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James Baldwin 1924–
American novelist, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter.
Since the publication in 1953 of Go Tell It on the Mountain , Baldwin has been an important presence in American letters. This first, semiautobiographical novel described with great compassion the events leading to the religious conversion of...
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James Baldwin 1924–
American novelist, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter.
Since the publication in 1953 of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin has been an important presence in American letters. This first, semiautobiographical novel described with great compassion the events leading to the religious conversion of an adolescent boy growing up in Harlem. It earned Baldwin extravagant praise, some critics greeting him as the newest major black writer to follow in the steps of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. On the strength of it Baldwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship which he used to live in Paris.
During the next ten years of his voluntary exile he produced three collections of essays, two novels, and two plays. The plays, Blues for Mr. Charlie and The Amen Corner, received mixed reviews when first presented; most critics felt the effectiveness of the central monologues did not carry over into the rest of the writing. However, both have been revived on occasion by drama companies across the country.
All but Baldwin's first novel have been extremely controversial. Giovanni's Room, the story of a fatal relationship between two white men, was viewed by some as a tour de force and by others as an embarrassment. His investigation of sexual and racial politics took him into Another Country, a novel whose exploration of the use of power in interracial relationships provoked even more heated debate. Those who praise Baldwin's novels do so for his passionate language and his ability to make his world live. Most frequently, they are criticized as vehicles for Baldwin's political views, lacking depth of characterization. This difference of opinion has intensified over the years.
The reception accorded his essays has always been much more approving. Many people were ready to claim him as the foremost American essayist following Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. Although his essays document the oppression of black people he has refused to categorize himself with writers who talk only of anger and despair. It is perhaps his patience, his desire to be proved wrong in his assessment of the moral failure of white Americans, that has made the literary establishment consider him a spokesperson for black people.
Since his return to the United States Baldwin has accepted this role with some reluctance, stating that he can speak only for himself. Yet he has participated in two published conversations loosely conducted about the topic of race: A Rap on Race with anthropologist Margaret Mead, and A Dialogue with poet Nikki Giovanni. In these, as well as in all his other works, Baldwin shows himself to be a man deeply interested in the future of Western society, determined to do what he can to help compassion win out over the destructive forces within. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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Mr. Baldwin's first novel ["Go Tell It on the Mountain"] is written as skilfully as many a man's fifth essay in fiction. His handling of the flashbacks so that they show the past without interrupting the drama of the present is masterful. His penetration of the mind of John, especially in the scene of his conversion, is as valid as anything in William James's "Varieties of Religious Experience" and as moving as the interior monologues in [William] Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." Although Mr. Baldwin does not have either [Richard] Wright's or [Ralph] Ellison's capacity to take all modern problems as his province, he never descends into the provincialism that has made so many Negro novels read like footnotes to [Gunnar] Myrdal's "An American Dilemma." "Go Tell It on the Mountain" fulfils a great deal, promises more.
Harvey Curtis Webster, "Community of Pride," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1953 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVI, No. 20, May 16, 1953, p. 14.
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James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain" … is a first novel of quite exceptional promise, centering on a church in Harlem…. The Temple of the Fire Baptized is the scene of a conflict between a growing boy with a real vocation and his preacher stepfather, a compulsive lecher whose sense of guilt, rather than a true call, has brought him to the pulpit…. Mr. Baldwin … gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of the intellectual seediness and poverty of this kind of religious life and of the secular life that produces it….
But for all its abundant virtues there is something lacking in the book; its perfections are wooden and it is without vitality in spite of its realism. When one compares it with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," the deficiency immediately declares itself. Ellison's novel was emotionally disturbing and extremely serious, but it was also rich in comic invention…. Mr. Baldwin's God-intoxicated lecher, with his roving eye and his inflamed conscience, which always arrives on the scene too late, carries farce with him wherever he goes, and if one treats him with Kafkaesque solemnity, the life goes out of him and the spiritual tragedy of his congregation loses a dimension…. Mr. Baldwin's novel is humorless, and the result is that it seems not more dignified or more understanding but less penetrating.
Anthony West, "Sorry Lives," in The New Yorker (© 1953 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 18, June 20, 1953, p. 93.
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James Baldwin writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself. As an essayist he is thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing and amusing. And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing.
In "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin surveys in pungent commentary certain phases of the contemporary scene as they relate to the citizenry of the United States, particularly Negroes. Harlem, the protest novel, bigoted religion, the Negro press and the student milieu of Paris are all examined in black and white, with alternate shutters clicking, for hours of reading interest. When the young man who wrote this book comes to a point where he can look at life purely as himself, and for himself, the color of his skin mattering not at all, when, as in his own words, he finds "his birthright as a man no less than his birthright as a black man," America and the world might well have a major contemporary commentator.
Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.
Langston Hughes, "From Harlem to Paris," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1956, p. 26.
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Mr. Baldwin has taken a very special theme [male homosexuality] and treated it with great artistry and restraint [in "Giovanni's Room"]. While he is franker about the physical aspects of male love than other writers who have written on the subject, he manages to retain a very delicate sense of good taste so that his characters never really offend us even when they appear most loathsome, most detestable. This truly remarkable achievement is possible because of Mr. Baldwin's intense sincerity and genuine ability to understand and to pity the wretches involved….
Of all the ills and vices of men it would seem that homosexuality is the one least demanding of patience and consideration, but Mr. Baldwin has managed to instil in one reader, at least, a greater tolerance, a fresher sense of pity.
David Karp, "A Squalid World," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIX, No. 48, December 1, 1956, p. 34.
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Giovanni's Room is the best American novel dealing with homosexuality I have read….
[From a recounting of the plot, Giovanni's Room] sounds like a painful novel, which it certainly is. It also sounds like a meretriciously fashionable-sensational one, which it is not…. He successfully avoids the cliché literary attitudes: overemphasis on the grotesque, and the use of homosexuality as a facile symbol for the estrangement which makes possible otherwise unavailable insights into the workings of "normal" society and "normal" people; in short, the Homosexual as Artist.
Not that Giovanni's Room is without faults. The novel's ending … is somewhat lame, his descriptions of the hero's emotions run too heavily to beating hearts, trembling, bright lights, overwhelming stirrings, falling, drowning, the bottom of the sea. Also, Baldwin's blond-athlete-type hero, like Norman Mailer's in The Deer Park, never wholly emerges from dimness.
Nevertheless, these shortcomings only slightly detract from the book's impact. If David, the American, remains even more lumpish than he is supposed to be, Giovanni, the experienced European more vulnerable than a child, is beautifully and economically realized. Baldwin insists on the painful, baffling complexity of things….
The Europe-versus-America theme is basic to Giovanni's Room. The Europeans' epigrammatic summations of individual and national character are contrasted with the gracelessness, sometimes oafishness of the Americans, David and his father, vacuously mouthing their hand-me-down colloquialisms.
But the Europeans are helpless, their knowledge is largely the knowledge of their own helplessness and that of others. They perceive some home truths about the American, but they misunderstand much, too…. In the end, neither Europe nor America is "right."
The complexities are of course most numerous in the treatment of the relationship between David and Giovanni…. Like so many heterosexual lovers also, David and Giovanni must fail each other because each seeks to become strong through the imagined strength of the other.
William Esty, "The Cities of the Plain," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1956 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 135, No. 25, December 17, 1956, p. 26.
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To transcend the sterile categories of "Negro-ness," whether those enforced by the white world or those erected defensively by Negroes, became Baldwin's central concern as a writer. He wanted, as he says in "Nobody Knows My Name," his brilliant new collection of essays, "to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer."…
Freedom cannot always be willed into existence; and that is why, as Baldwin went on to write two accomplished novels and a book of still more accomplished essays, he was forced to improvise a protest of his own: nonpolitical in character, spoken more in the voice of anguish than revolt, and concerned less with the melodrama of discrimination than the moral consequences of living under an irremovable stigma.
This highly personal protest Baldwin has released through a masterly use of the informal essay. Writing with both strength and delicacy, he has made the essay into a form that brings together vivid reporting, personal recollection and speculative thought….
[Especially] noteworthy are three essays on Richard Wright, which range in tone from disturbed affection to disturbing malice and reflect Baldwin's struggle to achieve some personal equilibrium as writer and Negro by discovering his true feelings toward the older man….
One great merit of his essays is their honesty in reflecting his own doubts and aggressions, and in recording his torturous efforts to find some peace in the relations between James Baldwin the lonely writer and James Baldwin the man who suffers as a Negro….
I have only one complaint to register against "Nobody Knows My Name." Partly because his work relies so heavily on a continuous scrutiny of his own responses, Baldwin succumbs at times to what Thorstein Veblen might have called the pose of conspicuous sincerity. In the essays on Wright and especially in a piece on Norman Mailer, the effort to expose the whole of his feelings slips occasionally into a mere attitude, and the confessional stance reveals some vanities of its own.
These are small blemishes on a splendid book. James Baldwin is a skillful writer, a man of fine intelligence and a true companion in the desire to make life human.
Irving Howe, "A Protest of His Own," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1961, p. 4.
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Mr. Baldwin [in "Nobody Knows My Name"] proves to be a steady and exact observer of himself and of others. He also qualifies eminently as a person for whom our society has not troubled to provide an identifying niche. In evidence of this, it is enough to say that he couples an uncomfortably acute intelligence with a measure of personal pride and that he is a Negro.
For convenience, we might divide Mr. Baldwin's essays into two heaps. The larger heap will contain his observations on a number of particular events that illuminate the peculiar situation of the Negro in a white world…. Their relation to the author's search for identity often is not an intimate one, but he argues for their inclusion on the ground that "the question of color, especially in this country, operates to hide the graver questions of the self." And certainly no reader would wish them deleted, for the irrelevant but adequate reason that they are splendid works of reporting and argument. The second and smaller heap of essays will contain Mr. Baldwin's direct assaults on the problem of identity. In them, observation and argument give place to analysis of states of mind. They are, so to speak, attempts to sketch his own mental landscape by way of getting his bearings in the world. And they also are, on the whole, so much less successful than our first batch of essays that they might be the work of a different pen….
The most conspicuous feature of these personal essays is the absence of a strong personal tone. It is not really a mental landscape that the reader descries but a vague amplitude of perplexities. (p. 233)
The light of his intelligence, when directed inward upon himself, seems to waver and fade. All sense of selection vanishes….
If his first heap of essays, those that deal largely with the question of color, deserve inclusion in the history of his search for identity, perhaps it is not, as he supposes, because these matters must be got out of the way before the search commences but because the clear stamp of his character is on every page. And a richly interesting character it proves to be. (p. 234)
He is a man who truly cherishes the values of Western civilization, and yet, as a Negro who is resident in a large, bright corner of that civilization, he suffers daily and personally from the most conspicuous transgression of those values. As an adherent to Western ideals, he must be tempted, at least occasionally, to take a broad, vague, patient view of American lapses. As a victim, he often must bitterly be tempted to declare those ideals humbug. In point of fact, he does neither. He simply and unanswerably insists that our values do us no good unless we put them into practice, and that there is nothing to be gained by pretending that they are practiced when obviously they are not. The pungent good sense of his social criticism is not easily to be matched…. (p. 236)
[If] his readers remain ignorant, with him, of his ultimate psychic essence, they can console themselves with the reflection that, whatever else he may be, he is an extremely valuable member of a small body of literary observers who write with vigor, sense, and utter candor about things that matter greatly to this country. (p. 238)
Donald Malcolm, "The Author in Search of Himself," in The New Yorker (© 1961 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXVII, No. 41, November 25, 1961, pp. 233-34, 236, 238.
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Notes of a Native Son remains, in my opinion, Mr. Baldwin's best book, either in fiction or non-fiction: it is more complex and more forceful than any of the others, more inward with the experience it seeks to describe and at the same time more detached from it. (p. 497)
We hear too often in these essays the voice of his will rather than the voice of his sensibility; there are too many examples of rhetoric, of exhortation, of uplift, of reproach, in the book, and they undoubtedly weaken the impact it makes. But the moral to be drawn from these faults is not at all that writers should eschew the political struggles into which their own deepest inclinations draw them. Anyone who might be inclined to draw that moral should try to imagine what the consequences to his work would have been if Mr. Baldwin, feeling as he does, had denied his own deep impulsions, and had turned away from the public struggle, in order to protect his "art." (p. 498)
In nothing is Mr. Baldwin more of an American, and more of an American Negro, than the reluctance with which he discusses questions of power. Reluctance may seem an odd word to use about someone who at a certain point writes of himself: "Well, I know how power works, it has worked on me, and if I didn't know how power worked, I would be dead." But Mr. Baldwin makes my case, indirectly, when he goes on to say, "I have simply never been able to afford myself any illusions concerning the manipulation of that power." For what he is confessing here is that for a Negro the exercise of direct political and economic power appears to be all but unattainable. And it is at this very point, I feel, that the weaknesses of Mr. Baldwin's writing tend to reveal themselves. Instead of analyzing the consequences of Negro powerlessness, or speculating about the kinds of power they may hope to win for themselves, he too frequently contents himself with making moral appeals, or with issuing warnings. (p. 500)
Mr. Baldwin should tell us what he imagines those "extreme and unlucky repercussions" might be, within himself and among American Negroes [if the effort to repress Negroes continues]—leaving aside, for the moment, what they may be among the colored nations of the world. This is not a small thing to ask; for what it presupposes is that, having so little effective power locally, the militant American Negroes, for all the determination and self-restraint they have so far shown, may yet fail to achieve their ends, and that Mr. Baldwin's hopes for "a country in which there are no minorities—for the first time in the history of the world" may remain illusory. (pp. 500-01)
However, the burden of further self-scrutiny does not rest upon Mr. Baldwin alone, for the effect of reading his book must be to make anyone who thinks of himself as a liberal reflect more deeply upon the nature and the conditions of his own liberalism. (p. 501)
Dan Jacobson, "James Baldwin as Spokesman," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 32, No. 6, December, 1961, pp. 497-502.
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[Nobody Knows My Name] is confirmation that James Baldwin is one of America's finest writers. The essays are uneven; some are slight and dated already because of their subject, some simply deserve more thought than Baldwin has devoted to them. But in this book and in his earlier Notes of a Native Son he has frequently written with a combination of passion, insight and intelligence to which his prose is equal. What sets Baldwin apart from even the best of his contemporaries is that he is an unproclaimed moralist whose arguments and insights rest on traditional and, in the best sense, even conventional values. (pp. 288, 290)
James Finn, "Critics' Choices for Christmas: 'Nobody Knows My Name'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXV, No. 11, December 8, 1961, pp. 288, 290.
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[In "Another Country," James Baldwin] studies the homosexuals and Negroes, often in parallel scenes. His plotting urges toward the breakdown of the barriers and the recovery of common humanity in love, a love that, in this book, invariably climaxes in sexual bouts. These are told frankly and pretty well, the homosexual ones somewhat better because they are less hectic and abrupt. The divisive barriers, on the other hand, he explores as far as sexual jealousy, and there are scenes of violence.
Unfortunately the persons of "Another Country" exist in a kind of vacuum: they do not have enough world to grow in, so love does not lead to community, procreation, productive collaboration, character change or even personal security. The author merely affirms their love to be important. And since there is not enough on-going world to support the jealous, their jealousy comes merely to sullenness and separation, without insight, liberation or useful grief….
It is puzzling how most of Baldwin's people make a living…. Nobody even mentions any political action or concerted protest, or reasons about the causes and possible remedies of the social situation in which all are trapped….
