James Baldwin Baldwin, James (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Baldwin, James 1924–

Baldwin is a black American essayist, novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His work consistently reveals 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, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Charles Newman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Baldwin has made a reputation by exploiting social paradoxes, so it should not be surprising to trace his literary antecedents to neither Richard Wright nor Harriet B. Stowe, but to that Brahmin, Henry James…. The amphibian elegance of [Baldwin's] syntax comes naturally to an artist obsessed by dualities, paradox. The Atlantic Ocean separated James's mind into opposed hemispheres, and the gulf of color so cleaves Baldwin. The antipodes of their worlds propose a dialectical art. (p. 52)

Baldwin's characters suffer no more from their color than James's suffer from their money—these are only the peculiar conditions of their suffering. The problem for both is more universal—the opacity of their culture and the question of their identity within it. For Baldwin assumes, in the consequences of his culture, the crisis of his identity, the reflective burden of Western Man. His color is his metaphor, his vantage. But in his despair, he is closer to Henry Adams than John Henry.

Both Baldwin and James were victims of a "mysterious childhood accident." Only their society's different reaction to puberty sets them apart. It is not so much a question of how it happened, but the consequences. "I'm the reaction against the mistake," says Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, and Baldwin certifies this most finally for his contemporaries. "They were so other," James elaborates in A Small Boy and Others, "that was what I felt; and to be other, other almost anyhow, seemed as good as the probable taste of the bright compound wistfully watched in the confectioner's window" (emphasis mine).

Their hurts are obscure only because such wounds are generally ignored by those enamored of the big candy in the window. The pose necessitated is that of the powerless, feeling young man. The psychological consequence is self-imposed exile; to be "other almost anyhow." The literary consequence is the novel of "manners" (read prejudice); this being the drama of how personal histories conflict with the public history of the time. Personal action can only be understood in terms of its public consequences. Morality, in this sense, may not be relative, but it is always comparative. (pp. 52-3)

Baldwin's first paradox is that he uses the Negro, uses him ruthlessly, to show the White Man what the White Man is. Repeatedly in his work, he returns to that image of a Negro hung from a fine Southern tree with his sex cut out. We confront the Negro, we cannot miss him. But we know little about him except that he suffered. We know more, implicitly, about the White Man who left him there. The insights and blind spots of such a technique are illustrated in Baldwin's most ambitious work, Another Country.

This novel is populated by a series of characters, or rather couples, as geometrically entangled as Far Eastern erotic sculpture, the only undocumented relationship being that unlovely norm—monogamous, heterosexual marriage…. [In the novel the attempt of the characters Rufus and Leona] to confront, transcend, their past results in her madness and his suicide. This couple is removed from the action relatively early. Subsequent relationships embellish this dazzling affair from other sexual and moral perspectives, through the use of ficelles—James's word for characters who, while not self-sustaining, provide relief or depth by their juxtaposition to the primary figures of the work….

Tempered, perhaps, by the knowledge that their respective talents may gain them escape from the ghetto, Ida and Vivaldo seem one generation removed from the heat of Rufus and Leona. They are reincarnations; history is personalized for them through the primary disastrous affair. (p. 54)

What Cass comes to resent in her husband [Richard] is not clear—he is disciplined rather than talented perhaps—he does not indulge in the other's frenetic search for a large identity—he actually finishes a book and gets it published. In any case, Cass has an affair with Eric, ex-Alabama actor, formerly a lover of Rufus and later involved with Vivaldo, then in an interlude awaiting the arrival of his present lover, Yves, French, ex-male prostitute…. Cass and Eric arrange their Te Deum in the Museum of Modern Art. The scene is crucial and among the best in the book…. [They] move through the unending anterooms of the modern world—all glass and steel, no texture there—rooms emblazoned with incomprehensible abstractions, cold walls ogled by triumphant myopics, "… like tourists in a foreign graveyard." Before an enormous red canvas, stand a boy and girl holding hands, American Gothic against the Apocalypse.

Here, in one scene, is all that distance between Christopher Newman, James's American, and more contemporary stuff. For despite Newman's inability to accept his own culture or to fathom a foreign atmosphere no less stifling, he could find solace in the red doors of Notre Dame, as James did in the Galerie d'Appallon…. Newman could construe the nature of his rebuff; that it was his part to pay his absentee rent and return home.

That is the nostalgic quality of James's characters—they divine their atmosphere, their responses are equal to the situation. They make their peace with a precise if unhappy destiny. But the atmosphere is more opaque for Baldwin's characters, it elicits no response, they simply suffer from it…. [Their] sensitivity, their culture, their very cosmopolitanism is turned against them. (pp. 54-5)

Cass is pithy as any Jamesian interlocutor. "He can suffer, after all," she says of Richard. "I told him because … that if we were going to—continue together—we could begin on a new basis with everything clear between us. But I was wrong—some things cannot be clear … or perhaps some things are clear, only one won't face those things."

