiction. Represented experience must have a meaning. And he applies all his skill and intelligence to making sure that the shock and pain of this meaning will not be lost on the reader. His people are lonely, frustrated, fearful, often angry, and above all lovelorn. They reach out for the security of love like a drowning swimmer trying to grab a spar from the wreckage to keep himself afloat in the wide, wide ocean. Most of them have a vision of a better land, a better life, but their moments of happiness are always precarious and the surrender to love costs not less than catastrophe. As soon as they are old enough to have a sense of themselves becoming adults (if they live that long), his children, at least the gifted ones, must construct a strategy for finding and then trying to maintain their identities. In expressing the strain and suffering of a person trying to be true to himself and to others Baldwin almost always gives us, often powerfully, a sense of authenticity. But when his imagination is overwhelmed by fantasies of sadism or masochism, the objective reality of his art blurs and the result is bizarre, repellent, and unconvincing. The difficulty is that the territory Baldwin is exploring does lie between blatant social fact and nightmare. Besides, he writes on controversial subjects about which "everybody" has strong opinions and, even more to the point, deep-rooted feelings. To Baldwin the distinction between bad dreams and waking horror, or the attempt to make the distinction (even though some of his characters worry about this very thing), may well seem academic. Nevertheless, he knows that for the artist the truth that is stranger than fiction has no place there. At least not in his kind of fiction.
John Rees Moore, "An Embarrassment of Riches: Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man," in Hollins Critic, December, 1965, pp. 1-12.
No one can doubt Baldwin's enormous talent. Go Tell It on the Mountain showed us the sharpness and range of his perceptions, and Giovanni's Room their depth and emotional truth. Any number of sentences and passages in [Nobody Knows My Name] carry absolute conviction. But few whole essays do. Baldwin needs to read more literature and to work harder at its discipline, form. More than that, he must decide more firmly who he is and what he is, and stand in that identity. If the blues he uses for his title says "nobody knows my name," there is also a blues beginning "My first name is James."
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Blacks, Whites, and Grays," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 22-7.
[Writing] good fiction takes as special a talent as writing good poetry; if we haven't got it, no degree of intellectual clarity and acuity will make up for it. James Baldwin is one of a number of writers … who write excellent expository prose but fall to pieces when they write fiction. Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is a long fictionized popularization of the title essay in Notes of a Native Son; the novel is as cheap as the essay is brilliant, and there is nothing in it to match the quality of any of the other essays. Though much of the action takes place in Harlem, the feel of Harlem comes through with less definition than in "The Harlem Ghetto," and though there are long discussions of the dilemmas of Negro artists and intellectuals there is none so fresh, clear and enlightening as "Stranger in the Village" or another essay … recounting the debates at a Paris conference on Négritude….
Perhaps no man fighting for justice as James Baldwin does should be expected to write with the meticulousness of a James Joyce; but bad writing in the cause of justice is still bad writing. The publication, reading and influence of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone are social facts of considerable interests; but it has no literary interest.
J. Mitchell Morse, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1968, pp. 529-31.
Baldwin has described Blues for Mr. Charlie (which may be paraphrased as "dirge for the white man") as "one man's attempt to bear witness to the reality and the power of the light." But light never shines through stereotyped roles and hackneyed rhetoric. Baldwin's witness is too important to trickle into such clichés. His novels capture what he claims he tried to put into the play—"something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech." But the dialogue of his plays too often sinks to the merely saccharine, the temper tantrum, and the overstated in both Negro and white speech.
Ruby Cohn, "James Baldwin," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 188-92.
James Baldwin is one of the few moralists now writing who writes with grace. In his new book [No Name in the Street] he continues his odyssey through his own engagement with and disengagement from America, his sensibility struggling to integrate a mass of disparate material, really a scrapbook, with a singular tone of voice. That he is unable, finally, to make this book of essays stand as a unity is not solely his particular failure, but indicates something about this time which prevents a transcendence either in word or deed.