There is no doubt that this tenuous kind of involvement is in fact the daily experience of millions of people in our society, and they ought to have their Homer. But to make them live, a writer would have to concentrate precisely on their lack of involvement—not on how they "make the scene," but on the important world they fail to make, on their goofing off.
At his best [Baldwin's] prose is very personal, sinuous yet definite, with a slight Negro accent, spare, and very sweet. But in a performance like this it is strained, sometimes journalistic or noisy, often in no idiom, and there are pages of dull conversation and filler. The finest passages, for instance the gentle marijuana session, are really independent episodes in which he can move freely….
["Another Country"] is mediocre. It is unworthy of its author's lovely abilities. Given his awareness (which he cannot escape), he must write something more poetic and surprising.
Paul Goodman, "Not Enough of a World to Grow In," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 24, 1962, p. 5.
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[In] Another Country, there are no effective controls—of form, of language, of moral content, of theme…. [Metaphorically, the "country" of the title] is that misty region on the nether side of society where alienated men and women act out the racial and sexual—and, improbably, the international, or at least the Franco-American—encounter. The characters—black and white, beat and square, irresolutely straight and avowedly homosexual—are in their variety meant to describe the topography of that other country, and to dramatize the way life is lived there….
Baldwin loses control almost immediately, and never recovers it; and the manner in which he fails lies at the heart of the novel's totally disabling flaws. With catastrophically absurd and chaotic results for the work as fiction, and as criticism of life, he takes his metaphors, his allegory, literally: not illuminating in some imaginative and contingent sense, but equivalent in an exact and mathematical one, so that the torments of race and sex, each mirroring the other, are fought out on the same battleground, with the same weapons, to the same issue….
[Because] he misnames the acts and feelings which are the essence of his novel, Baldwin compounds confusion, adding moral to aesthetic failure. We watch it happening on every page. The point of view shifts erratically; the tempo flags; scenes lose their force and drift into limbo; dialogue is wooden, listless, frequently superfluous. The language, because it is without its own energy and shape, seeks desperately for vitality and meaning in obscenity; and because the characters, uncreated, do not relate one to the other, Baldwin drives them furiously to the performance of their agonized acts, stridently demanding of them a significance and beauty they cannot give. (p. 15)
Saul Maloff, "The Two Baldwins," in The Nation (copyright 1962 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 195, No. 1, July 14, 1962, pp. 15-16.
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[When] I finished [Another Country], I felt as if I had become one of the minor characters in it, though less real and utterly outclassed sexually.
Even this is no threat. One cannot get lost in Baldwin's work because it is completely contiguous with reality; an extension of it in depth rather than a substitute for it. There is no sense of transition, merely of immensely heightened awareness and vividness and moral understanding….
Another Country is, in its implications, in some ways a profoundly conservative novel. In this respect, it resembles The Last of the Just, though I am less certain that the inferences one draws from that work are what [André] Schwarz-Bart intends. With Baldwin I am sure; his level of technical competence is so high that a reader has roughly as much choice about how to respond as he would to a skillful executioner. He may, to be sure, misunderstand what is happening to him, but this will not affect the outcome.
What is conservative about both books is their emphasis on the need for roots, even though they be bitter roots, and poisonous. (p. 23)
Throughout the novel [the fate of the exile] is the leitmotif, on which countless variations are sung…. Trust and continuity among human beings, good and bad, are what even the poorest community affords its members; that is what makes it a community, Another Country is not about a community; it is about a peer-group, all of whose members are trying to "make it." Their worst fear is that they may get "hung up" on one another. They have beds, though not for sleeping; but they have no homes. This, in contemporary fiction, is no novelty. What gives such stature to Baldwin's work and makes his characters tragic and comic is that—unlike say, [Jack] Kerouac's or [Gerald] Durrell's—they have choices….
Baldwin is the least sentimental of novelists; and his characters' struggle to "make it" is never just status-seeking; it is an effort to confront and dominate the crushing reality of poverty and anonymity in New York, and to acquire the minimum essentials of decency and identity. Sometimes what they become in the process destroys them; but—and here Mr. Baldwin is unusual among his contemporaries—very often it doesn't. The result is a magnificent moral cliffhanger. (p. 24)
Edgar Z. Friedenberg, "Another Country for an Arkansas Traveler," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1962 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 147, Nos. 8-9, August 27, 1962, pp. 23-6.
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In spite of all that has been written about the Negro in America in the last decade or so, I think there is no more lucid, revealing and corruscating record than [Notes of a Native Son]. The intensity of feeling is matched by the brilliance of the thought, and it is difficult to grasp the moral effort that must have been required to bring to the surface, to place under the harsh light of critical examination, things that both black and white have for so long kept buried deep. (pp. 113-14)
Another Country is a novel whose parts are more successful than the whole, and the achievement in these parts is of such a high order and of such particularity that we will not, I think, find their counterpart in American writing.
The first section of the novel, which is devoted primarily to Rufus, could stand as a complete short work. Rufus, much of whose value we are asked to take on trust, is gradually worn down and destroyed by forces that he cannot totally comprehend, nor can the reader—though he may recognize them as familiar—for they flow from no single identifiable source. But Rufus exists as a person, the forces that destroy him are palpable, and the grotesque and terrible prayer that is wrenched from him when he plunges to his death reverberates.
There are other passages where Baldwin is equal to his intentions…. And those are enough, not entirely to save the book but to make it more interesting and more rewarding than the "great" new works held up for universal admiration with such implacable regularity. (p. 115)
While any evaluation of Baldwin as a writer must consider both his essays and his novels, it is, hopefully, for the latter that he will be remembered. Since the essays, for the most part, deal with contemporary problems, they will become historical; that is, again hopefully, they will cease to apply to current situations. Yet it is partly on the basis of the essays that one has faith in his value as a novelist, for some of the resources on which he must draw are revealed most sharply in the essays. What seems to be the case is that Baldwin has yet to find the artistic form that will reveal the mystery, that will uncover the truth he knows is there. If he does, if his intention and accomplishment become one, if his intellectual grasp is matched by his imaginative, he will be a writer whose measure it will be difficult to take. (p. 116)
James Finn, "The Identity of James Baldwin," in Commonweal (copyright © 1962 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXVII, No. 5, October 26, 1962, pp. 113-16.
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James Baldwin is a disarming man, against whom it is necessary to arm ourselves. Which, oddly enough, may be what he is trying to tell us.
[In The Fire Next Time he] has written an indictment of Western civilization—more precisely, of that civilization's religion, of "the white God"—that is carefully and consciously "outrageous." He edges toward us—in every sentence—his credentials as the most sensitive and discriminating articulator of Negro suffering; while, fully aware of the incongruity, he constructs an intricate sympathy for the crudest kind of Negro racism, that of Elijah Muhammad and his Black Muslims. There is virtuosity, even a dark gaiety in his anger: he does not try to hide the logical weaknesses in his argument, considered solely as an argument. He candidly bases his view of religion on his special experience of "the church racket": at the age of fourteen, he became a boy preacher in order to break the hold over him of his father, an hysterical minister who, after torturing his children with hatred and piety, starved himself to death….
Up against an audience that has its Freud by heart, an indictment of religion based on this experience is almost bound to misfire; to be read as the private fight of an Oedipus, not as part of the public struggle of a race for recognition. Baldwin knows this; knows, nonetheless, that he can give the game away and still win it. (p. 408)
The modulations that carry us from the opening pages—so aware of human evil and contradiction—to the homiletic conclusion (simply love, children, surrender yourselves to love "as a state of being, or a state of grace") are almost imperceptible. It is a tour de force. Yet, despite the manifesto prose about "changing the world," the contrived effects, the unexpected stridency, it is intensely moving; it has, in fact, had a seismic effect whose tremors are not even beginning to subside. (p. 409)
Ida becomes the "voice of the Negro" in this tale—not pathetic, irritating, a lingering mystery, but aggressive and bound to win.
In some as yet unconfessed way, Baldwin seems to be launched on the self-lacerating task that Ida set herself—to see if, in the amorphous tolerance surrounding the "accepted" Negro, some fire of human dignity and spontaneity can still be kindled….
But, though he hit us as hard as he could, though he took the most sacred things as his target …, though he was as outrageous as he could be …, he has been met with a vast tolerance and sympathy, a vague clucking of tongues over the plight of Harlem Negroes…. It must be very frustrating….
He does not attack us for not living up to our ideals, for lapsing, for sinning, for being bad Christians. He says we do not have any ideals: we do not believe in any of the things our religion, our civilization, our country stand for. It is all an elaborate lie, a lie whose sole and original function is to fortify privilege. And he proves this by attacking all our so-called beliefs, then standing back and observing that no one defends them. (p. 410)
Garry Wills, "What Color Is God?" in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1963; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XIV, No. 20, May 21, 1963, pp. 408-414, 416-17.
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Baldwin's power is his ability to express situations—the situation of being a Negro, and of being white, and of being human. Beyond this, he is perhaps too impatient to be a good novelist, and although he is a powerful essayist [as shown in The Fire Next Time] his experiences are so colored with feelings that he seems unable to relate the thoughts which arise from his feelings to parallel situations that have given rise to other men's thoughts. (p. 256)
Mr. Baldwin would admit, I think, that when (and this is quite often) he is guided by his emotions he finds himself in a position not far from that of the Black Muslims. He quite rightly resents the claims of whites that they are superior to colored people. But in fact he thinks that the colored are superior. (p. 257)
Mr. Baldwin asserts that the white American does not recognize death because he does not recognize life. He does not recognize the "constants" of life in himself, and therefore he does not recognize them in the Negro. If he recognized the Negro as a being like himself, then he would recognize in himself those constants which he acknowledges in the Negro. Thus the black can "save" the white by making the white conscious of his humanity….
Although Mr. Baldwin considers love is the only answer to the American race problem, it is not at all evident from his book that he loves white Americans, and at times it is even doubtful whether he loves his own people. Not that I blame him for this. What I do criticize him for is postulating a quite impossible demand as the only way of dealing with a problem that has to be solved. (p. 258)
The great contribution of Mr. Baldwin is that he finds words to express what one knows to be true: how it feels to be an American Negro. Within his own works he has solved the problem of integration: not by love, but by imagination using words which know no class nor color bars. (p. 260)
Stephen Spender, "James Baldwin: Voice of a Revolution," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1963 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XXX, No. 2, Summer, 1963, pp. 256-60.
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I envy whoever writes of James Baldwin a century from now. That his work will then be discussed I have no doubt, since of all writers in English of our era his style is most classic, his theme one of the most relevant. But it is because of this theme, precisely, that it is so hard to criticize his writing now.
Baldwin's essential theme is life-death-passion-honor-beauty-horror … the perpetual theme since the Greeks and long before, the only one worthy of a great artist and of which, as writer and man, he has proved himself so worthy. (p. 119)
[Baldwin] is a premonitory prophet, a fallible sage, a sooth-sayer, a bardic voice falling on deaf and delighted ears. These qualities emerge best in his "essays" (for such one must call them, though they are so agonized and hortatory that the word hardly fits), and far less decisively in his novels. If I say I do not think his novels convey his intentions so effectively—if I say in fact that he is "not a novelist"—no doubt this will vex him but, if so, I think mistakenly…. [Most] of all it is because I see—or hear—James Baldwin as a voice, a presence, a singer almost, that I feel the mode of direct address—to us in his own person, and not through invented "characters"—expresses his talent and his message best. (p. 121)
The first quality in these essays is their extraordinary tone. Baldwin was just over thirty when the first collection appeared—and many of the essays were of course written when he was even younger—but already the note of authority is as unmistakable as it is unforced. As to the style, if I may borrow his own description of jazz and gospel songs—"taut, ironic, authoritative, and double-edged"—these fit exactly. To them I would add a natural dignity, a sadly acid wit, and an enormous, quite uncondescending—if exigently demanding—humanity.
Their chief theme is race, and all I can say about Baldwin's analysis of this ghastly topic is that if there is anything conceivable to add, I cannot imagine what it may be. Hearing him is not always a pleasurable experience—it is, in fact, apart from the beauty of his prose, usually an embarrassing one—but at least, having read him, you can no longer feel you do not know, if only at second hand. (pp. 136-37)
Colin MacInnes, "Dark Angel: The Writings of James Baldwin," in Encounter (© 1963 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XXI, Nos. 22 & 23, August, 1963 (and reprinted in Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes, and Le Roi Jones, edited by Donald B. Gibson, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 119-42).
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Baldwin has come to represent for "white" Americans the eloquent, indignant prophet of an oppressed people, a voice speaking … in an all but desperate, final effort to bring us out of what he calls our innocence before it is (if it is not already) too late. This voice calls us to our immediate duty for the sake of our own humanity as well as our own safety. It demands that we stop regarding the Negro as an abstraction, an invisible man; that we begin to recognize each Negro in his "full weight and complexity" as a human being; that we face the horrible reality of our past and present treatment of Negroes—a reality we do not know and do not want to know.
This message has always formed the core of Baldwin's autobiographical writings. (pp. 239-40)
The word "identity" recurs over and over again in Baldwin's autobiographical essays. The essential question, for himself and for the American audience that he assumes is white, is: Who am I? or: How can I be myself? In his answers to these questions we see the strength that places several of Baldwin's autobiographical essays among the best in American literature; we must see there also several inconsistencies and errors that may be the inevitable price of his method.
As he has rearranged them, without regard for chronology, in his books, these essays give great importance not only to the question of identity but to Baldwin's recurrent answer: I am a writer. (p. 240)
Baldwin's function as a writer is to make us see, and he shocks us with abrupt reversals of our usual point of view…. [He] reminds us of enthusiasts like [Henry David] Thoreau and [Herman] Melville and [Jonathan] Edwards and [Thomas] Hooker, who persisted in seeing the convicting reality that others would not see. (pp. 241-42)
The writer uses his experience as an American Negro to tell us crucial truths about ourselves and all men.
It seems to me that Baldwin accomplishes this task most effectively in several of the brilliant autobiographical essays in Notes of a Native Son. Especially in the title essay, one of the best autobiographical narratives in our literature, he gives us a sharp sense not only of the pain but of the vigorous diversity of Negro life in America. (p. 244)
In almost every essay, however, and especially when he writes about our obligation to face the facts of the past, Baldwin's didactic purpose and his predicament as an American Negro force him to ignore his conviction that color does not matter…. Although he shows magnificently that he knows better, his method leads him to write of Negroes as if they were all of one mind and culture, and of whites (or groups of whites) as if they belonged uniformly to another. (pp. 244-45)
The problem is most serious in Baldwin's discussion of the Negro's past, and it is especially serious because he calls us to face the past honestly and to resist the temptation to invent a false one…. The value of the Negro's special experience, Baldwin perceives, is its double-edgedness, the Negro's separateness from both Europe and Africa…. Yet the "I" in these essays often proclaims an undefined African heritage "that was taken from him, almost literally, at one blow."… He tells us that the most illiterate Swiss villager is related, in a way he himself can never attain, to Dante, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, and that the cathedral at Chartres and the Empire State Building say something to Swiss villagers (or would if the villagers could ever see them) that these buildings cannot say to him. When he enters a Swiss village, he says, he finds himself among a people whose culture "controls" him, has even in a sense "created" him. "Go back a few centuries," he says, "and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive." (pp. 245-46)
Surely the way in which Baldwin is related to Shakespeare and Dante is more important than the way an illiterate European is related to either of them—more important, too, than the way Baldwin is related to the man in Africa watching the conquerors arrive…. The American Negro's past to which he calls our attention is much more complex than the demands of Baldwin's autobiographical and polemical techniques have sometimes allowed him to admit; and so is the past of American whites…. Baldwin, however, would honor us all without compromising himself in the slightest degree if he would accept his identity as an original American writer whose autobiographical work has already established its place in a tradition that begins with [Gamaliel Bradford, John Woolman, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau]. (p. 247)
David Levin, "Baldwin's Autobiographical Essays: The Problem of Negro Identity," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1964 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 239-47.
