Last Updated on June 25, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3820
Baldwin, James 1924–
Baldwin, a distinguished Black American novelist, essayist, playwright, and short story writer, is as celebrated for his prose style as for his powerful evocation of the Black experience in America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
James Baldwin has followed the traditional pattern of the Man of Letters, the Man of Letters with a message, in utilizing almost every means of verbal expression to convey his warnings. But almost anyone so committed to directness of statement is likely to find the odd exigencies of theater more a hindrance than a help. One can tell the truth in novels, especially novels like Baldwin's, more or less directly; one must tell the truth in social essays. But a play is made up fundamentally of the lies of other people's lives. The truth is never in the parts, but in the sum, never stated, but experienced. In The Amen Corner…, a play derived, to some degree, from the same childhood experience as Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin was able to attain something of the stark sincerity of that memoir-novel, despite an excess of rhetoric over plot. But his more ambitious attempt, Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), betrays serious imaginative disability.
The play was obviously intended as an explosive race-war document…, "an attempt," as one reviewer put it, "to give the Caucasians in the audience a white inferiority complex." With some Caucasians the attempt succeeded all too easily, and reviewers paid pious acknowledgments to the justice of Baldwin's anger. But it is an essay in artless bullying, not a play. Its wicked South is faked, its white villains are flat collages of prejudice-clichés—and this despite Baldwin's professed moral experiment (in the wake of the Medgar Evars murder), his generous attempt to imagine a Southern lynch-killer as a human being. There are playable, even moving moments, bits of ritual drama ("Blacktown" talks to "Whitetown"), intriguing shifts back and forth in time. But the dialogue, for the most part, is hopeless: faked banter, faked poetry, doctrinaire racism, dated slang, all conflated with artificial violence and obscenity. The play rarely comes to life, enough life to hurt a serious listener, because Baldwin lacked either the skill or the patience to imagine completely the place, the story, or the people…. Baldwin is no playwright—he has difficulty imagining anyone not Baldwin. It provides a perfect example of the relinquishing of judgment by an undiscerning and intimidated white audience. (pp. 72-4)
Each of James Baldwin's three novels [Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, and Another Country] has been written out of some personal necessity of the author's, a necessity which it describes, conveys, and, hopefully, enables the author to transcend. Everything he writes—when he writes well—bears this sense of an inner necessity, of the whole of himself told and overcome. From no other contemporary author does one get such a sensation of writing as life; it is all so open and desperate and acute, minute by minute and word by word. The captivation of the reader, the feeling of rightness comes from Baldwin's absolute honesty, from his yielding, however unwillingly, to necessity. A reader feels the desperation—if the man had not written this book, and written it so, he could not have survived. Each book is a renewed effort to stay alive and upright through the finding and placing of perfect words. Each book is a staving off of death, a matter of survival.
If this is the case, it can scarcely be considered illegitimate or extra-literary prying to regard the novels as essentially about him, the man, James Baldwin. Autobiographical exactness, after all, is the very source of their sting, their astringent modern taste. It is not anti-literary, therefore, or...
(The entire section contains 3820 words.)
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