James Baldwin

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 3375 words.)

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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 which the other couples mime. As myths, Baldwin tends to monumentalize them, give them stature by arresting their development. Like Greek royalty, their personality is gradually subsumed by the enormity of the crime which killed them.

But who are they? Rufus Scott has that ethereal sensitivity of the modern hero, half-adolescent, half-prophet, that powerless, feeling young man celebrated, apparently, because he rejects a success already denied him—the man who in Norman Mailer's words would "affect history by the sheer force of his sentiments." Or so the logic goes. But really, he is a monument from the very first, he is that Negro hanging from the tree with his sex cut out.

The fact is, that Rufus is nothing but his own potential, and the world is simply what thwarts it. He is a brilliantly rendered testament. But he is not a character. What he can't do and why they won't let him, is more vague than mysterious. He is, if you will, the Seymour Glass of his class, his virtue postulated by his lesser apostles. It is significant that although Rufus is a musician, we never hear him play. As with Seymour's alleged poetry, we await the aria that never comes.

And Leona? Poor white trash Isolde? Significantly, the only character in the book not devoted in some way to the arts. Symbols, representation, mean nothing to her. It is commerce, communication in the most direct sense, that she lives. "Do you love me?" everyman's saxophone asks. Leona says, "Don't hurt me." The pale white liberal; impotent (I ain't gonna have no more babies), platitudinous (it don't matter what two people's color is so long as they love each other), ineradicably guilty. She tries to love Rufus because she needs him, and he won't let her because it smacks of retribution. Her effort, pathetic, styleless, is for nothing. She is committed to an institution. But that is only the legal acknowledgment. If Baldwin does not see what Rufus might become, he does not see what Leona is. She does not go crazy; she has been mad from the beginning. As characters, they go nowhere; they die of nothing more than their own abstraction.

"What they (Negroes) hold in common is their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world," Baldwin says. What the characters of Another Country hold in common is their precarious relation to a world which is defined by little more than its victims' resentment. One by one, we come upon them, hung from their respective trees, but the executioner never appears; like Godot, his name is simply invoked to "explain things." What is explicitly absent in Baldwin's politics—the differentiation between enemies, the priorities and strategies of rebellion—is implicitly absent in his literature.

To structure the dialogue in this way has its dramatic usefulness. The conflicts are elucidated in all their hopeless solipsism. But the consequence is also to make development, in terms of plot, psychology, or character, impossible. He is overwhelmed by the eloquence of his own dialectic. He has reached that moment which defines much of modern fiction—when the characters start to repeat themselves endlessly. Recapitulation of this sort has its irony—upon which the theatre of the absurd had capitalized—but artistically, it is also a dead end.

To understand how an artist can get into this situation, Another Country must be considered the result of a long and certainly uplifting process. Baldwin's progress as an artist has been his ability to articulate, confront, his central problems as a man and a writer…. What began as a crippling disgust with both his race and country, as an American, a Negro, becomes a subtle distinctive pride in each as americanegro. (pp. 59-60)

[Baldwin's] progress is apparent in Another Country, but it is a work of a different order [from the other works]. It is less explicitly therapeutic, more ambitious. It is the very repetition, the surface perversity of the encounters, that gradually makes perversity irrelevant. For this is not at all a book about interracial affairs, homosexual affairs, adulterous affairs, but about affairs—it evolves in the same way that Portrait of a Lady, say, unfolds upon the loom of marriage. The various approaches, styles, perspectives are secondary. They all need the same thing if they face different obstacles, they all pay the same dues. Everyone hits bottom in his own way and that is that. Yves and Eric's liaison is significant on one level of irony, but ultimately it is of no peculiar issue. Their final significance is that they simply carry on the central burden of the book, the frantic attempt to know something of one another. Perversion is no single act; but rather, any unaffecting love.

Baldwin has constructed his terrible dialectic; he has drawn up the battle lines so that we may never be safe again. But what he has done, in scrupulously avoiding everybody's social protest novel, is to write everybody's existential novel. (p. 60)

James's characters have an extraordinary freedom based on money—and it is no accident that Baldwin's characters are similarly unaffected by conventional economic problems. This is not because they are more spiritual, but simply because this is as accurate an index of modern affluent society as James's analysis of the international aristocracy. In short, the economics of both situations are only manifestations of more significant and complex problems. Rufus did not kill himself because he did not have enough to eat when he was a child, but because he understood the dimensions of ignorance and fear, one consequence of which was to affect his diet. Unhampered by the obvious, Baldwin has cut through the pop-sociology of his time to the roots of contemporary frustration—the curse not of slavery, but leisure; not of organization, but alienation; not of social evil, but of individual love. Baldwin's assertion that we are all second-class citizens in our existential dilemma, that the terms of our exclusion are similar, is his greatest achievement. In the end, his protagonists are not black anymore than we are white. (pp. 60-1)

The message of this existentialism is the equality of guilt, the equality of men before no law—but when the rebellion has been justified, then what happens? Experience under these assumptions is predictable, sensibility has but one consequence. To say that the self is not what we commonly thought, even to say it again and again, is not to say what the self is….