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Mr. Baldwin is a preacher and a rhapsodist. "Blues for Mister Charlie" is an angry sermon and a pain-wracked lament. It draws together the humiliation, degradation, frustration and resentment felt by millions relegated to second-class citizenship and transmutes the accumulated bitterness into a roar of fury. Listen attentively to Mr. Baldwin if you want to know the Negro who now is emerging from behind the noncommittal mask.
Mr. Baldwin is not quite so good with the white man. His fearful, unreconstructed white Southerners are close to caricature. His account of their ignorant, superstitious, malevolent opinions is probably well-founded. One can hear similar obscenities in the North.
But a dramatist makes his point most forcefully when his antagonist is drawn from strength. Mr. Baldwin's most effective white character is Parnell, the one decent white man. Parnell fails the Negro, and this failure not only is pitiful but also intensifies the play's anguish and wrathful militancy….
Mr. Baldwin passes a miracle in evoking a wounded human being in a few piercing sentences. He can also write long, soaring speeches that shake the theater with their passion. But these speeches are not a theatrical gesture. They lay bare the heart of the Negro's suffering and explain the iron of his determination.
Howard Taubman, "Common Burden: Baldwin Points Duty of Negro and White," in The New York Times (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1964 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).
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[The direction Blues for Mr. Charlie] takes is an expression of the will of one of the characters, Richard's father, who searches for the meaning of [his son's] murder for himself, for his son, and for the man who committed it….
[Richard] is rich with anger, and yet in the very first scene with his father, he surrenders to him the pistol he has brought back with him from the North, an act for which he will in the end have to pay with his life.
Why does he surrender the pistol? Meridian himself does not demand it, although his values may seem to. Instead, at his son's provocation, Meridian admits that the mother was in fact pushed, and did not slip as apparently he had once tried to make his son believe. Richard now gives him the gun supposedly because Meridian has given up the truth, and given it up to him. But this truth his father speaks only verifies what Richard had already known. Surrendering the gun at this point, then, is either psychological perversity on Richard's part (a clue to a motive of which he himself is unaware), or sentimentality on the part of the writer, who may so want a scene of loving and forgiveness between a father and a son on the stage that he will have one even if it means destroying the most authentic facts about his own characters. Or else it is just so much piety about that word truth. Whatever the cause, at the most important dramatic moment of the act (and maybe of the play) the sense of the drama is hopelessly distorted: Meridian Henry, rather than disputing his son's judgment of him, accepts it, asks to be forgiven; and Richard, instead of finding his strength of purpose hardened by his father's truthfulness, surrenders his purpose by surrendering the gun….
[This distortion of character] may tell us that beneath the play presented, there is a hidden play about a Negro father and a Negro son…. How to the point of what the play at first appears to be about, if Meridian had said, "You cannot live in my house with a gun"; if Richard had replied, "That's how you killed my mother"—and if Meridian had answered, "You are wrong. I want the gun." Then that struggle which also seems to remain confused in the heart of the writer, the struggle between love and hate, would have been untangled in the drama, even if it could not, and cannot, be resolved for either the playwright or the audience. But this required the dramatist to permit one of his characters to become a hero, and his play, perhaps, to aspire to tragedy. For a while, I thought Baldwin had chosen Meridian to fill the role of tragic hero in what is really a tragic story. If he had, then real blues might have been sung in the end for the Negro rather than those spurious blues for Mr. Charlie, who is the white man, and who can hardly be said to be the play's hero either. (p. 10)
But in the remaining two acts of the play all the purposes of the first act collapse; indeed, everything collapses, sense, craft, and feeling. The duty to understand is replaced with a duty to do what is practically its opposite, to propagandize…. When the curtain goes up on Act Two the circumstances and the people of Act One are pretty much swept aside. Now we are over in Whitetown, in the home of Lyle Britten, who is the murderer, but not the villain—as, in a way, Richard is the victim without being the hero. Both are dummies who only move their mouths while the real hero and villain air their views. For the real hero of these last two acts is blackness, as the real villain is whiteness….
[Blues for Mister Charlie] is soap opera designed to illustrate the superiority of blacks over whites. The blues Baldwin may think he is singing for Mr. Charlie's sinning seem to me really to be sung for his inferiority….
His making a hero of blackness, combined with his sentimentalizing of masculinity, blinds Baldwin to the fact that Richard's condition is no less hideously comic than Lyle Britten's. There is no glory or hope, not a shred of it, to be found in the life of either the black man or the white. What these characters give evidence to, what the play seems to be about really, is the small-mindedness of the male sex. It is about the narcissistic, pompous, and finally ridiculous demands made by the male ego when confronted by moral catastrophe. (p. 11)
Philip Roth, "Channel X: Two Plays on the Race Conflict," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 8, May 28, 1964, pp. 10-13.∗
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Baldwin attempts to deal honestly with a number of sexual relationships most of which were taboo to previous writers. In Another Country it is suggested that security, order and common sense are illusions, and that only people like Rufus, Vivaldo, Cass and Eric, who submit themselves to the mystery and chaos of their emotions, are truly alive…. For Baldwin and his characters, sexual experience involves an entry into an unknown violent country…. Most people fear this journey into the unknown and never dare to examine the reality of their sexual impulses. In his treatment of sex, Baldwin has much in common with the writers examined by Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony. The descent into sexual experience is a journey undertaken only by certain heroic kinds of people towards a truth which is both painful and beautiful. In the novel sex is linked with images of infection, disease, poison, yet it is only through sex that the characters can overcome their isolation, and express their tenderness for each other. (pp. 116-17)
For Baldwin, therefore, to live, to perceive reality, is to submit oneself to suffering and chaos. Breakdown, neurosis, even suicide are a proper reaction to the human condition, for otherwise we are escaping from the truth. (p. 117)
Much of the novel suggests that homosexual relationships are the most real and satisfying for a man. As in David Storey's Radcliffe or Angus Wilson's Hemlock and After, the homosexual becomes the lonely, sensitive hero, whose perverse sexual appetites mark him out from the apathetic normality of the majority of people. The homosexual who accepts his own instincts becomes a hero because he is not afraid to acknowledge that sexual appetite cannot be circumscribed by social conventions. Perhaps Baldwin is particularly sympathetic towards homosexuality because such sterile relationships bring none of the problems of mixed marriage, the difficulties of the children and the heightening of the conflict between male and female. Marriage involves the participants in a public relationship, while the homosexual can retain his individuality unaffected by social commitments. In Another Country Eric alone achieves 'a sense of himself' because he is not afraid of the chaotic, violent passions imposed upon him by his sexual nature. Much of the violence of society is seen as the result of a failure in this type of recognition, a frustration of the true self by meaningless social taboos.
Baldwin's obsession with sex at times seems adolescent; but he has a marvellous ability to create character, and to depict with understanding and pity the violent emotions by which his people are beset. (p. 118)
C. B. Cox and A. R. Jones, "After the Tranquillized Fifties," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1964, pp. 107-22.∗
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Mr Baldwin's enlistment in the cause of Civil Rights was bound to change his writings. It seems he has sacrificed them, or some of their resources…. His earlier essays were rich and good. But the intermittently powerful rhetoric of last year's The Fire Next Time—a fire kindled, it's the kind of thing that happens with such documents, in the asbestos pages of the New Yorker—has become the brutal and unqualified rhetoric of the present essay [Nothing Personal].
No one who visited America before the drive for Civil Rights properly began will doubt that there were decent people there whose lives were virtually unaffected by the racial situation…. Mr Baldwin should not pretend that such people don't exist. Nor are they any worse than people in other countries, where, equally, innocence is ignorance, and where there are comparable guilts and offences. According to Mr Baldwin, the American experience is corrupt and predatory, with trivial exceptions; and has been so since the first white foot was planted on the continent. No one smiles. No one sings. There are no lovers. If it were easy to suppose, as he must surely do, that what he says here will help the Negroes, this extravagance would not matter much. As it is, the essay may inflame a bookish and converted few, but as a piece of propaganda it's more like a piece of exhibitionism.
Mr Baldwin's recent essays can be very portentous, leaning on the clichés of the rostrum and of the literary article. The vein is the academic-apocalyptic, the kind of style in which it is possible to assert that whole classes or communities are contemptible or dead…. Not the least painful feature of the race situation in America is that a gifted novelist should be brought to write like this. Mr Baldwin writes in a good cause, but it will be a happy day when such a prose will no longer seem to be required.
Karl Miller, "America," in New Statesman (© 1964 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXVIII, No. 1760, December 4, 1964, p. 891.
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Nothing Personal pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America, but the people likely to buy this extravagant volume are the subscribers to fashion magazines, while the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic….
Baldwin's attacks are significant less for their familiar content than for the conditioned response they are expected to provoke in the reader—and, especially, for the format in which they appear. But lending himself to such an enterprise, Baldwin reveals that he is now part and parcel of the very things he is criticizing….
James Baldwin's rage is here inspired largely by opportunism, but while the photographer [Richard Avedon] is taking advantage of the times, the writer is letting the times take advantage of him. Once direct and biting in his criticism of American life, Mr. Baldwin has repeated his revolt so often that it has now become a reflex mannerism that curls his fingers around his pen and squeezes out empty rhetoric. In Nothing Personal, certainly, Baldwin has either adapted his ideas to the intellectual chic of the women's magazines, or he is putting his readers on….
The author of Notes of a Native Son was a highly aware and complicated individual; the author of Nothing Personal, and the rest of his recent writings, is merely a self-constituted Symbol, bucking hard for the rank of Legend. (p. 10)
Robert Brustein, "Everybody Knows My Name" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The New York Review of Books, Vol. III, No. 9, December 17, 1964, pp. 10-11.
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Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) is the best of Baldwin's novels, and the best is very good indeed. It ranks with Jean Toomer's Cane, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a major contribution to American fiction. For this novel cuts through the walls of the storefront church to the essence of Negro experience in America. This is Baldwin's earliest world, his bright and morning star, and it glows with metaphorical intensity. Its emotions are his emotions; its language, his native tongue. The result is a prose of unusual power and authority. One senses in Baldwin's first novel a confidence, control, and mastery of style which he has not attained again in the novel form. (p. 5)
Baldwin sees the Negro quite literally as the bastard child of American civilization. In Gabriel's double involvement with bastardy, we have a re-enactment of the white man's historic crime. In Johnny, the innocent victim of Gabriel's hatred, we have an archetypal image of the Negro child. Obliquely, by means of an extended metaphor, Baldwin approaches the very essence of Negro experience. That essence is rejection, and its most destructive consequence is shame. But God, the Heavenly Father, does not reject the Negro utterly. He casts down only to raise up. This is the psychic drama which occurs beneath the surface of John's conversion….
This quality of Negro life, unending struggle with one's own blackness, is symbolized by Baldwin in the family name, Grimes. One can readily understand how such a sense of personal shame might have been inflamed by contact with the Christian tradition and transformed into an obsession with original sin. (p. 8)
Given this attack on the core of the self, how can the Negro respond?… There is … the path of self-hatred and the path of self-acceptance. Both are available to Johnny within the framework of the church, but he is deterred from one by the negative example of his father.
Consider Gabriel. The substance of his life is moral evasion. A preacher of the gospel, and secretly the father of an illegitimate child, he cannot face the evil in himself. In order to preserve his image as the Lord's anointed, he has sacrificed the lives of those around him. His principal victim is Johnny, who is not his natural child. In disowning the bastard, he disowns the "blackness" in himself. Gabriel's psychological mechanisms are, so to say, white. Throughout his work Baldwin has described the scapegoat mechanism which is fundamental to the white man's sense of self. To the question, Who am I?, the white man answers: I am white, that is, immaculate, without stain. I am the purified, the saved, the saintly, the elect. It is the black who is the embodiment of evil. Let him, the son of the bondwoman, pay the price of my sins.
From self-hatred flows not only self-righteousness but self-glorification as well…. When the Negro preacher compares the lot of his people to that of the children of Israel, he provides his flock with a series of metaphors which correspond to their deepest experience. The church thus offers to the Negro masses a ritual enactment of their daily pain. It is with this poetry of suffering, which Baldwin calls the power of the Word, that the final section of the novel is concerned.
The first fifteen pages of Part III contain some of Baldwin's most effective writing. As John Grimes lies before the altar, a series of visionary states passes through his soul. Dream fragments and Freudian sequences, lively fantasies and Aesopian allegories, combine to produce a generally surrealistic effect. Images of darkness and chaos, silence and emptiness, mist and cold—cumulative patterns developed early in the novel—function now at maximum intensity. These images of damnation express the state of the soul when thrust into outer darkness by a rejecting, punishing, castrating father-figure who is the surrogate of a hostile society. The dominant emotions are shame, despair, guilt, and fear. (pp. 8-9)
On these harsh terms, Baldwin's protagonist discovers his identity…. To the question, Who am I?, he can now reply: I am he who suffers, and yet whose suffering on occasion is "from time set free." And thereby he discovers his humanity, for only man can ritualize his pain. We are now very close to that plane of human experience where art and religion intersect. What Baldwin wants us to feel is the emotional pressure exerted on the Negro's cultural forms by his exposure to white oppression. And finally to comprehend that these forms alone, through their power of transforming suffering, have enabled him to survive his terrible ordeal.
Giovanni's Room (1956) is by far the weakest of Baldwin's novels. There is a tentative, unfinished quality about the book, as if in merely broaching the subject of homosexuality Baldwin had exhausted his creative energy. Viewed in retrospect, it seems less a novel in its own right than a first draft of Another Country. The surface of the novel is deliberately opaque, for Baldwin is struggling to articulate the most intimate, the most painful, the most elusive of emotions. The characters are vague and disembodied, the themes half-digested, the colors rather bleached than vivified. We recognize in this sterile psychic landscape the unprocessed raw material of art.
And yet this novel occupies a key position in Baldwin's spiritual development. Links run backward to Go Tell It on the Mountain as well as forward to Another Country. The very furniture of Baldwin's mind derives from the storefront church of his boyhood and adolescence. When he attempts a novel of homosexual love, with an all-white cast of characters and a European setting, he simply transposes the moral topography of Harlem to the streets of Paris. When he strives toward sexual self-acceptance, he automatically casts the homosexual in a priestly role. (p. 10)
At the emotional center of the novel is the relationship between David and Giovanni. It is highly symbolic, and to understand what is at stake, we must turn to Baldwin's essay on André Gide. Published toward the end of 1954, about a year before the appearance of Giovanni's Room, this essay is concerned with the two sides of Gide's personality and the precarious balance which was struck between them. On the one side was his sensuality, his lust for the boys on the Piazza d'Espagne, threatening him always with utter degradation. On the other was his Protestantism, his purity, his otherworldliness—that part of him which was not carnal, and which found expression in his Platonic marriage to Madeleine. As Baldwin puts it, "She was his Heaven who would forgive him for his Hell and help him to endure it." It is a drama of salvation, in which the celibate wife, through selfless dedication to the suffering artist, becomes in effect a priest.