The writing is characteristically beautiful—I am tempted to say, too beautiful. At this butt moment, one is skeptical of any representation of reality which seems too clear, too beautiful. One asks, "What is he choosing to leave out? What is the price of his clarity?"…
Baldwin's experience is often too condensed to be fully accessible—and yet perhaps it is that very limpid condensation which makes him so quotable and so esteemed by a middle-class white public which is looking for "civilized" access to Those People. Baldwin is nothing if not civilized, yet he has not himself lost access to the sources of his being—which is what makes him read and awaited by perhaps a wider range of people than any other major American writer.
Todd Gitlin, "Yet Will I Maintain Mine Own Ways Before Him," in Nation, April 10, 1972, pp. 469-70.
Difficulty in seeming to be your own man, rather than a knee-jerk reactor to events, is but one of many problems besetting spokesmen. Another has to do with expense of spirit. Few Americans have been called on as frequently as has James Baldwin in the last decade to function as the public voice of rage or frustration or denunciation or grief. Repeatedly, on television, on college platforms, at hundreds of public meetings, the author of The Fire Next Time has had to seek within himself both the energies and the vocabulary of fury—to search for the words that will make real to himself and others the latest atrocity…. How does he conduct a hunt for language that hasn't been emptied out by repetition—how can he witness his own scramblings for freshness without coming in some sense to despise this self-involved fastidiousness? To function as a voice of outrage month after month for a decade and more strains heart and mind, and rhetoric as well; the consequence is a writing style ever on the edge of being winded by too many summonses to intensity….
[Despite] the … faults [of No Name in the Street], despite the trials and afflictions of his spokesmanship, this author retains a place in an extremely select group: that composed of the few genuinely indispensable American writers. He owes his rank partly to the qualities of responsiveness that have marked his work from the beginning and that seem unlikely ever to disappear from it. Time and time over in fiction as in reportage, Baldwin tears himself free of his rhetorical fastenings and stands forth on the page utterly absorbed in the reality of the person before him, strung with his nerves, riveted to his feelings, breathing his breath. And such moments turn up still in his writing….
But what matters at least as much as this responsiveness is Baldwin's continuing willingness to accept the obligation imposed on him by his pride—namely, that of specifying the losses to the culture as a whole flowing from its blindness to truths born in and taught by blackness. To say this isn't entirely to discount the chronicle aspect of No Name in the Street. The narrative is spotty and discontinuous, but it does provide inklings of what it would be like to possess a coherent (although devastatingly despairing) view of recent times, to be able to see even the most dreadful events as part of a pattern….
[Baldwin] means [in No Name in the Street] to create an image of his people that will not only recover their dignity, that will not only spell out what they have to teach, but that will sting all sane folk to jealousy. It is, many will say, adopting postures of regret and pity, a typical "spokesman's project"—and doubtless there's justice in the observation. But the lesson Baldwin teaches in this flawed, bitter, continuously instructive book—you make your way to actualities only by waking to the arbitrariness of things—goes out a few miles beyond "race issues." And those among us who can't or won't master the lesson, or who, having mastered it, carp instead of clap at the pugnacity behind it, had best save the pity for themselves.
Benjamin DeMott, "James Baldwin on the Sixties: Acts and Revelations," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday. Review, May 27, 1972; used with permission), May 27, 1972, pp. 63-6.
In [No Name in the Street], Baldwin's prose is often mesmerizing and, though they seem less shocking and disturbing now, there are passages that are as candid, insightful and moving as any in his previous essays. That the book may seem at this time less germane is not necessarily an indication of failure. It may very well be a more serious indictment against ourselves, a palpable indication of our own moral degeneration. Only if an eloquent appeal for morality is irrelevant in the seventies, is James Baldwin anachronistic.
Mel Watkins, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 28, 1972, pp. 17-18.
In examining [Baldwin's] works from beginning to end, I seem to have detected a basic assumption that unifies them all: that on all levels, personal and political (which ultimately boils down to personal) life is a wild chaos of paradox, hidden meanings, and dilemmas. This chaos arises from man's inability—or reluctance—to face the truth about his own nature. As a result of this self-imposed blindness, men erect an elaborate façade of myth, tradition, and ritual behind which crouch, invisible, their true selves. It is this blindness on the part of Euro-Americans which has created and perpetuated the vicious racism which threatens to destroy this nation.