Another Country is our country, real, repressed, and envisioned, and Baldwin's return to it does not break down the parallel with James in the least. His point of view remains that of the exile. Under existential assumptions, self-exile, to paraphrase a politician, is not a choice, but a condition. It is the condition of that powerless, feeling young man, an echo of that "reaction against a mistake," that dangling emasculate Negro, that rage to be "other almost anyhow."

But how do you differentiate when everybody is "other" anyway? Why do Rufus and Richard give up? Why do Ida and Vivaldo persevere? These are ambiguities in the work that cannot be justified by saying that life is ambiguous as well. The underground man is pretty thin fare by this time. Too many of us live there now to be celebrated as either indicative or unique. "There is no structure," Baldwin says, "that he [the artist] can build to keep out self-knowledge." But he has not yet demonstrated, except in his essays, that the artist can build a structure to use self-knowledge. (p. 61)

James refused to be satisfied by the type of the powerless, feeling young man, for he knew how easy it was for him to uphold such a one, and how graciously his audience would accept him. He was too involved in his own cultural adventure to settle for the drama of limited character and obvious dichotomy. His concern can be seen in his notebooks—"the web of consciousness," his own metaphor, replaces the dialectic as a structural principle. Whatever the argument over the convolutions of the later style, the consequences of his continued exile, it is apparent that the later heroes of sensibility are transfigured, and again I use his own words, into "personalities of transcendent value." He is not satisfied simply to doom his characters in his later work, not because they ought not to go down, but because that story was written—those conflicts were charted—and now the problem was to develop the internal relations between the sides he had so artfully chosen. It was a question of creating characters sufficiently complex to sustain them beyond the dialectical conflict which created them. (pp. 62-3)

The remarkable thing about [James's] later characters is that they refuse to draw conclusions that would preclude further investigation on their part, and for that matter, further involvement for the reader. The galling thing about Baldwin's characters—and most "existential" heroes—is that they are so susceptible to conclusions which define them immediately. It is not that their truth is bitter, it is that their truth comes so easily—however hard it may be to shake it. In fact, they are all ficelles.

The quality of the later James lies in the tension between characters. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Our final knowledge is that Paris, France, and Wollett, Mass., are not knowable without the other, that the categories with which we began the book no longer can apply. Radical innocence and guileless evil are neither opposed nor reconciled—they are intermeshed in a genuine mystery. Baldwin is shocking; not yet terrifying. What he has shown us is that everyone is guilty. This is the true paradox of the existential hero, for in all his hefty insistence that rebellion is justified, he seems to end up lacking the energy to achieve the engagement to which he pays his coffee-house lip-service.

Henry James was able to achieve what his notebooks anticipated: the reclamation of large areas of social experience, the transformation of these abstractions into material for the imagination. Baldwin has yet to progress beyond the initial encounter. He has, most powerfully, given us an opportunity to test our preconceptions, but that ultimately is social science, not literature.

The question remains, why pick on Baldwin when these are questions to be applied to modern fiction generally? Why does he take the burden of the breakthrough?

For one thing, Baldwin has progressed in each of his works, his dialectic has become progressively more refined. He has shown a flexibility and perseverance equal to our most influential artists. Further, and almost alone, he has continued to confront the unmanageable questions of modern society, rather than creating a nuclear family in which semantic fantasies may be enacted with no reference to the larger world except that it stinks. There can be no escape into technique or historiography. It will not do for him to remember something else. He must continue to find out about himself. It is his actual experience, perhaps, even more than the shaping of it, which will be crucial. To bring us to the door in Rufus's name will not be enough next time.

Baldwin's experience is unique among our artists in that his artistic achievements mesh so precisely with his historical circumstances. He is that nostalgic type—an artist speaking for a genuinely visible revolution. He is first in line for that Nirvana of American liberals, a Ministry of Culture. As with James, his problem is to give artistic life to the critical insights of his prefaces, his notebooks, in short, to develop characters which have a subtle and various consciousness equal to the omniscient, cranky narrator of the essays. This particular problem accounts for the failure of both artists as playwrights. Theatrical success depends upon rendering the particulars of a character through bald dialogue. Only rarely can a narrator amplify a character through abstract description; no disembodied voice can bridge the gap between an idea and its personification as in an essay or narrative literature. For those obsessed with the dialectic, for those whose characters are forever battling their own abstraction, the proscenium marks a treacherous zone. (pp. 63-4)

Charles Newman, "The Lesson of the Master: Henry James and James Baldwin," in The Yale Review (© 1966 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), October, 1966 (and reprinted in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Keneth Kinnamon, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, pp. 52-65).

