Baldwin, James (Vol. 8)

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Last Updated on June 25, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3589

Baldwin, James 1924–

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Baldwin is a black American essayist, novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His work consistently reflects a moral purpose: to make art reflect a sense of reality and clarity, rather than the falsehood of illusion. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Of the fiction produced by American Blacks after the Hughes-Wright-Himes generation, James Baldwin's … Going to Meet the Man (1965) seems to me the most important single short story collection and its controversial title piece the most powerful story by a recent American Black writer. Out of such stock characters as a Southern sheriff, his sexually unexciting wife, and his brutally mistreated black victims, Baldwin has created another hideous parable of the sixties (a story still so shocking in its impact as to evoke more than one cry of protest when I included it in an anthology designed for university students three or four years ago). As in his essays and other works of nonfiction, "Going to Meet the Man" brings more forcefully to mind than any news stories or telecasts what it must mean to be black in a white man's world, a world in which the sheriff Jesse can say with all sincerity that he was a "good man, a God-fearing man … who had tried to do his duty all his life" and this after recollecting the events of the day and the young black he has almost beaten to death. The whole terrible paradox of irreconcilable forces and immovable objects is suggested…. (p. 235)

William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.

A decade ago, as an undergraduate, my colleagues and I spent hours poring over the works of James Baldwin. He seemed so sure-footed, then, so certain in his vision of this country, that his lacerating words were like balm to the black students who were on a whirligig in search of their identities. Because he existed we felt that the racial miasma that swirled around us would not consume us, and it is not too much to say that this man saved our lives, or at least, gave us the necessary ammunition to face what we knew would continue to be a hostile and condescending world….

Now Baldwin has published a long essay, "The Devil Finds Work," the 17th book bearing his name, but the event does not call for rejoicing. In fact it brings forth not a little pain, for this work teems with a passion that is all reflex, and an anger that is unfocused and almost cynical. It is as if Baldwin were wound up and then let loose to attack the hypocritical core of this nation. And to what avail? None that I can see, for although the book purports to be an examination of the way American films distort reality, its eclecticism is so pervasive, that all we are left with are peregrinations of the mind and ideas that jump around and contradict each other. And this from a man who was, for my money, the best essayist in this country—a man whose power has always been in his reasoned, biting sarcasm; his insistence on removing layer by layer, the hardened skin with which Americans shield themselves from their country. (p. 6)

Baldwin has said all [that he says in this work] before. And better. And one must be dismayed, finally, by the style of this book, which seems to be a rococo parody of his own work….

Well, what has happened to the finely honed delivery, the sense of assurance, the rootedness of this writer? I think that Baldwin, in love and at war with his society, suffers from the distance that he has put between himself and his beloved. And because a man who loves or fights as intensely as he does must constantly be replenished by contact with the object of his imagination, I wonder about the pleasures of his exile. For they seem to be, at best, quixotic, since America rides Baldwin and will not let...

(The entire section contains 3589 words.)

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Baldwin, James (Vol. 5)