In his brilliant essays Baldwin unravels the complexities of our times—and since time is three dimensional, these complexities involve our history and our projected future as well as our turbulent present. From the essays collected in his first volume of essays, Notes of a Native Son, to those in his last, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin probes the multiple dualities in which we are caught. Considered together, Baldwin's essays are a study in chaos….
To explain chaos is, in itself, a significant task, for the better we know our situation, the more able we are to deal with it. But Baldwin does more. He offers solutions. They are not solutions that we in our present state are likely—or even, perhaps, able—to attain. But they make a great deal of sense, and for the sake of our future, we had better take heed….
The solution to chaos lies in the individual's acceptance of himself, which involves rejection of the "safe" life and requires the courage to face his life absolutely. On a nationwide scale it means acceptance of our history, destruction of damaging myths and false images, and unswerving gaze at reality. Here I myself become confused. My personal belief is that white America cannot do these things any more than a mental patient can behave rationally simply by deciding that that is the best thing to do. Still I cannot gainsay that this is the only solution that I know of, short of armed revolution.
Baldwin's vision is not of a monolithic society but of tranquility within our duality, an acceptance of our two-ness. We must accept, with love, ourselves and each other. It can be done, Baldwin says. It must be done.
Eugenia Collier, "Thematic Patterns in Baldwin's Essays," in Black World (© June, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Eugenia Collier), June, 1972, pp. 28-34.
[Baldwin's] talent for running words excitingly across a page, carrying thoughts to heights of perception, rarely falters. No Name in the Street is at once another example of James Baldwin's enormous gift with words, and rather conclusive proof that he has finally crossed that street separating those who blame everything unhappy for his group—here, his race—on others, and those who don't….
But much of No Name in the Street bespeaks something else as well, that final lapse into hate-Americanism so damnably fashionable, and worse, so frighteningly debilitating to the spirit of those who succumb to it….
To deny or minimize the urgency of the problems of which James Baldwin writes would be unconscionable, not merely thoughtless but stupid. And yet, to make the giant leap from comprehending the problem and striving to solve it, to buying Baldwin's package of simplisms and non-sequiturs, would be, if not unusual these days, still deeply wrong….
He speaks wisely and well of white fears and hates, and tells us with occasional grace and frequent force of what only one of his race and intelligence can understand. At best, his perspective, if uncomfortable to adjust to, is none the less legitimate, inspiring reflection and often acquiescence. At worst, however, James Baldwin's perspective seems unshakably grounded in loathings transcending analysis and verging on hysteria. This book is, unmistakably, passionately written, bitingly argued; it is also—and Baldwinophiles like me must regretfully admit this—fundamentally bitterly botched, a true cry of despair mingled fatally with a savage shriek of apocalyptic fury.
David Brudnoy, "Blues for Mr. Baldwin," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 7, 1972, pp. 750-51.
Parts of [No Name in the Street], written in an admittedly beautiful style, are all that one can ask for from a writer, unravelling the beastly, de-humanised system in which the colour of your skin can be, and often is, a passport to brutal reactions and hatred.
In the other parts, Mr. Baldwin falls into the trap of extremists of any colour, of any era, where an injustice, no matter how long ago perpetrated, and by whom, must bring a blanket condemnation for all present….
Rap Brown and Malcolm X were quite open with their hatred; Mr. Baldwin dresses it up into a highly erudite, literary exercise, and I'm not quite sure whether he realises, or simply doesn't care, how his writings could be and, heaven forbid, may be interpreted.
The other fatal flaw is that he does not provide the slightest hint as to how he wants to change the system….
To a very-very large extent, this book is an insight into James Baldwin, the very talented writer, and he can spin out his self-doubts and insecurity to the same engrossing degree as Mailer. Neither of them builds or destroys; they say … look how I hurt … isn't it awful?
Robert Ray, "James Baldwin's Insecurity," in Books and Bookmen, September, 1972, p. 61.