C.W.E. Bigsby

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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 create a difficulty for the reader which is reflected throughout Baldwin's work. The central ambiguity of the book arises from the confusion between Eros and Agape. John's conversion is not the result of spiritual revelation but of a homosexual attraction which he feels for Elisha, a young Negro convert…. While setting out to establish the desirability and viability of compassion, Baldwin can only visualize this love in terms of sexual alliances, more particularly in terms of homosexual relationships. The physical is made to stand for the metaphysical but the intensity of the sexual relationship subverts its symbolic effectiveness. Throughout his work it is the homosexual, virtually alone, who can offer a selfless and genuine love because he alone has a real sense of himself, having accepted his own nature. Yet while Baldwin is clearly suggesting that the acknowledgment of one's true identity is the key to a constructive life his overly sentimental approach to the homosexual relationship destroys its utility as an image.

The real core of the book is the struggle between hatred and love which Baldwin sees as the major battle to be fought by Black and White alike. The fight in essence is that between the Old and New Testaments; between retribution and love, the father and the son, servitude and freedom. (p. 236)

The most bitter characters, Gabriel, his son Roy and Elizabeth's lover, Richard, are all destroyed by hatred, as are similar characters throughout his work. Salvation it seems lies only through suffering and compassion…. (pp. 236-37)

Baldwin's central theme is the need to accept reality as a necessary foundation for individual identity and thus a logical prerequisite for the kind of saving love in which he places his whole faith. For some this reality is one's racial or sexual nature, for others it is the ineluctable fact of death. Like Edward Albee, Baldwin sees this simple progression as an urgent formula not only for the redemption of individual men but for the survival of mankind. In this at least black and white are as one and the Negro's much-vaunted search for identity can be seen as part and parcel of the American's long-standing need for self-definition. It is a theme which runs through Baldwin's work but nowhere is it stated more directly than in the much misunderstood Giovanni's Room.

Baldwin has said that "a writer who is bi-sexual is probably but not surely going to identify himself with other minorities," and in many ways this gives us some clue as to his intention in his second novel. Giovanni's Room is ostensibly about a homosexual relationship and yet we have Baldwin's somewhat baffling assurance that the novel is "not about homosexuality." The book is concerned with the protagonist's refusal to confront his own bi-sexuality. Having had a brief affair with a young Italian boy, David, an expatriate American, tries to return to the 'normality' of a relationship with his fiancée. In the name of some intangible standard of respectability and in retreat from that element of his nature which seems to make him the victim of his own irrational desires and the equally irrational contempt of others, he callously sacrifices a genuine relationship to one which has the sanction of society. In evading the truth he succeeds only in destroying himself and those he loves. The relevance of this to Baldwin's racial as well as sexual predicament hardly needs underlining. Both were aspects of a personal reality which he had struggled to avoid, but which he had finally come to accept as the substance of his own identity. Thus the predicament of the homosexual, on the fringe of society, regarded with suspicion and prejudice by others, becomes in Baldwin's mind, an appropriate image of those similarly estranged. Therefore, when Baldwin says of homosexuality in America that "if people were not so frightened of it … it really would cease in effect … to exist. I mean in the same way the Negro problem would disappear," it is no accident that the two ideas should appear so closely related. Similarly, when the protagonist of the novel remarks that "I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me" and admits that he has "succeeded very well—by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion" we are reminded of the author who fled to Paris in order to escape his racial identity and the consequences of that identity. (pp. 237-38)

Baldwin's is an uneven talent. For all the measured articulateness of the essays his rhetoric can get hopelessly out of control in the novels…. But in spite of this and his unconquerable sentimentality he remains a writer of considerable power and surely one of the most significant American writers to emerge during the 50s. (pp. 239-40)

C.W.E. Bigsby, in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1970 by Warren French), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970.