In the present novel, Giovanni plays the role of Gide; David, of Madeleine.
Possessing the power to save, David rejects the priestly office. Seen in this light, his love affair with Giovanni is a kind of novitiate. The dramatic conflict of the novel can be stated as follows: does David have a true vocation? Is he prepared to renounce the heterosexual world? When David leaves Giovanni for Hella, he betrays his calling, but ironically he has been ruined both for the priesthood and the world.
It is Giovanni, Baldwin's doomed hero, who is the true priest. For a priest is nothing but a journeyman in suffering…. It is a crucial distinction for all of Baldwin's work: there are the relatively innocent—the laity who are mere apprentices in human suffering—and the fully initiated, the clergy who are intimate with pain. Among the laity may be numbered Americans, white folks, heterosexuals, and squares; among the clergy, Europeans, Negroes, homosexuals, hipsters, and jazzmen. (p. 11)
The patterns first explored in Giovanni's Room are given full expression in Another Country. Rufus is a Negro Giovanni—a journeyman in suffering and a martyr to racial oppression. Vivaldo and the other whites are mere apprentices, who cannot grasp the beauty and the terror of Negro life. Eric is a David who completes his novitiate, and whose priestly or redemptive role is central to the novel. There has been, however, a crucial change of tone. In Giovanni's Room, one part of Baldwin wants David to escape from the male prison, even as another part remains committed to the ideal of homosexual love. In the later novel, this conflict has been resolved. Baldwin seems convinced that homosexuality is a liberating force, and he now brings to the subject a certain proselytizing zeal.
Another Country (1962) is a failure on the grand scale. It is an ambitious novel, rich in thematic possibilities, for Baldwin has at his disposal a body of ideas brilliantly developed in his essays. When he tries to endow these ideas with imaginative life, however, his powers of invention are not equal to the task. The plot consists of little more than a series of occasions for talk and fornication. Since the latter is a limited vehicle for the expression of complex ideas, talk takes over, and the novel drowns in a torrent of rhetoric.
The ideas themselves are impressive enough. At the heart of what Baldwin calls the white problem is a moral cowardice, a refusal to confront the "dark" side of human experience. The white American, at once over-protected and repressed, exhibits an infuriating tendency to deny the reality of pain and suffering, violence and evil, sex and death. He preserves in the teeth of human circumstance what must strike the less protected as a kind of willful innocence. (p. 12)
By projecting the "blackness" of his own being upon the dark skin of his Negro victim, the white man hopes to exercise the chaotic forces which threaten to destroy him from within.
The psychic cost is of course enormous. The white man loses the experience of "blackness," sacrificing both its beauty and its terror to the illusion of security. In the end, he loses his identity. For a man who cannot acknowledge the dark impulses of his own soul cannot have the vaguest notion of who he is. (pp. 12-13)
There are psychic casualties on the Negro side as well. No human personality can escape the effects of prolonged emotional rejection. The victim of this cruelty will defend himself with hatred and with dreams of vengeance, and will lose, perhaps forever, his normal capacity for love. Strictly speaking, this set of defenses, and the threat of self-destruction which they pose, constitutes the Negro problem.
It is up to the whites to break this vicious circle of rejection and hatred. They can do so only by facing the void, by confronting chaos, by making the necessary journey to "another country." What the white folks need is a closer acquaintance with the blues….
What dramatic materials are employed to invest these themes with life? A Greenwich Village setting and a hipster idiom…. A square thrown in for laughs. A side trip to Harlem (can we be slumming?). A good deal of boozing, and an occasional stick of tea…. Five orgasms (two interracial and two homosexual) or approximately one per eighty pages, a significant increase over the Mailer rate. Distracted by this nonsense, how can one attend to the serious business of the novel?
In one respect only does the setting of Another Country succeed. Baldwin's descriptions of New York contain striking images of malaise, scenes and gestures which expose the moral chaos of contemporary urban life. The surface of his prose reflects the aching loneliness of the city with the poignancy of [an Edward] Hopper painting. (p. 13)
At the core of Baldwin's fiction is an existentialist psychology…. Sexual identity—all identity—emerges from the void. Man, the sole creator of himself, moves alone upon the face of the waters….
[Eric holds a] pivotal position in the novel. Through his commitment to Yves, he introduces an element of order into the chaos of his personal life. This precarious victory, wrested in anguish from the heart of darkness, is the real subject of Another Country. Images of chaos proliferate throughout the novel. (p. 15)
Eric is the first of Rufus' friends to face his demons and achieve a sense of self. He in turn emancipates the rest.
From this vantage point, one can envision the novel that Baldwin was trying to write. With the breakdown of traditional standards—even of sexual normality—homosexuality becomes a metaphor of the modern condition…. The homosexual becomes emblematic of existential man.
What actually happens, however, is that Baldwin's literary aims are deflected by his sexual mystique. Eric returns to America as the high priest of ineffable phallic mysteries. His friends, male and female, dance around the Maypole and, mirabile dictu, their sense of reality is restored….
For most readers of Another Country, the difficulty will lie in accepting Eric as a touchstone of reality…. [Few] will concede a sense of reality, at least in the sexual realm, to one who regards heterosexual love as "a kind of superior calisthenics."… To most, homosexuality will seem rather an invasion than an affirmation of human truth. Ostensibly the novel summons us to reality. Actually it substitutes for the illusions of white supremacy those of homosexual love. (p. 16)
The drama of reconciliation is enacted by Ida and Vivaldo. Through their symbolic marriage, Ida is reconciled to whites; Vivaldo, to women. This gesture, however, is a mere concession to majority opinion. What Baldwin really feels is dramatized through Rufus and Eric. Rufus can neither be fully reconciled to, nor fully defiant of, white society. No Bigger Thomas, he is incapable of total hate. Pushed to the limits of endurance, he commits suicide. Similarly, Eric can neither be fully reconciled to women, nor can he surrender to the male demi-monde. So he camps on the outskirts of Hell. In the case of Rufus, the suicidal implications are overt. With Eric,… Baldwin tries to persuade us that Hell is really Heaven. (pp. 16-17)
Coupled with these racial sentiments are manifestations of sexual Garveyism. Throughout the novel, the superiority of homosexual love is affirmed. Here alone can one experience total surrender and full orgastic pleasure; here alone the metaphysical terror of the void. Heterosexual love, by comparison, is a pale—one is tempted to say, white—imitation. In many passages hostility to women reaches savage proportions…. (p. 17)
In Another Country, the sharp outlines of character are dissolved by waves of uncontrolled emotion. The novel lacks a proper distancing. One has the impression of Baldwin's recent work that the author does not know where his own psychic life leaves off and that of his characters begins. What is more, he scarcely cares to know, for he is sealed in a narcissism so engrossing that he fails to make emotional contact with his characters. If his people have no otherness, if he repeatedly violates their integrity, how can they achieve the individuality which alone will make them memorable? (p. 18)
Properly regarded, Another Country will be seen as the celebration of a Black Mass. The jazzman is Baldwin's priest; the homosexual, his acolyte. The bandstand is his altar; Bessie Smith his choir. God is carnal mystery, and through orgasm, the Word is made flesh. Baldwin's ministry is as vigorous as ever. He summons to the mourners' bench all who remain, so to say, hardened in their innocence. Lose that, he proclaims, and you will be saved. To the truly unregenerate, those stubborn heterosexuals, he offers the prospect of salvation through sodomy. With this novel doctrine, the process of inversion is complete. (p. 19)
[Baldwin] has already devoted two novels to his sexual rebellion. If he persists, he will surely be remembered as the greatest American novelist since Jack Kerouac. The future now depends on his ability to transcend the emotional reflexes of his adolescence. So extraordinary a talent requires of him no less an effort. (p. 20)
Robert A. Bone, "The Novels of James Baldwin," in Tri-Quarterly (© 1965 by Tri-Quarterly), Winter, 1965, pp. 3-20.
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The fact that one has to wait until the final minutes of "The Amen Corner" for Sister Margaret to come truly alive is a clue to the shortcomings of Mr. Baldwin's early work. The structure of the play is elementary. The characterization is halting, and points are made obviously and repetitively.
Even in the much later "Blues for Mister Charlie," Mr. Baldwin had not mastered the dramatic form. "The Amen Corner," though it is not guilty of excesses of rhetoric, is often like an outline rather than a fully realized stage work. But unlike more craftsmanlike and emptier pieces, "The Amen Corner" has something to say. It throws some light on the barrenness of the lives of impoverished Negroes who seek surcease from their woes in religion….
One feels in "The Amen Corner" that Mr. Baldwin is only beginning to measure himself against the theater's challenge. Often his approach is tentative and tenuous. But here and there he fleshes out his thesis—that for too many poverty-stricken Negroes religion is an evasion of living—with dramatic eloquence.
Howard Taubman, "Frank Silvera and Bea Richards Head Cast," in The New York Times (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1965 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).
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There are several remarkable things about [Go Tell It on the Mountain], the most impressive of which is Baldwin's ability to make the experiences of the story immediate and definitive. He achieves this end through the use of his facile way with words and the oratorical flourish of the preacher. The immediacy is more strongly felt when we realize that Baldwin himself is preaching to us, not only in the way he knew as a boy preacher, but also as a persuasive writer reaching out to an audience. Also, his use of the flash-back technique without halting the action of the conversion is a formidable achievement especially for a first attempt in the novel. It would not be too much to compare Baldwin's success at narration with Conrad's success in Nostromo, though the latter is a far more ambitious and creative work. There is also the success of "sounding the sense" of the language of the novel; because the novel is about a religious experience, Baldwin's style moves with the poetic freedom of certain parts of the Old Testament and with the restraint of the New. His portrayal of the Negro is as honest as it is sympathetic, never falling to that type of sentimental bathos that characterizes so much of the description of Negroes in other stories. Baldwin's great mistake, however, was to believe that his characters could be regarded as Negroes "only incidentally." For the experiences of the novel are those of the Negro and cannot be confused with the experiences of any other racial group. That the characters appear Negro and act as Negroes is not a disadvantage and does not make the experiences less appealing. Baldwin wished to believe this. Because of this, I am led to believe that Baldwin had wanted to write about the Negro's American experience while, at the same time, he hoped to make the characters Everyman. His inability to understand the possibilities of such an endeavour suggests the first major problem that faced Baldwin as a writer. It seems to represent an inability to come to terms with his Negro-ness and with his obligations as a writer. One feels that he is not yet sure that the Negro experience is a valid one and he wishes to believe that as an author he can successfully objectify Negro experience to take on the garb of universality. Yet, there is no evidence of this dilemma in the novel; the roots of the struggle are within the man as Negro and artist. (pp. 386-87)
It seems evident [in Notes of a Native Son] that Baldwin is not merely criticizing the erroneous conceptions of the Negro held by white America, but also suggesting that Americans should make the past more meaningful to the present. For the past of the American Negro is inextricably tied to the past of white Americans and vice versa, and a knowledge of this fact will help all Americans to better understand their unique experience in the New World. I am suggesting here that there is far more to this volume of essays than a Negro's criticism of his country or of the racial conditions there. It is a plea from one man for Americans to accept the challenge that the ideal has imposed upon American history and American society; in short, it is the right for all Americans to be honestly and faithfully involved in the country's destiny. (p. 390)
The failure of Giovanni's Room introduces a problem that is central to the Negro writer in America: how successful can a story of fiction be when the characters created by the Negro author are non-Negro?… Giovanni's Room is not a failure because of the author's inability to make non-Negro characters come to life; it is a failure because of Baldwin's inability to trust his own experience in and with the white world. This resulted in the creation of characters too hollow and methodic to represent the experiences that he, Baldwin, did not understand or did not want to understand. It seems to me that this was the result of Baldwin's failure to understand his role as an author as apposed to that of a Negro author; again it is the conflict of identity, a conflict which is ultimately resolved in Nobody Knows My Name. (p. 392)
We sense [in Nobody Knows My Name] the emergence of a new James Baldwin, a man more certain of himself as a Negro, as an American, and as an author, and we are not disappointed to find that each essay is the personal manifestation of the author's growing awareness of those three facts combined. Each experience is an enlightenment for the man and fuel for his art. And although the essays are intensely personal, there is the widest implication of involving America with the rest of the world. (p. 393)
Nobody Knows My Name represents a two-fold achievement for James Baldwin. He had now attained a solidity of character that could no longer cause him to suffer illusions about himself and his country, and he had determined to dedicate himself to writing and to using the American experience to guide him. He realized that the determining of what the unwritten laws and assumptions of his society were offered tremendous possibilities for the writer….
Unlike Go Tell It on the Mountain, which deals specifically with a Negro experience, or Giovanni's Room, which examines the emotional relationships between three white persons, Another Country is a novel which explores several facets of life—love, marriage, sex, infidelity, writing, jazz, hope, joy, despair, degeneration, and death—through the intense relations of Negroes and whites in New York. The novel abounds with cross-currents of sexual and emotional attachments which, through kinship or sex, involve all the characters. The whole complex of relationships is competently handled by Baldwin. (p. 395)
Another Country may simply be categorized as a novel dealing with American Negro-white relationships. It is not a convincing novel because of the lack of any recognizable standards of value. Baldwin would like us to believe that New York, with its Harlem and its Greenwich Village, is typically the center of a disintegrating civilization, and that Rufus Scott is the symbol of suffering mankind. Rufus is not even the symbol of a suffering Negro; and here lies one of the great faults of the book, the characters are not typical Americans, and cannot be said to typify Negro-white relationships. For this reason we find that much of the dialogue between Ida and Vivaldo (symbol of the frustrated artist?) is unbelievably bitter and scathing. All of the characters try to "make it" in love and life, but they never succeed. And the shifting from bed to bed is merely indicative of the disintegration of the personalities involved in the total experience of the novel. The movement common to all of the characters involved is one of continuous deterioration…. [The] six characters live out their lives in hate and dishonesty, a dissipated waste in a dissipated New York.
Despite its shortcomings, there are several passages in the novel which attest Baldwin's stature as a writer. His description of the sex act is reminiscent of [D. H.] Lawrence, though there is none of Lawrence's penchant to make sex a spiritual clash of soul with soul. His detailed description of the Negro's complete involvement while playing or singing in the jazz medium is the best that I have read anywhere. Also, New York, especially Harlem, the country within a city, with its "destruction of nerves and sanity" achieves the nightmarish effect Baldwin so consciously strove to produce. But these beauties do not make Another Country a great novel…. One suspects that the "failure" of the book is its lack of typical characters in a wholly American experience; identification can hardly be made with atypical characters. And if, as Baldwin suggests elsewhere, a new sense of life's possibilities is inherent in the experiences of the New World, there is no evidence in Another Country that "life's possibilities" are attainable or even understandable. The writer, the novelist, the artist, sees in life not only what is negative but also that which is positive, and if he sees nothing positive either in the old order, the new order, or the order to come, then his perception must be suspected. The sordidness and the hatred in Another Country cannot be the whole vision, and the inability or disinclination to record the whole is a shortcoming on the author's part. (pp. 396-97)
He is more successful in provoking thought in his essays than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. The fact that he was a successful preacher at the age of fourteen suggests part of the forcefulness of the rhetoric in Baldwin's essays. Here the language is more applicable to his subject matter and his figures of speech and digressions serve to illuminate the thought. Sometimes, however, his rhetorical devices creep into the novel and tend to halt the action rather than to elevate it. In Another Country Baldwin sometimes assumes the stand of the essayist, at which points the tendency is to mere sermonizing. The only truce for Baldwin now as an artist is his recognition of the fact that he is a powerful essayist and a mediocre novelist. (p. 397)
Baldwin, more than any other contemporary American writer, has worked consistently well with the essay as a particular form of literary expression. He has shown what can be done with the essay and how effective is its form to incorporate personal convictions on a variety of subjects. Despite the popularity of the novel today, Baldwin has reminded us that non-fictional works are always an integral part of any country's literature. Whether he will be remembered as an essayist or a novelist is not the great question; the question is, what more is needed for a Negro to be included in "the central community of American letters"? To say that Baldwin has shown only provincialism and has not concerned himself with the wider involvement of American life is false. That he has been erroneously dubbed a "leading civil rights spokesman" is merely another means of refusing to accept the man's art and the far-reaching implications of what it means to be a writer. (p. 401)
Edward A. Watson, "The Novels and Essays of James Baldwin: Case-Book a 'Lover's War' with the United States," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 386-402.