In that parallelism hangs the book. Tolstoy would have used those last sentences as his first. The story would have unfolded from their dichotomy. It is characteristic of modern art that the thesis is not hung until we have been dragged kicking through every conceivable blind alley—the self being the sum of the destruction of all false selves.

Echoes of these three relationships [Rufus and Leona, Ida and Vivaldo, and Cass and Richard] reverberate through another series of ficelles…. Baldwin once accused Richard Wright of substituting violence for sex. He has come full circle.

In the end, things are magnificently unresolved, save for Rufus's death and Leona's madness. (p. 56)

The irresolution of these destinies … has brought some critics down hard on Baldwin. The charge is formlessness. But if Another Country is formless, it has that in common with this nation's greatest literature….

[The language of the novel's final scene] is not the language of Henry James, the understated snippet of dialogue or restrained image which brings things to a close. It is the language of Gatsby and the Green Light, Huck Finn, "striking out for the territory," Ishmael, picked up, alone, to tell the tale—the picaresque open-end of American Literature….

[In] this ecstatic scene, no one is fleeing injustice with high hopes …; this is no rendezvous with destiny, but a discomforting liaison. The visionary rhetoric is utterly undercut.

So the legend of America as refuge for the oppressed, opportunity for the pure in heart, is invoked only to be exposed. From the very first, he is saying, our vision has been parochial. We have not accounted for the variety of man's motives, the underside of our settlers, the cost of a new life. The plague has come over as part of the baggage, and we will be sick until we isolate that cargo and deal with it…. If Another Country is formless, it is so because it rejects the theories of history available to it. (p. 57)

[What about the] characters that set Another Country in motion, Leona and Rufus? It is what Baldwin does not know, or say, about them which is interesting, for they must bear the primary burden, they are the myth...

(The entire section is 3375 words.)

C.W.E. Bigsby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Go Tell it on the Mountain is concerned with the initiation of John Grimes, a fourteen year-old Negro boy. He is exposed to the bitter realities of ghetto life and sees at first hand the consequences of the resulting tensions in terms of individual lives. In the course of the book he undergoes what is apparently a profound religious conversion—a conversion which seems to reconcile him with his situation….

But his conversion does not represent an acknowledgment of religious truth or an acceptance of his father's bitterness or his mother's passivity. It is a desperate expression of his own need for love and his desire for a sense of identity and common brotherhood. Yet his own mixed motives...

(The entire section is 944 words.)

Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a writer Baldwin is as obsessed by sex and family as Strindberg was, but instead of using situations for their dramatic value, Baldwin likes to pile up all possible emotional conflicts as assertions. But for the same reason that in Giovanni's Room Baldwin made everybody white just to show that he could, and in Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone transferred the son-father quarrel to a quarrel with a brother, so one feels about Another Country that Baldwin writes fiction in order to use up his private difficulties; even his fiction piles up the atmosphere of raw emotion that is his literary standby. Why does so powerful a writer as Baldwin make himself look simpleminded by merely asserting an inconsequential succession of emotions? (p. 222)

[In] Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin dropped the complicated code for love difficulties he uses in his novels and simplified himself into an "angry Black" very powerfully indeed—and this just before Black nationalists were to turn on writers like him. The character who calls himself "James Baldwin" in his nonfiction novel is more professionally enraged, more doubtfully an evangelist for his people, than the actual James Baldwin, a very literary mind indeed. But there is in Notes of a Native Son a genius for bringing many symbols together, an instinctive association with the 1943 Harlem riot, the streets of smashed plate glass, that stems from the all too understandable fascination of the Negro with the public sources of his fate. The emphasis is on heat, fire, anger, the sense of being hemmed in and suffocated; the words are tensed into images that lacerate and burn. Reading Baldwin's essays, we are suddenly past the discordancy that has plagued his fiction—a literal problem of conflict, for Baldwin's fiction shows him trying to transpose facts into fiction without sacrificing the emotional capital that has been his life. (pp. 223-24)

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.

Keneth Kinnamon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A decade ago James Baldwin, more than any other author, seemed to liberal white Americans to personify as well as to articulate the outrage and anguish of black Americans struggling to put an end to racial oppression and to achieve their civil and human rights…. Though as Northern as Martin Luther King was Southern, James Baldwin preached a more secular and apocalyptic but not really dissimilar sermon: the redemptive force of the love of a prophetic, interracial few could, even at that late date, yet prevail over the bigotry of the white majority, and so "end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world." If these brave words today seem both naïve and anachronistic, the reason...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)

Donald C. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)