Alfred Kazin

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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

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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 is partly the nation's recent habit of giving more publicity than credence to its seers, of lavishing attention while withholding belief. (p. 1)

A proper understanding of Baldwin and his work must take into account a complicated amalgam of psychological and social elements sometimes thought to be antithetical. If, like most major black writers, Baldwin has extracted from his private ordeal the symbolic outline of his race's suffering, he has done so without obscuring the uniqueness of his personal experience. (p. 2)

However much he may revile the historical role of Christianity in the enslavement of black people, The Fire Next Time attests that [Baldwin] has never forgotten the compensatory values of his [adolescent] religious experience: "In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare." And for good or ill, Baldwin's work is of a kind in which the didactic—even homiletic—element is of the essence. (p. 3)

Out of Baldwin's experience have emerged certain recurring themes in his writing, the most important of which is the quest for love. On a personal level, the search is for the emotional security of a love of which the protagonist has always been deprived. In his brilliant first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, the theme develops with autobiographical clarity, as is also the case in the related short story "The Outing" or such essays as "Notes of a Native Son," "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," "Down at the Cross," and "No Name in the Street." But elsewhere the search for love is equally imperative. David finds it in Giovanni's Room but loses it again because of his failure to commit himself totally. The interracial and bisexual bed-hopping of Another Country constitutes a frenzied effort to realize love in the loveless city of New York. It falls to Leo Proudhammer of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone to articulate the poignant paradox of Baldwin's love theme: "Everyone wishes to be loved, but, in the event, nearly no one can bear it. Everyone desires love but also finds it impossible to believe that he deserves it." If the search for love has its origin in the desire of a child for emotional security, its arena is an adult world which involves it in struggle and pain. Stasis must yield to motion, innocence to experience, security to risk. This is the lesson that the black Ida inculcates in her white lover Vivaldo in Another Country, and it saves Baldwin's central fictional theme from sentimentality.

Similarly, love as an agent of racial reconciliation and national survival is not for Baldwin a vague yearning for an innocuous brotherhood, but an agonized confrontation with reality, leading to the struggle to transform it. It is a quest for truth through a recognition of the primacy of suffering and injustice in the American past. In racial terms, the black man as victim of this past is in a moral position to induce the white man, the oppressor, to end his self-delusion and begin the process of regeneration…. Baldwin wrote in 1962 in "My Dungeon Shook," ["This] is what [integration] means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it." By 1972, the year of No Name in the Street, the redemptive possibilities of love seemed exhausted in that terrible decade of assassination, riot, and repression, of the Black Panthers and Attica. Social love had now become for Baldwin more a rueful memory than an alternative to disaster. Violence, he now believes, is the arbiter of history, and in its matrix the white world is dying and the third world is struggling to be born. In his fiction, too, this shift in emphasis is apparent. Though love may still be a sustaining personal force, its social utility is dubious. (pp. 5-6)

Whether through the agency of love or violence, Baldwin is almost obsessively concerned with the writer's responsibility to save the world. As an essayist, he assumes the burden not only of reporting with eloquent sensitivity his observations of reality, but also of tirelessly reminding us of the need to transform that reality if Armageddon is to be averted. Over and over he concludes an essay by enlarging the perspective to a global scale…. Introducing the theme of self-examination in Nobody Knows My Name, he asserts that "one can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours."… Two of the simplest expressions of his faith in the possibility of change are the concluding challenges of the speeches entitled "In Search of a Majority" and "Notes for a Hypothetical Novel": "The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in" and "We made the world we're living in and we have to make it over." Nobody Knows My Name concludes with an account of Baldwin's friendship with Norman Mailer, another writer who emphasizes the social value of the literary perspective: "For, though it clearly needs to be brought into focus, he has a real vision of ourselves as we are, and it cannot be too often repeated in this country now, that, where there is no vision, the people perish." The possibility of just such a perishing is pursued further in The Fire Next Time, and the possibility has become a probability in No Name in the Street, where Baldwin speaks of "the shape of the wrath to come" and the setting of the white man's sun. (pp. 6-7)

James Baldwin has always been concerned with the most personal and intimate areas of experience and also with the broadest questions of national and global destiny—and with the intricate interrelationships between the two. Whatever the final assessment of his literary achievement, it is clear that his voice—simultaneously that of victim, witness, and prophet—has been among the most urgent of our time. (p. 7)

Keneth Kinnamon, in his introduction to James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Keneth Kinnamon (copyright © 1974 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 1-8.

Donald C. Murray

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1265

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 story, opts for the comforts of a respectable profession and his specialty, the teaching of algebra, suggests his desire for standard procedures and elegant, clear-cut solutions. On the other hand, Sonny at first trafficks with the hipster world…. Eventually, however, as if no longer able to hold his own through all those other sounds of enticement and derision, Sonny is sentenced to a government institution due to his selling and using heroin. (p. 353)

Playing upon the homonym of Sonny, Baldwin writes that, for the narrator's brother, "all the light in [Sonny's] face" had gone out.