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Going to Meet the Man, Baldwin's first collection of short stories, is closer in spirit, tone, and achievement to his best critical work than it is to his "sensational" fiction. These are stories beautifully made to frame genuine experience in a lyrical language. They are, for the most part, free from the intellectual sin of confusing the Negro's (and/or the white man's) tragedy with the homosexual's psychic deformity. They sing with truth dug out from pain….
The stories in Going to Meet the Man demonstrate with stunning effect that James Baldwin has no need of racial or sexual special pleading. Free of these, at his best he is a rare creature.
Daniel Stern, "A Special Corner on Truth," in Saturday Review (© 1965 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVIII, No. 45, November 6, 1965, p. 32.
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The stories in [Going to Meet the Man] add nothing to Mr. Baldwin's stature, nor do they diminish it by much. Five have appeared in print before; the other three are new and, for the most part, disappointing. Taken as a whole, the book traces the author's progress from "The Rockpile" and "The Outing," halting first steps toward the first novel, to his most recent work, which suffers from its journalistic conception. With the possible exception of the first two, all the stories tend to tear themselves apart. At best, they are composed in a prose oddly balanced between sheer banality and rhetoric as thick as jam. (p. 137)
While his writing labors under a burden of irrelevant subtlety, his perceptions lack bite. Too often in these stories Mr. Baldwin is held spellbound by his sensitivity; it is like a wall between him and his characters. If he fails to make the verbal incisions necessary to expose his subjects, it is often because he takes for granted precisely those things which should be in question, e.g., the dimensions of his characters, the implications of their actions. (pp. 137-38)
Most of the stories are too long and at the same time too schematic. Given the author's procedure, this effect seems inescapable: Mr. Baldwin frequently restricts himself to a preconceived scenario which he tediously fills out, discovering nothing unexpected in the process. The characters, much of the time, are only there to prove a point….
The stories which ring truest are "Come Out The Wilderness" and "Sonny's Blues."… Both stories deal with people forced to look at what they do not want to see; in both the dialogue is clean and accurate, conveying a wide range of instinctive and studied feelings. Here the author permits himself that freedom of response too often lacking in his work; in searching out his characters, he shares in their equivocations of identity, ambivalence, and fear, convincing the reader at last that he is saved, when he is saved, from his own rhetoric by an unkillable awareness of the cost of vision. (p. 138)
Stephen Donadio, "Looking for the Man," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1966 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Winter, 1966, pp. 136-38.
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The continuing battle which Baldwin has waged with the spirit of Richard Wright, a battle which started in 1949 with the publication of his essay, 'Everybody's Protest Novel', is symptomatic of that tension which he was later to see, more sympathetically, in [Langston] Hughes's poetry. As evidence of this tension within his own work on the one hand he admits to a determinism not essentially different from Wright's and admits that 'we cannot escape our origins, however hard we try' while on the other he generalises from this and seeks to find in the Negro's experience an archetype for the human condition…. It is Baldwin's ability to maintain this distinction in his novels which raises his work above the naïve absolutism of Wright's. This does not imply that as a novelist he abandons faith in the validity of his own experience but that this experience is seen in the broader context of the human condition…. It is [his] ability to penetrate beyond the immediacies of injustice and prejudice … which marks his work off from that of those writers for whom the novel is an extension of the pamphlet. Like Arthur Miller he is concerned with man rather than men and the savage perception which characterises his essays survives now with the added depth and perspective of the artist. (pp. 126-28)
[We] might be forgiven for detecting [echoes of Albert Camus in Blues for Mr. Charlie]. For the grotesque code of honour which brings Richard and Lyle into direct confrontation is as arbitrary and irrational as that implacable plague which settled on Camus' Oran, while the two responses to this irrational suffering are typified in Baldwin's play by Meridian and Richard as they are in Camus' novel [The Plague] by Father Paneloux and Rieux. The one places faith in resignation or the positive power of love; the other in revolt. The parallel serves to emphasise too the crisis of faith which is the background not only to this play but also to most Negro novels and drama. As Camus' characters reject a God who can permit or even will purposeless suffering so Baldwin's characters rebel against a religion which preaches passivity and yet which can be made to endorse violence…. Yet the dialogue which Baldwin wages with himself, through the person of Richard, remains finally unresolved. For where Rieux had contained his revolt within a determination to heal, Richard's death is a gesture of rebellion not essentially different from the 'unrewarding rage' which had led Bigger Thomas to strike out against the white world. Baldwin has always been supremely conscious of the rage with which the Negro confronts the white world and has insisted that 'the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won't destroy you.' The dilemma in which he finds himself in Blues for Mr. Charlie is that Richard's rage is the substance of his rebellion and if it destroys him it also constitutes his strength. For while the white world can afford to ignore and persecute the non-violent demonstrators organised by Meridian it cannot avoid the direct challenge represented by Richard and if that challenge leads inevitably to his death then there is a logic to that progression as disturbing but as direct as that which governed Bigger Thomas's career. (pp. 130-31)
As in both [Lorraine] Hansberry's and [LeRoi] Jones's work the white liberals are the special targets for criticism. This is true also of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time in which he attacks them on the grounds that 'they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man' for their attitudes, he claims, have little connexion 'with their perceptions of their lives, or even their knowledge."… Parnell is guilty, not of racism but of the fault which Baldwin had identified in his essay. He sees the crime in terms of abstract values. He is committed to justice and equality but not to involvement in the details of inhumanity…. Yet more fundamentally Parnell's stance is undermined by Baldwin's insistence on its sexual origin. For his liberalism appears to have stemmed from a youthful love affair with a Negro girl, an affair which has left in its wake an obsessive concern with Negroes which in reality owes little to a humanistic impulse…. At the trial … Parnell betrays the Negro cause and the justice to which he had been committed by covering up a lie told by Lyle's wife. While he regrets this immediately after the trial his positive espousal of the Negro side, which climaxes the play, can hardly be taken as a sign that there is any justification for Meridian's faith. If Baldwin genuinely wishes to 'bear witness to the reality and the power of light' he would have done better to allow Parnell the integrity which alone could grant a validity to his final decision. One is left finally, then, with a contradiction which, while it may accurately reflect the contemporary dilemma of Negro and white liberal, subverts Baldwin's declared faith. For if the logic of the final scene is seemingly dedicated to the validity of passive resistance, gathering to itself the genuinely committed, the force of Richard's death and the sad reality of liberal 'commitment' would seem to deny this logic. In a genuine attempt to avoid facile resolution Baldwin allows conscious ambiguity to degenerate into moral and dramatic confusion. (pp. 133-34)
[It] is rather [Baldwin's] inability to draw a valid picture of the victim and his immediate society which ironically proves the source of the play's failure. For if some of the white characters tend to the stereotype they are at least drawn with a panache and a conscious irony which compensates for a lack of insight, while the precision of his satire is for the most part balanced with a perceptive humanity which grants to Lyle and his wife a reality denied to Richard and Juanita whose relationship is never convincingly established. For his inability to distinguish between rhetoric and genuine language has the effect of undermining the credibility of those Negro characters to whom he attributes a pretentious eloquence. (pp. 134-35)
Baldwin's chief fault lies, therefore, not so much in his dehumanisation of the whites as in his sentimentalising of the Negroes. (p. 135)
[In Amen Corner] Baldwin had attained to that same sense of objectivity and universality which he evidences in Another Country. Less squarely centred on the racial conflict it evidences something of that vital compassion which is to be found in Lorraine Hansberry's work….
[Something] of Baldwin's failure in [Blues for Mr. Charlie] stems from his inability to master the dramatic form. Like [John] Dos Passos in the thirties he was drawn to the theatre because it offered a platform for his views and a direct rapport between writer and audience not available to the novelist. Here he could publicly work out a compromise between the contradictory responsibility of the Negro writer. The crude monologues of the third act of Blues for Mr. Charlie highlight, however, the difficulty of the novelist turned playwright. Denied the opportunity to develop character and motive at length he is easily tempted into radical simplification. (p. 136)
C.W.E. Bigsby, "James Baldwin" (originally published under a different title in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, April, 1967), in his Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959–66 (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright © 1967 and 1968 by C.W.E. Bigsby), University of Missouri Press, 1967, pp. 126-37.
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Baldwin's language from his first writings has been distinguished. Precise, well-ordered, very sophisticated, it could describe extreme experiences with chill casualness, and apparently trivial experiences with a simple but effective use of extreme language that conveyed the underlying importance of the apparently trivial….
The material of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is not sensational in itself. In a particular and important way, violence is ever present and very important in the book, but there is no relishing of it, no gory details….
The author of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is concerned with what moves his people. He is able to show us what moves them, on the very deepest levels. The fear and hate and the profound love that move his characters will also, I believe, be "moving" to any reader. Baldwin avoids melodrama, but he seizes again and again on the simple basic human relations of child and parent, male and female, friend and lover, that give us whatever our hearts have of human emotion. (p. 67)
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is a masterpiece by one of the best living writers in America. Which is not to say, naturally, that it will comfort or cheer you much. Very often, unless you are much different from me, the book will move you to tears. (p. 69)
John Thompson, "Baldwin: The Prophet as Artist," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 45, No. 6, June, 1968, pp. 67-9.
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["Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone"] is a simpleminded, one-dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters, a polemical rather than narrative tone, weak invention, and poor selection of incident. Individual scenes have people talking too much for what the author has to say and crucial events are "told" by one character to another rather than created. The construction of the novel is theatrical, tidily nailed into a predictable form.
It becomes clearer with each book he publishes that Baldwin's reputation is justified by his essays rather than his fiction. It may be that he is not a true or "born" novelist. But it must be said that his essays are as well written as any in our language; in them his thought and its utterance are nothing less than majestical. He has, also, the virtues of passion, serious intelligence and compassionate understanding of his fellow man. Yet it would seem that such gifts, enough for critics and moralists and other saintly figures, are not enough to insure the writing of good fiction….
What the "I" person cannot be is a bore, or a moralist in a straight-out polemical way. In Baldwin's book the "I" person hero is both….
The flashbacks showing Leo Proudhammer as a child growing up in Harlem are the most successful sections of the book. His alienated, bitterly religious father (who appears often with slight variations in Baldwin's fiction) and Leo's brother Caleb are the only characters who come alive…. [Baldwin] tells us what happened to Leo in a few lines; he doesn't show us, doesn't create it. And this is exactly where the use of the "I" person technique could have been effective.
Still, the relationship between the two brothers is always moving and sometimes heartbreaking. The family life is honestly portrayed. Here in the streets of Harlem, in the dark bedrooms, the dangerous hallways, the chanting churches, Baldwin is at his best. Leo as a child is an interesting and alive character. Unfortunately, the novel next moves into the phony milieu of the theatrical world…. The theater as background for a serious novel so earnest in tone is simply not right. (p. 5)
If [the relationships among Barbara, Leo, and Christopher sound] like soap opera, that's exactly right. White Barbara, white as snow, is right out of a slick magazine, flat as cardboard. At the end of the book Barbara tells Leo she has always loved him and will always continue to love him. Her lines are extravagant, theatrical; she will always come to him when he calls. Barbara gives this speech at the age of 39; she is rich, she is famous, she has been presented as a reasonably intelligent woman. She has known Leo for 20 years. And yet we are asked to believe that the only man in the whole world she can love forever is a Negro homosexual actor. This is a romantic condescension equal to anything in [Margaret M. Mitchell's] "Gone With the Wind," in that Baldwin does not recognize a parallel revolution, the feminine against the masculine world. In the conception of Barbara's character, in the undying-devotion speech, Baldwin glorifies a sexual Uncle Tom….
Baldwin's greatest weakness as a novelist is his selection or creation of incident. Time and again his conclusions are not justified by narrative action. Too many of his characters are mere cardboard. There are scenes that are simply echoes of the literature of the thirties, and they were cornball even then.
It is possible that Baldwin believes this is not tactically the time for art, that polemical fiction can help the Negro cause more, that art is too strong, too gamy a dish for a prophet to offer now. And so he gives us propagandistic fiction, a readable book with a positive social value. If this is what he wants, he has been successful. But perhaps it is now time for Baldwin to forget the black revolution and start worrying about himself as an artist, who is the ultimate revolutionary. (p. 34)
Mario Puzo, "His Cardboard Lovers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1968, pp. 5, 34.
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Composed mostly in flashback, [Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone] follows Proudhammer through a bitter Harlem childhood, the birth of ambition toward the stage, a long love affair with a white actress, a homosexual love alongside that, the beginning of political awareness, a step toward identification with his people's new militancy.
A half-dozen themes, none of which is realized, none brought to any conclusion in the imagination, they exist almost as mutually exclusive, as though in setting out to do a big, complex, invented life Baldwin had been unable to find a principle of coherence for its parts…. [What] is missing is any sense of artistic inevitability, any conviction that things have to be this way and no other, that one scene prepares the next, one image its successor, one emphasis of language its corollary or alternative….
His chief problem is that he cannot find a rhetoric that isn't dictated by what is expected, in literature, from the particular theme, or fictional situation, or drama. Thus, in writing about his hero's childhood and wishing to establish the gulf between the boy's father's pride and his sons' knowledge of his abjection, he falls into an overblown prose…. When he wants to be grave and philosophical about his hero's deepest human connections, he writes sententiously and obviously…. (p. 28)
The point about such writing is that it isn't incidental, a matter of some sort of inexact or flawed surface beneath which the true, commendable fiction shapes itself; nothing reveals itself in fiction except through the language, its details and its structure, and what reveals itself here is an earnest, literary desire, a novel being made from an idea of fiction, or rather from an ill-assorted series of such ideas. (p. 29)
Richard Gilman, "News from the Novel: 'Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1968 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 159, No. 7, August 17, 1968, pp. 27-9.
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The particular social condition Baldwin diagnoses in his essays is the same one that makes the creation of a fictional world virtually impossible for a Negro novelist. His essays subtly explore the ambiguities and ironies of a life lived on two levels—that of the Negro, and that of the man—and they have spoken eloquently to and for a whole generation. But Baldwin's feelings about the condition—alternating moods of sadness and bitterness—are best expressed in the paradoxes confronting the haunted heroes of his novels and stories. (p. 169)
The possible modes of existence for anyone seeking refuge from a society which refuses to acknowledge one's humanity are necessarily limited, and Baldwin has explored with some thoroughness the various emotional and spiritual alternatives available to his retreating protagonists….
Harvey Breit has likened [Go Tell it On the Mountain] to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but it seems to me, both in its strengths and weaknesses, to be much closer to another great autobiographical novel, [D. H. Lawrence's] Sons and Lovers. Baldwin is perhaps not Lawrence's equal in his ability to realise the physical presence of the world of objects—there is too much of [Charles] Dickens in his descriptions—but John Grimes' response to the suffocating world of his childhood reminds one very strongly of Paul Morel….
John, like Paul Morel, turns away from the pain and pressure of his immediate environment in search of "unimaginable glories," and the last section of the novel, 'The Threshing Floor', dramatises the battle that is waged in his soul between God and the Devil, the flesh and the spirit, the temple and the world. Like Lawrence, Baldwin falters before the mystical experience he tries to describe and we are left at the end with only words; words which are used repetitively, rhythmically, symbolically, and sensuously, but not successfully, to convey the transcendental experience. It is difficult not to read Go Tell it On the Mountain in the light of Baldwin's own brief but intense experience of salvation and worship, as he tells of it in The Fire Next Time. But within the created world of the novel the resolution lacks conviction, having been artistically undermined by the long, central section in which the past lives of John's father, mother and aunt are presented naturalistically with a wealth of social and psychological detail. In the novel, spiritual and social facts do not have the same ineluctable connection that they assume in the essay….
Baldwin's attempt to substitute Eros for Caritas, first in Giovanni's Room and then in Another Country, is a failure, not because he makes the mistake that Lawrence did, of trying to hypostatize the physical in the metaphysical, but because he drains the sexual act of reality by using it as the vehicle for a variety of metaphors. (p. 173)
What Baldwin seems to have arrived at in his first three novels, is the painful discovery that there is no other country. Mountains and tiny, cluttered rooms are both, in their different ways, uninhabitable. (p. 176)
The autobiographical elements in Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone are not very well concealed. Baldwin, like Leo, is a "fat cat" now, and this novel is, in a sense, his Big Deal [the title of the movie in which Leo achieves his breakthrough]. It is not a great novel. In some ways it is not as good as those he wrote previously—certainly it lacks the intensity of much of his earlier writing. What has been gained, though, is ultimately more important. One of Baldwin's constant complaints has been that the Negro has been deprived of his language, and he has written, therefore, like a man trying to invent his own; sacrificing, in the attempt, truth to rhetoric. Now he seems to have realised the futility of this, and has decided to come to terms with the only language he can have. Consequently he has written a novel with the truth in it: the work of "an honest man and a good writer." (p. 179)
Brian Lee, "James Baldwin: Caliban to Prospero," in The Black American Writer: Fiction, Volume I, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby (copyright © 1969 by C.W.E. Bigsby), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969, pp. 169-79.
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[Although Another Country] has its faults, and the most distracting of these have to do with an uncharacteristic note of sentimentality and too much of a self-consciously aphoristic and apocalyptic rhetoric, its accomplishments and its importance far outweigh these. Whether or not one agrees with the vision of the meaning of contemporary experience presented, no one denies that the book is an accurate, perceptive and truthful expression of the texture, feel and consistency of that experience. That is the first and major responsibility of the novelist. My own feeling and that of everyone I talked to when the book first came out was, despite anything else, "He is telling it like it is." I can not remember anyone, white or Negro, who did not feel that the book spoke directly and fiercely to many aspects of their own particular experience.
Equally important in evaluating this book, is a consideration of the place it represents in the body of Baldwin's work, and what that work represents in the flux of the American literary culture. Returning to New York with his perceptions sharpened, and with a vision that combined the freshness of the stranger with the knowledge of a native, he was able to excavate and display patterns, relationships, insights which had never been presented in quite the same way, with courage and candor. And this book, the book he was compelled to write more for truth and relevance than for "Art," is the one in which he confronts most fully the anguished issues peculiar to our age. (p. 195)
Mike Thelwell, "'Another Country': Baldwin's New York Novel," in The Black American Writer: Fiction, Volume I, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby (copyright © 1969 by C.W.E. Bigsby), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969, pp. 181-98.
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The fact that [Baldwin] equated playwriting with improving a troubled world [as he did in an observation made in high school] explains his theory of drama quite clearly. It may also explain why he is not a better playwright and why he has not written more plays. While the theatre brings the most immediate response for the propagandist; it also brings adverse criticism…. It is perhaps vital to note that although he used similar theses and argued the same points in his fiction and in his plays, he used different major characters in his plays which essentially remove Baldwin, his own model-hero, from the center of the work. For some reason the drama forces him to change his attitude toward his material….
Whether he is writing fiction or drama, however, Baldwin has parlayed a youthful "agony" into a philosophic view of life. (p. 172)
The major problem in the "agony way" is one of identity. (p. 173)
The significance of his continuing search for an identity or for a certain meaning in life may be clearly seen in the major themes of his works as well as his own numerous activities. He is clearly a man of great sensitivity who wants to be loved for what he is and for what he says…. All of his heroes show this need for love…. Love was a paradox for Baldwin, and it was also the major answer he found for his "troubled world." It is one of the few "positive affirmations" which his characters discover. Hope is another, but it is a hope for love…. A belief in the value of suffering is a third possibility for a Baldwin sensitive hero…. For Baldwin the revelation of Christian suffering and an idealized personal love are necessary human affirmations. He believes in love as an individual, in art and life; through it he finds an identity. (pp. 174-75)
Baldwin tries to use the theatre as a pulpit for his ideas. Mainly his plays are thesis plays—talky, over-written, and cliché dialogue and some stereotypes, preachy, and argumentative. Essentially, Baldwin is not particularly dramatic, but he can be extremely eloquent, compelling, and sometimes irritating as a playwright committed to his approach to life. (p. 176)
Although Baldwin's plays remain largely thesis or propaganda plays with eloquently preached theses and controlled views of Negro society, they are still plays with the structure and devices of the theatre. Baldwin is certainly not ignorant of the art of the theatre, but neither is he always effective in creating theatrical excitement, probably because he accepts too readily the idea of playwright as polemicist. Too often, he looks at his actors as preachers and presents little action on the stage. His major characters have inner conflicts which he has as much difficulty externalizing as he does making their inner struggles meaningful. He is, however, very clearly concerned with the visual scene on the stage and the various means by which he can achieve an emotional effect upon his audience through both eye and ear. (pp. 177-78)
The devices by which Baldwin excites emotion in his audience also deserve comment. His command of language has always been clear from his fiction, but his use of dialogue has been memorable mainly for its violence. Chiefly he has relied upon brief dialogue, vivid exposition, and narrative monologues. Monologues, of course, are not generally effective in drama, but with the exception of sermons in each play, he has avoided them. His dialogue on the other hand, tends either to be argumentative or polemical rather than dramatically related to action. A major problem, however, is his limited ability to fuse meaningful action and dialogue with developing character. Instead, he tries to keep things moving with numerous brief scenes, many of which are flashbacks to previous action, and a scattering of songs. Although the use of songs in The Amen Corner is overdone, the idea for creating the proper emotional feeling is a good one. In Blues Baldwin used a choral effect for Whitetown and Blacktown during the courtroom scene that added to the creation of the desired emotional reaction. In these and other ways Baldwin shows some natural talent for the theatre in spite of his limited experience with some of the more demanding aspects of the drama.
Although Baldwin has been criticized for creating stereotypes, his major characters are the most successful and memorable aspects of his plays. People are important to Baldwin, and their problems, generally embedded in their agonizing souls, stimulate him to write plays. A humanitarian, sensitive to the needs and struggles of man, he writes of inner turmoil, spiritual disruption, the consequence upon people of the burdens of the world, both White and Black. Action is shown to be less important in his plays than thought. (pp. 178-79)
In Baldwin's novels and plays the characters which represent his own position are always young—aspects of his own youthful past: John in Go Tell It on the Mountain, David in The Amen Corner, Rufus in Another Country, Richard in Blues for Mister Charlie, Leo Proudhammer in Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone…. All of those youthful heroes are rebels; and, as Baldwin presents them, they feel their betrayal, they leave home to go into the world, they commit suicide, they are murdered, or they live to a fearful and frustrating middle age. (p. 179)
It is interesting, however, that the characters which suggest the youthful rebellion in society, Negro society—those young heroes in whom one sees Baldwin expressing his own past—are not the main characters in his plays…. For Baldwin, the playwright, youth seems to provide the stimulus necessary to move the older generation to action, but in his plays it is this older generation which has the problems and must devise solutions and face consequences. (p. 180)
With only two plays to judge, it is perhaps presumptuous to draw conclusions about a dramatist's art. From the existing evidence, however, one may say that Baldwin emphasizes character and inner conflict more than external conflict, uses argument in language rather than deed, and shows little interest in suspense or surprise. A well-built plot is not a strong point of Baldwin's art either in the drama or the novel. There is, however, a certain inevitability in his plays as they build to a climax in a manner which stops and fills. Because Baldwin is primarily concerned with ideas, emotionally projected, his characters have long speeches and arguments which slow the action. Avoiding crowds, his strongest scenes are those with two people facing an issue together and reaching some conclusion. Undoubtedly feeling his deficiency in creating meaningful action, he tries to add to the drama by changing scenes frequently, using flashbacks, and inserting music. All have their effect, but they do not compensate for other weaknesses. For lack of plot, intrigue, action, and suspense, there develop very few crises in Bladwin's plays. He has meaningful curtains in terms of his pleading messages, but they lack dramatic effect in that no surprise, no suspense, no crisis is introduced or anticipated. Instead, his curtains reveal a character's point of view or a thought that relates to the play's message. Although the comment is frequently charged with emotion, his only strong dramatic climax comes at the final curtain of The Amen Corner.
Structurely, Baldwin's two plays are very different—which makes it even more difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about his art. Of the two, however, The Amen Corner is more successful as drama. (p. 183)
Baldwin is a very serious writer, and this is particularly evident in a play where a good change of pace or a bit of humor could be used to advantage. Instead, Baldwin sticks to his thesis with a deadly conviction, presents his main characters well but is more interested in argument than action. Few critics, however, would contend that he does not have something worth saying, although that fact does not make his plays good drama. (p. 185)
Walter Meserve, "James Baldwin's 'Agony Way'," in The Black American Writer: Poetry and Drama, Volume II, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby (copyright © 1969 by C.W.E. Bigsby), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969, pp. 171-86.
No Name in the Street is not an easy book to read: nor can it have been easy to write. When James Baldwin says that it was "much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals and despair", it is his text, as much as the four years that it took to complete, that supplies convincing corroboration. It falls rather raggedly into two halves: a collection of autobiographical fragments, in the manner of his earlier essays; and a statement of his current position. One of the several reasons why it is difficult to read is the lack of articulation between the two halves, which often do not seem to have much to do with one another…. Sometimes, these passages [in the first half] achieve the clarity and telling precision of the earlier essays; the capacity to illuminate a general theme by reference to the particular, brilliantly exemplified in his account of Richard Wright in Paris, "Alas, Poor Richard", is still present. But on this occasion he has chosen to fragment his material and wed it to a polemic in the high rhetorical style of Black nationalism….
The confusion and despair that Mr Baldwin now feels is reflected in the form in which he has chosen to cast his material….
[He] is paying his dues; but, in so doing, trying to link his past as a writer to his future role in the Black movement.
The rage that Mr Baldwin still contained in The Fire Next Time … has now burst to the surface. When once he could write, in Notes of a Native Son, that "I love America more than any country in the world", and in The Fire Next Time tell his nephew that "this is your home my friend, so do not be driven from it … we can make America what America must become", he now concludes that "white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any colour, to be found in the world today". The response to this confirmation of his worst fears has to be unequivocal. Once Mr Baldwin wrote, in Nobody Knows My Name, that "it is devoutly to be hoped that it will soon no longer be important to be black". Now, "black is a tremendous spiritual condition, one of the greatest challenges anyone alive can face".
Yet some ambiguities remain unresolved. Mr Baldwin writes of the supreme failure of White Americans, that they stand condemned by their own children. But in his autobiographical passages he shows how both he himself and his elder brother in turn rejected their own father…. Even so, this awkward, personal book, while not one of the major achievements of James Baldwin the writer, is clearly of fundamental significance for James Baldwin the human being.
"Misconnexions," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission) No. 3661, April 28, 1972, p. 469.
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James Baldwin has long been a champion of the Person over the People. The fight against racial and other injustices, he argued as early as Notes of a Native Son (1955), begins with the heart's purification of hatred and despair. For Baldwin, the fight was with oneself: "my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart." Salvation must be personal before it can become social and political. (p. 37)
More than ever before, Baldwin fits much of his commentary [in No Name in the Street] into an ideological framework, albeit one in which the devil is more recognizable than the savior…. But the dramatic center of the book is not here; the center, in fact, is closer to the personal struggle in the earlier work than to a political thesis or to special pleading. To miss this point about No Name in the Street is to exchange its very vitality for propaganda, which can then be dismissed. The loss would be great.
The titles of the book's two sections—"Take Me to the Water," "To Be Baptized"—suggest a rite of passage. The operative order follows the titles of the sections: in the first section, we see Baldwin in Paris or New York, identifying with Algerians, or giving a friend the black suit he wore to Martin Luther King's funeral …, or going to the American South to pay dues; in the second section, we see Baldwin moving against a backdrop of racial violence, King and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers murdered, so many deaths, so many funerals, or Baldwin trying to get a friend out of jail and simultaneously struggling with a filmscript based on Malcolm X's Autobiography.
The latter juxtaposition, which becomes central, puts the revolutionary against the artist, the man whose domain is the People against the man whose domain is the Person. (pp. 37-8)
The subject matter of No Name in the Street, then, is the struggle of the artist trapped in history. If the baptism into revolutionary politics fails, so does the earlier faith in championing the Person…. Yet, that Baldwin can still tell the truth, even when the truth threatens to be self-contradictory, as when he denigrates the West using Western (Christian) metaphors; that his passage is still inward, his truth not a message but an example, a kind of existential war; that he is not afraid to tell us who he is and who he has become—all of this gives me hope that others, too, may learn something of themselves, although here the victory is Baldwin's alone. (p. 38)
Charles Deemer, "James Baldwin's Baptism," in The Progressive (reprinted by permission from The Progressive, 408 West Gorham Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703; copyright 1972 by The Progressive, Inc.), Vol. 36, No. 8, August, 1972, pp. 37-8.
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[One has] the feeling that Malcolm X's life and death do not furnish the best vehicle by which even an immensely talented writer can express in cinematic terms the problems of race in America today. And finally one wonders if Baldwin himself was right to accept this particular job. In his recent prose works his evangelical fervour has been meshed with a marvellous, high style reminiscent of the masters of Rye, Sussex, and Oxford, Mississippi and seeming more natural to him than Harlem, Argot. The upshot, in [One Day, When I Was Lost] …, is the suggestion of a job of work energetically and demotically written and not altogether inspirited. Plenty of heart, if you like, but not enough soul. (p. 643)
Anthony Bailey, "Black and White," in New Statesman (© 1972 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 84, No. 2172, November 3, 1972, pp. 643-44.
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James Baldwin's screenplay adaptation of [The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley] now published as One Day When I Was Lost, is no substitute for the original. Unfortunately, it is not much worth reading at all, except for those who have a special interest in Baldwin's career and its curious downward spiral during the last years. What ever has happened to him, anyway? He seems to have become increasingly isolated from America and its problems, perhaps even from himself, during the 1960s. This screenplay, about which there was a lot of talk just a few years ago, may have been a last major effort on his part to come to terms with something important in his own life. Perhaps on this level Baldwin has succeded—or else why let us see it at all? He certainly has not written a produceable script. It is, first of all, about twice as long and three times as talky as any movie would dare be today. Secondly—and more important—it carries no sense of story with it at all. It would, I think, be utterly incomprehensible to one who had not read the Haley book. All in all, it was probably unwise of Baldwin to publish One Day When I Was Lost, for it adds nothing to Malcolm and can only detract from its author's reputation.