Images of light and darkness are used by Baldwin to illustrate his theme of man's painful quest for an identity. Light can represent the harsh glare of reality, the bitter conditions of ghetto existence which harden and brutalize the young….

Another kind of light is that of the movie theater, the light which casts celluloid illusions on the screen. It is this light, shrouded in darkness, which allows the ghetto-dwellers' temporary relief from their condition. "All they really knew were two darknesses," Baldwin writes, "the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness."… (p. 354)

There is no escape from the darkness for Sonny and his family. Dreams and aspirations are always dispelled, the narrator comments, because someone will always "get up and turn on the light." "And when light fills the room," he continues, "the child is filled with darkness."… Grieved by the death of his child, fortuitously named Grace, and aware of the age difference between himself and Sonny, the narrator seems unconsciously to seek out the childlike qualities of everyone he meets. He is not quite the self-satisfied conformist which some critics have made him out to be…. To the extent that he is given to this psychological penchant, the narrator is close in age to Sonny and "Sonny's Blues" is the story of the narrator's dawning self-awareness. The revelation of his father's brother's murder and the fact of Grace's death make Sonny's troubles real for the narrator and prompt the latter's growth in awareness. (pp. 354-55)

The age difference between the narrator and Sonny, like that between the narrator and his uncle and that between Sonny and his fellow musician Creole, all suggest that the fates of the generations are similar, linked by influences and effects. "The same things happen," the narrator reflects, "[our children will] have the same things to remember." So, too, the story is cyclical…. Similarities in characters and events link the various sections of the story. (p. 355)

The narrator's apprehension [when Sonny comes to live with him] is justified in that he is about to witness Sonny's torturous rebirth as a creative artist…. Because of the enormous energy and dedication involved in his role as Blues musician, Sonny is virtually described as a sacrificial victim as well as an initiate into the mysteries of creativity…. As the pressure mounts within Sonny, the author sets the scene for the final episode of the story.

Befitting the special evening which ends "Sonny's Blues," the locale shifts to the "only night club" on a dark downtown street…. The imagery of light now blends with that of water as the narrator, describing the light which "spilled" from the bandstand and the way in which Sonny seems to be "riding" the waves of applause, relates how Sonny and the other musicians prepare to play. It is as if Sonny were about to undergo another stage in his initiation into mature musicianship, this time a trial by fire. "I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly," the narrator continues, "that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame."… Next the imagery suggests that Sonny is embarking upon a sacred and perilous voyage, an approach to the wholly other in the biblical sense of the phrase; for the man who creates music, the narrator observes, is "hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air."… The roaring darkness of the subway is transformed into something luminous. Appropriately, the lighting turns to indigo and Sonny is transfigured. (pp. 356-57)

Creole now takes on the dimensions of the traditional father-figure. He is a better teacher than the narrator because he has been in the deep water of life; he is a better witness than Sonny's father because he has not been "burned out" by his experiences in life. Creole's function in the story, to put it prosaically, is to show that only through determination and perseverance, through the taking of a risk, can one find a proper role in life. To fail does not mean to be lost irretrievably, for one can always start again. To go forward, as Sonny did when Creole "let out the reins," is to escape the cycle which, in the ghetto of the mind, stifles so many lives, resulting in mean expectations and stunted aspirations. The narrator makes the point that the essence of Sonny's blues is not new; rather, it's the age-old story of triumph, suffering, and failure. But there is no other tale to tell, he adds, "it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."…

Baldwin is no facile optimist. The meaning of "Sonny's Blues" is not, to use the glib phrase, the transcendence of the human condition through art. Baldwin is talking about love and joy, tears of joy because of love. As the narrator listens to his brother's blues, he recalls his mother, the moonlit road on which his uncle died, his wife Isabel's tears, and he again sees the face of his dead child, Grace. Love is what life should be about, he realizes; love which is all the more poignant because involved with pain, separation, and death. Nor is the meaning of "Sonny's Blues" the belief that music touches the heart without words; or at least the meaning of the story is not just that. His brother responds deeply to Sonny's music because he knows that he is with his black brothers and is watching his own brother, grinning and "soaking wet."… The final point of the story is that the narrator, through his own suffering and the example of Sonny, is at last able to find himself in the brotherhood of man. Such an identification is an act of communion and "Sonny's Blues" ends, significantly, with the image of the homely Scotch-and-milk glass transformed into "the very cup of trembling," the Grail, the goal of the quest and the emblem of initiation. (p. 357)

Donald C. Murray, "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': Complicated and Simple," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1977 by Newberry College), Fall, 1977, pp. 353-57.


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