Bruce Cook, "'One Day When I Was Lost'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1973 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XCIX, No. 2, October 12, 1973, p. 47.
[If Beale Street Could Talk], while at no point inhabiting the same universe as [Erich Segal's] Love Story, effortlessly rebalances the ledger on the side of truthfulness without ever needing to acknowledge the lies and treasons of previous clerks….
[The] book might sound like another angry and embittered novel about Harlem which, if lacking overt violence, has to do with the violence done to men's souls. That would be an unfair simplification, even though it is a very properly angry book and even though Mr Baldwin just occasionally allows a note of sententiousness or sentimentality to sound. Nor is the book a heart-warming vignette of an embattled ethnic minority who have a monopoly of very wonderful human values, even if it is perhaps laying it on a bit thick to have Fonny discover himself as a sculptor rather than as, say, an urban guerrilla. Among other things, it is an often beautiful and moving description of a game played with loaded dice, in which there is no option but to play and no outcome but to lose. And just as it took a regressive fantasist to shed a tear over Love Story, so it will take one to remain unaffected by If Beale Street Could Talk.
"Blacks and Blues," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3772, June 21, 1974, p. 656.
All the terrible things that happen to the people in this very disappointing book [If Beale Street Could Talk] are entirely credible, but little else about it is…. [The feebleness of the efforts of Tish's family and Fonny's father to help Fonny] says a great deal about what it means to be poor, black, and vulnerable. The moral strength of the book is tremendously undercut, however, by the fact that all Mr. Bladwin's characters are either angels or devils; by the pomposity of much of his language; and by the embarrassing gooiness of Tish and Fonny's romance…. From time to time, behind Tish's innocent bleatings one hears a somewhat discordant voice. It sounds tired, bitter, cynical, blunt, worldly, and infinitely more authentic in tone than anything else in the narrative. It sounds like the author's true voice, and its strength makes one regret not hearing it more often. (pp. 79-80)
"Briefly Noted: 'If Beale Street Could Talk'," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 20, July 8, 1974, pp. 79-80.
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To consider the latest novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk …, is to re-evaluate more than a decade of Baldwin-watching. My response to his work has shifted from admiration of the arrogance of the early essays to rejection of the Old Testament predictability of the later fiction. Admittedly, the rejection of Baldwin's logic as a spokesman reflected a growing disenchantment with specific strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin's early work neatly fit that time, in terms of the assault on the so-called liberal conscience. Yet the history of the Sixties will be charted as a maze through which all of us were propelled, its horrors and beauties blurring thought, leaving us to sit in this apparent fall-out period to finger scars and wonder at the dazzle behind the eyes. (p. 51)
Because of expectations, because of change, If Beale Street Could Talk demands the look behind. In this novel we have a synthesis of so many of Baldwin's literary concerns. Familiar is the brooding sensitive cat reared in Harlem, his struggle toward some sense of clarity and achievement in his art and life and the forces which compel him toward some form of destruction…. Familiar, too, is the attack on the use of religion to shut out the horror of the streets, that horror a reflection of the horror and mystery within one's experience. The presence of the fathers, driven before the sons to destruction, has also been typical. But there are some new riffs played out in this novel, riffs which are significant when measured against Baldwin's earlier novels. (p. 52)
In this novel of love and pain and truth, the sense of family and of hope survives the ordeals. (p. 88)
Usually the catalysts of family violence in Baldwin's fiction, the fathers have been portrayed as terrifying and broken men. Joseph Rivers is refreshing in this regard, encouraging and inspiring Tish when despair is so seductive. Joseph is also encouraging to Fonny's father, Frank, when all seems an uphill climb to the bottom….
Oddly, Frank commits suicide when Fonny's bail is just about raised. This is one of the least convincing acts of the entire novel…. The despair unto death runs against the current of the story, which is optimistic. The suicide seems a forced and tired change on the character. (p. 89)
In addition to the generally balanced characterizations of the parents, the voice and perspective emerge as the primary achievements of the novel. We view events through the eyes of Tish (or, in the case of her mother's visit to Puerto Rico, through Tish's reflection on an event's possibility). In this area perhaps Baldwin has taken his biggest risk in the construction of this story, a risk that is generally rewarding for this reader. If the story had been told with Fonny's voice, we might have witnessed the traditional demise of the apprentice-artist in the hostile labyrinth of the city…. Might that voice have grown shrill and predictable at this telling? It is Tish's sensibility which lifts the accounts of the dilemmas of the characters. Though it cracks on occasion, it is Tish's voice still ringing when we close the book. (pp. 89-90)
It seems a freer novel, more tender and often tougher. The point here is that within the framework of the blues which Baldwin so often alludes to, this book works as his most convincing novel. (p. 91)
John McCluskey, "Books Noted: 'If Beale Street Could Talk'," in Black World (reprinted by permission of Black World Magazine; copyright, 1974 by Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. XXIV, No. 2, December, 1974, pp. 51-2, 88-91.
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A "protest play," unfortunately, always has a hard time of it artistically, and even more so if, like Baldwin, the playwright doth protest too much. And not only too much but too much too soon. Right at the outset [of Blues for Mister Charlie] we are clobbered with a tirade which is an inflammatory inventory of all the injustices toward the Negro, and, justified as these grievances are, they strike a false note: … Baldwin would shudder at the thought of having written a pop-art play. But that is what it is: pop art and agit-prop. (p. 48)
What is most serious is that the play pretends to be about racial injustice and the Negro's struggle for his human rights, while it is actually about something else. I am not saying that Baldwin is deliberately deceiving us, which would be bad enough, but that he is deceiving himself, which is, artistically speaking, worse. (p. 49)
It seems to me that Blues for Mister Charlie is a homosexual play, which would be fine if it came out and admitted it. But so far from doing this, it actually sneers at homosexuality: according to Richard, all white women, however eagerly they make love to Negroes, have "got some piss-assed, faggoty white boy on a string" whom they will cravenly marry. Yet persecuted blacks and persecuting whites seem to become subliminally identified with victimized but sexually free, noble homosexuals and tormenting, sexually frustrated heterosexuals; it is typical for the sexual misfit to blame the society's sexual mores for all his troubles. Why else would the racial issue be reduced here to sexual terms, and sex be seen as the true, secret strength of the Negro, the ultimate cause of white discrimination against him, fear and hatred based on sexual envy?
Out of this comes the most monumental falsification of all: the myth of Negro supremacy. Agreed that the myth of white supremacy is as unscientific as it is deleterious, but is the opposite myth any more justifiable, any more salubrious?… [So] it goes: white arrogance must bow down before black arrogance, rather than all arrogance come to an end. (p. 50)
John Simon, "Autumn, 1964" (originally published under a different title in a slightly different form in The Hudson Review, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1964), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975, pp. 47-58.∗
[In The Devil Finds Work Baldwin] takes a long look at American movies, analyzing films such as Birth of a Nation, In the Heat of the Night, The Grapes of Wrath, The Exorcist, and Lawrence of Arabia and discussing stars such as Sidney Poitier and Paul Robeson. On the surface there seems to be little holding the choices together. But Baldwin is a consummate writer, and his ruminations on the films, or the fragments from his life that they recall, are illuminating. His blackness is the glue of the book, and the reader finds that his view from the mountaintop, in exile, is a clear and important one.
"Books Briefly: 'The Devil Finds Work'," in The Progressive (reprinted by permission from The Progressive, 408 West Gorham Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703; copyright 1976 by The Progressive, Inc.), Vol. 40, No. 8, August, 1976, p. 44.
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[With The Devil Finds Work] James Baldwin has written a commentary on the movies as visionary, and unusual, as D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classical American Literature.
The nature of his theme is hinted at in a recalling of a moment (the moment) of apostasy—when Baldwin decided to go to a proscribed theatre matinée, and in so doing, put in peril his religious calling…. He sees The Exorcist as an example of the power to possess that movies may have in an age almost without faith—and dismisses it for its 'hysterical banality'. In dismissing it, though, he enriches us by invoking once more his vision of life as an experience both terrible and terrifying (favoured adjectives in his apocalyptic). He believes that black people, and certain other threatened (and threatening) social outsiders, are the last custodians to this experience—which movies, in general, betray.
Apart from The Birth of a Nation (appalled, he acknowledges it to be a masterpiece: 'an elaborate justification of mass murder,' 'it has the Niagara force of an obsession') and You Only Live Once …, all the films he writes about veer somewhere between the fourth- and fifth-rate. But minute sins can be the pretext for great sermons, and James Baldwin rails at length, and sonorously, against the emollient distorting of terrifying lives that occurs in Lady Sings the Blues, or Lawrence of Arabia, or even more strangely, My Son John. In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, he picks on dishonesties subtly different from those that usually worry the Caucasian.
His enmity is not limited to muddled liberalism. He is sharp about the so-called radical black films of the Seventies, seeing them in some way as annulling the revelation that the blacks hold in divine fee. He is able to give detailed instances of how falsity may creep into a Hollywood treatment—through an unhappy account of working on a script about Malcolm X. Yet the main impression given by this brief book is far from negative. Again and again, he shows how even the most fake film can contain some truth.
Eric Rhode, "'The Devil Finds Work'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1976 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, p. 260.
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The Devil Finds Work is a sermon with a celluloid text….
To take the movies as a source for instances of wilful bad faith is hardly a case of tendentiousness….
[There] are times here when Hollywood's falsenesses—even in such well-meaning pieces as In The Heat of The Night, The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner—are assumed to be more deliberate than they are likely to have been. There is only one thing which Hollywood tries to do on purpose and that is to make money….
I am not sure that [Baldwin] will ever be satisfied. He is so full of pity and terror that it would need a tragic medium more noble, more generally honoured than anything contemporary culture can provide to purge him of them. Baldwin has been one of the few essential novelists of our time and one cannot but regret the impatience which has driven him to the kind of free-associational prose libre he delivers here….
[The] irony of his position is that only in art can he make a statement of the profundity and the complexity to which his wounding capacity to see both sides has given him the key. Yet it seems that he now flinches from the full use of his art, the art of the novel…. To be true to his talent, Baldwin must resume the redeeming work of honouring specificity; true to his anger, he must remain in a world of generalising denunciation, a Jeremiah without a temple.
Frederic Raphael, "The Defiant One," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 93, No. 2397, February 25, 1977, p. 240.
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Of all the well-known novelists of the day, James Baldwin is among the warmest, the most companionable, the least ironic. So many contemporary writers seem incapable of presenting loyalty, innocence or happiness, especially family happiness, but Baldwin inhabits these feelings with great naturalness and intensity. He can show, as he does more than once in Just Above My Head, parents and children exchanging gifts at Christmas or during a reunion. The family members have tears in their eyes, not of regret but of anticipation, not of loneliness but of love. Looked at merely as a literary fashion (and it is, of course, much, much more), the direct depiction of such ardor is unique today; one has to go back to Dickens to find a similar impulse in a major writer, though in Dickens the happy moments are all too often bathetic, whereas in Baldwin they glow with the steadiness and clarity of a flame within a glass globe….
[The book's most remarkable character is Julia]. Julia is a hypocrite, an eerily controlled monster of vanity and manipulation bent on destroying her mother and seducing her father. Of such stuff melodramas are made, and Baldwin drains every bit of juice from this juiciest of material. True melodrama, however, with its demand for villains and heroes, is a failure of compassion, and Baldwin is above all a wise and compassionate writer. Accordingly, once Julia achieves her monstrous goals …, she turns in terror from her victory, loses her faith, renounces her ministry—and, after years of self-degradation, grows into a woman of formidable dignity and understanding.
The central figure, Arthur, is another test for Baldwin's delicacy of sentiment, for his powers as a diplomat of the emotions, because Arthur is both black and homosexual. To present a homosexual character in the round and with sympathy is still, I suppose, a challenge even to a white writer, but granting acceptance to male homosexuality in the black community is a still greater problem, historically and politically. (p. 5)
In Just Above My Head Baldwin has successfully placed the black male homosexual back into the context of black society. Baldwin is not, it seems, arguing for gay liberation…. [The] attitude embodied in this novel is one of tolerance and acceptance of all forms of sexuality so that the crusaders for black rights can march forward, united…. The scenes in which [Arthur and Crunch] discover their love for each other are the best written in the book—hushed, concentrated, immaculately detailed…. Again and again homosexual alliances are paralleled by those that are heterosexual until the reader begins to respond to the emotions and experiences of individuals, regardless of their affectional preferences. As a young man Baldwin wrote Giovanni's Room, a homosexual love story in which the characters are white. He has before and since written many books about blacks who happen to be heterosexual…. His decision to bring homosexuality and blackness together is courageous, given the tense political situation; that he has done so with such tact is a sign of his decency and artistry.
But this novel is not merely about a character's exploration of his homosexuality. Arthur—and Julia and Hall and all the other characters—must also come to terms with their blackness. (pp. 5, 9)
[The] integration struggles of the 1960s in the South are swiftly and dramatically related at the heart of the novel. For young people to whom those days are nothing but a dry chapter in history, this book will serve to put human flesh on schematic bones. Never has the story of the heroic civil rights movement been more powerfully rendered.
Just Above My Head is not a perfect novel; fiction that is politically engaged is always less elegant than reactionary fiction, which lavishes on form the attention a progressive literature must also devote to content. Arthur—and especially Arthur's death—are disappointingly shadowy. Too much of "Book One" is carelessly written. Too many scenes occur in bars and restaurants as anecdotes exchanged over dinner and drinks, as though Baldwin is so eager to tell stories that he forgets to show actions. No matter. In whole long sections the style is imbued with Baldwin's peculiarly indirect vision, his idiosyncratic way of catching the imprecision, the blurriness, of experience. And, despite the clinking of forks and cocktail glasses, the tale does move forward on coiled muscles—this is the work of a born storyteller at the height of his powers, a man who, now that he is older and more mature, has truly come into his own. As the most celebrated black American novelist, Baldwin has given his readers a comprehensive and comprehending examination of race and sexuality and suggested some of the ways in which the politics of color can shape the transactions of love. (p. 9)
Edmund White, "James Baldwin Overcomes," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), September 23, 1979, pp. 5, 9.
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It isn't hard to see why James Baldwin in particular has chosen to shape his sixth novel along the lines of a saga in the contemporary mode. His fiction has often been attacked, notably by younger black writers in the 1960's, as too personal, too patently a working-out of inner conflict at the price of distorting the realities of race and racial conflict in America….
It may well be that "Just Above My Head" is Baldwin's attempt to answer such criticism. The novel takes in 30 years in the lives of a group of friends, who start out preaching and singing in Harlem churches, survive (or do not survive) incest, war, poverty, the civil-rights struggle, as well as wealth and love and fame…. (p. 3)
From this account, one would guess that "Just Above My Head" would be sprawling, hellish, joyous, as well as thick with political, economic and social reference. The curious fact is that it's so narrow, so tame. Baldwin's focus is still the private self; he has given us another of his warm, melancholy, basically likable novels and hasn't really made use of his elaborate generational-historical scheme…. The truth is that outward events as such do not call forth Baldwin's artistry. He does not care deeply enough as an artist about their concreteness. Even when Arthur and his entourage are attacked by racist police in an Atlanta street, Baldwin the novelist is only interested, only compelled to art, by the protective reaction of Arthur's older brother Hall; Baldwin the essayist, Baldwin the author of "The Fire Next Time," would have had more to say about the police, about Atlanta, about the street.
The effect of Baldwin's lack of concreteness can be eerie. He describes hundreds of faces in this long novel, but hardly a single place in any detail. So the book seems to float with faces, eyes endlessly meeting eyes. The most common incident is the heartfelt reunion: long-separated friends grasping each other by the shoulder, reaffirming old love. It is only in such scenes, or in the explicitly sexual encounters that sometimes follow, that Baldwin is sufficiently patient and attentive and observant. He has slighted the richness of his own material by merely scanning it, looking for opportunities to do his favorite scenes: ambivalent sex, reunions, quick accesses of love.
But Baldwin's favorite scenes are not without their pleasures for the reader, and if "Just Above My Head" is not a break-through for Baldwin into the novel whose social-historical context is convincing and secure, it is nonetheless a break-through of another, more modest kind. He has decided to entrust the telling to a narrator who is close to a way of life largely missing from Baldwin's previous fiction…. Hall's situation as a family man enables Baldwin to take account of realities that are more mundane than those he has addressed before. His treatment of middle-class life turns out to be surprisingly sensitive. (pp. 3, 33)
Hall Montana's voice is the conduit for Baldwin's most distinctive quality as a writer, his abundant tenderness. At its best, this tenderness is the emphatic sign that his imagination is closely bound up with his immense compassion, but the result can be intrusive. Sometimes he can hardly refrain from openly commiserating with his characters, so that good clear emotions are smothered by authorial comment. Perhaps an author's tenderness doesn't have to be serviceable to his craft; perhaps tenderness is a virtue in itself. But "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is arguably Baldwin's best novel because its people, however feelingly conceived, are still allowed a measure of independence from their author.
Despite Hall's moving voice, his brother Arthur is merely a figure of fantasy. His sweetness and vulnerability are curiously bloodless. Indeed, there is no explanation given for his fragility, except that he needs to live the blues he sings—which is no explanation at all. His career's decline is predictable, and what might have been most interesting about his life, his 15-year love affair with his accompanist, Julia's brother, is disappointingly rendered. Their love brings out all the lurking sentimentality in Baldwin's style, drowning the individuality of the characters….
As it is, Hall cannot keep the present book entirely together. There are, as always, scenes in which Baldwin's precision matches his force of feeling—glimpses of family life in Harlem, rapturous music-making in the churches, moments of uneasiness in even the most casual meetings between whites and blacks—scenes that Baldwin seems preternaturally gifted in understanding. Such scenes, unfortunately, are not always there when the reader wants them. No one, I think, will find this novel consistently absorbing or entertaining or insightful, though it is all of those things in places; and then there are places where it is forced and repetitious. It would be good to say that "Just Above My Head" is a work of passion rather than a work of art, and so to lay the blame for its unevenness upon the veering, shifting forces of Baldwin's inspiration; but there is too much that is inchoate, unrealized. The consummation of James Baldwin's art has not yet come to pass. (p. 33)
John Romano, "James Baldwin Writing and Talking," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1979, pp. 3, 33.
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It is Baldwin's sentimental and poorly argued attempt to present homosexuality as some form of superior erotic enlightenment that continually slackens the power of Just Above My Head. The sentimentality results from a tendency to overstatement, pretension, and pomposity, as well as the creation of situations and responses the sole function of which is to prove the degradation of black people at the behest of racism and sexual convention. The degradation is wrought with existential cliches to demonstrate that suffering and alienation form the high road to awareness, and that he or she who is most painfully alienated is somehow most human and, as Robert Bone once angrily pointed out [see excerpt above], stands as guiding priest or priestess at the intersections of human ambivalence….
Baldwin loves the black church for the depth of its music and its great feeling of collective exaltation, but hates it for its provincialism; he seeks in his writing to combine the language of the Bible and of his church people with that of Henry James and the hip argots of the streets and jazz. The results are frequently ineffectual especially when the characters are made to vent long monologues about love and danger, nakedness and loneliness, outrage and self-pity—the subjects Baldwin belabors most. Then his lecture voice takes over and everybody sounds about the same.
Yet there are many instances when the literary power that informed those fine and virtuosic essays in Notes of a Native Son comes through, and we are made ruefully aware of the struggle this writer is waging with his attempts to define his own life choices in a grand and heroic light. Writing of Joel, who incestuously rapes his daughter after his wife dies (the fashionable post-Bigger neo-brute is burned again in literary effigy), Baldwin's language moves from the Bible to the blues with actual eloquence…. But this same writer can also observe: "Love is a two-way street." You see the problem….
Hall is much of the novel's problem. He is given to insubstantial observations about racial history, an ongoing series of sermons and homilies about the terrors and responsibilities of love, an irritating bitchiness, and claims of moral superiority to white people more often stated in a self-congratulatory fashion than proved. Then his sugary-salty Sunday school compassion takes on the tone of a professional mourner trying to be hip. Too, he is a very unconvincing heterosexual (with a few homosexual romances in the service): his descriptions of experiences with women are clay-pigeon fantasies glazed with effusive adjectives. The narrative can be effective, however, when Baldwin backs off from creating intensity by merely piling up words, and depicts situations he knows or imagines with clean authority. (p. 39)
Although Arthur is basically a very strong character, Hall and the others so swoon and moan over his difficulties that the reader is given little chance to feel anything at all. When this is not the problem, Arthur's language, filtered through Hall, so often changes at the demands of the writer that he sometimes seems no more than a literary dummy, ever ready to mouth speeches about dread and romantic terror. Yet, again, there are moments when the purple shrouds are removed, and some of Arthur's adult life carries authenticity. Arthur's brief romance with a Frenchman also seems authentic—though it, too, occasionally succumbs to sentimentality, and there is a fraudulent conversation in which Arthur lectures his lover on the horrors of being black in Western civilization.
Elsewhere in Just Above My Head are some of the finest scenes in recent American literature, some so precise and easefully evocative that one hopes Baldwin finds a strong and sympathetic editor next time out. Baldwin communicates superb insights about the buying of Christmas presents for loved ones and near-strangers, then artfully undercuts both the affection and the ambivalence with a finely orchestrated confrontation between Hall and a white worker in an expensive clothing store. Their animosity and suspicion are as charged as the best of [Harold] Pinter or [jazz musician] Thelonious Monk….
Baldwin expands the territory of the black novel as he details the ambivalence of black people faced with the privileged dungeon of Madison Avenue success, and realistically—though too briefly—portrays black poverty-program opportunists. The irony, however, is that those are the people who benefit most from the kind of guilt Baldwin so continuously tries to impose on his white readers.
I think the guilt is all a waste of time, for guilt is not what black people need to inspire in white people, if, in fact, black people need to inspire anything at all in white people. What is needed is a breaking away by writers, readers, and various speakers for the black cause from simplistic, pot-boiled ideas, from the howling propaganda that is the Madison Avenue version of politics and social comment….
[I do not] believe that the world of a Nicky Barnes or a Richard Pryor is more real or significant than that of an Adam Powell, a Romare Bearden, a Max Roach, or a Donald McHenry. That kind of thinking can lead to an irresponsible snobbery wherein one could believe that black people, women, or homosexuals will, by some grace of special suffering, burst through the paper and metal chains that repress them and change our country for the better. Oh, it will be changed, and probably for the better—but not because the condition of the outsider guarantees enlightment. No condition guarantees that, which is something James Baldwin knows quite well. That he will ever successfully tell us this again, as he did so wonderfully in Go Tell It On The Mountain, is something we should hope for. Between a third and a half of Just Above My Head proves it is still possible. (p. 42)
Stanley Crouch, "Cliches of Degradation" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 44, October 29, 1979, pp. 39, 42.
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[Despite Baldwin's] absorption in culture's complexities and conundrums, despite his indictments of racism, his deepest impulses are religious, mythological and romantic. Certain themes emerge again and again in his work: that race does not exist, finally, except in a moral dimension; that we are one another's history and thus cannot abuse one another without abusing ourselves; that salvation and damnation are real, and depend upon our ability or our failure to love. Race and sex are the arenas in which we fight for love. Our racial and sexual histories are the opponents that must be bested….
[Love] is the principle that binds people in his novels—love between fathers and sons, men and men, men and women; love among blacks and love between blacks and whites. It is usually threatened: society stifles the parental love we expect and thwarts the romantic love we seek. Familial love, in Baldwin's books, has a sweetly elegiac quality. Erotic love, heterosexual and homosexual, has the dramatic, ecstatic fervor a preacher employs when describing the glories of heaven. For Baldwin, as for D. H. Lawrence, sex is a comprehensive metaphor—too comprehensive, I fear. Still, it is wrong to accuse him of lacking a historical sense; that sense is apocalyptic, not analytic. History provides the landscape and weapons for our spiritual battles. The battles themselves take place in another dimension, where words like truth and freedom replace those like politics and economics. The most intense moments in Baldwin occur when we enter another country of the soul and the senses; when we climb to Giovanni's room; when Beale Street tells a story that transcends poverty, murder and prison. (p. 437)
Margo Jefferson, "There's a Heaven Somewhere." in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 14, November 3, 1979, pp. 437-38.
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[Just Above My Head is] a melancholy piece of creation. Swollen …, meandering, awkwardly colloquial, and pretentiously elevated by turns, the book agitatedly contains four or five major themes that never are brought into coherence with one another. Dealing with experiences that clearly have meant a great deal to Baldwin, it is a novel stuck halfway between life and art, with none of the originality or fatefulness of either.
The mélange of themes I mentioned includes family relationships, religious passion and its repudiation, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Baldwin's narrator, one Hall Montana, is in many respects his alter ego in a damaging sense. This is especially so in the bitter anti-white strain that runs spasmodically and inelegantly through the book …, although there is one section, an apologia for homosexuality that seems quite unrelated to the rest of the novel but at least has an eloquence lacking everywhere else, in which Baldwin's taking over for his fictional character seems appropriate….
The intricacies of [personal] relationships are worked out against a political background that is never sharply seen but whose remembered atrocities seem to feed Baldwin's diffuse and inexpressive rage….
Montana is "trying to piece together this story … attempting to stammer out this tale" and to do this he has "had to strip myself naked." Now such authorial rhetoric as this ought to alert us not to the potential profundity of the book but just the opposite, to some imaginative debility, specifically an inability to absorb one's materials and transform them into fictional existence. And indeed the entire novel feels uncompleted, not in the sense of lacking a narrative conclusion or being without some structural component, but as a matter of process; Baldwin never seems to get past the instigations to the book, its origins in his experience, into its realizations.
The most obvious sign of this failure is the way the novel moves uncertainly from one motif to another. But at a more subtle level it displays itself as an inhibiting of novelistic action: events, things done, things done in the mind. There can be few novels of this length and scope in which there is so much talk, and talk of a peculiarly inert kind. People are forever sitting down to explain themselves to each other, to reminisce, recapitulate, or forecast—all of it, it sometimes seems, as a defense of their right to be in the novel…. [Their] speech alternates between aggressive jive and street talk on the one hand and a literary rhetoric of portentous hyperbole on the other. The latter is especially pronounced when the narrator periodically takes charge…. (p. 30)
I have seen Baldwin's novel described as being about love, but it isn't. It's about a notion of love and, what's worse, a clichéd and sentimental notion at that….
[Baldwin's voice] is language neither of experience nor of original literature, but, as I said before, of a mired condition between the two. The truly inarticulate person naturally can't write this way and the truly articulate wouldn't. But if you are a writer and are committed to the kind of fiction that requires you to put your most "passionate" experiences at the forefront of your labors, but lack a language of your own, why you'll borrow it, you'll be, in other words, what is called "literary."… [Baldwin] seems more and more to be out of place in the realm of fiction, where more is needed than to have felt and read. (p. 31)
Richard Gilman, "Books and the Arts: 'Just above My Head'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 20, November 24, 1979, pp. 30-1.
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The novelistic walls of "Just Above My Head" bulge and leak. But the form Baldwin chooses to write in no longer matters. His great and peculiar power is to re-create the maddening halfway house that the black man finds himself in in late-twentieth-century America. Baldwin is a prophet, a master of exhortation. Only weariness makes his voice crack. (p. 219)
Whitney Balliet, "Father and Son," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 41. November 26, 1979, pp. 218-19.
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Moralistic fervor, a high literary seriousness, the authority of the survivor, of the witness—these qualities made Baldwin unique. In his best work, he is drawn to the ways in which life can go wildly wrong, to examinations of the damage done the individual by society. Another bloodied stone is always waiting to be turned over. A sense of mission has guided Baldwin's development as a writer. He was truly born with his subject matter, and yet for a long time his work showed a feeling of distrust for the promises of "pure" literature, a sense of its impotence, both personally and as a political weapon. In his youth Baldwin wanted to be identified not as a black but as a writer. It is a conflict he has never resolved.
Just Above My Head is a long and ambitious novel in which we find again many of Baldwin's obsessions. He returns to the Harlem and the church of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953); to the homosexuality of Giovanni's Room (1955) and Another Country (1962); and to the social and political outrage that has inspired all his work. Whether the visions of the past are still vivid is another question….
[The voice of Hall, the narrator,] is not very fluent and this makes for something of a strain in such a long work. The burden of editorial omniscience, including what his brother felt while having sex, forces Hall's imagination to do more work than it can bear….
Here, as throughout Baldwin's other work, flight is at the center of the psychological drama. The characters believe in the possibilities of another evening, a different place, a new face. The world is revealed to them at night, in the hours of nakedness, drinking, and truth-telling.
Although Hall tells many detailed ancedotes of the adolescent years of Julia and the two brothers, particularly Arthur, as they move into maturity his narration becomes more urgent and elliptical, as if he were uneasily aware that the story he wished to tell is too large. Crucial moments that would help us understand what he and his brother were going through are only hinted at….
Arthur himself never emerges from the shadows of his brother's descriptions, but it is clear that he is very different from the subversive heroes of Baldwin's earlier novels. He is homosexual, but seen sentimentally…. He is meant to be a kind of artist hero, hard-working, dedicated, tragically undone by the rages of their lives. He unfortunely lacks the willfulness and chaotic interest of other artists in Baldwin's fiction—the jazz musician Rufus Scott in Another Country, the actor Leo Proudhammer in Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968). For Baldwin, the time for a daring portrayal of the homosexual as outcast appears to have passed. He seems now to be trying to make a sentimental truce between the outcast and the family, meaning the black community….
For Baldwin, it once seemed possible that spiritual bondage could be overcome by belief in a transcendent passion. Freedom from sexual and racial bigotry was the only redemptive possibility for the individual confined and menaced by society. In Baldwin's fiction homosexuality is symbolic of a liberated condition; but in Just Above My Head this theme is dropped—rejected, one might say—by having the homosexual characters imitate heterosexual behavior. By the time Arthur dies, he and Jimmy have been married fourteen years, complete with in-laws.
The anxious tone of this novel is a long way from the romantic melancholy of Giovanni's Room, a book neglected not only because of its homosexual protagonists but also because in it Baldwin was writing exclusively about white characters. (p. 32)
Abandoning his idealism about love, Baldwin now writes sentimentally not only about Arthur but about the entire Montana family. The parents are wise, forgiving, and everyone is uniformly resilient and "caring." If Baldwin means to honor the family as one of the reasons why blacks have, if nothing else, survived, his way of doing so is hardly convincing. Giving to the family generous amounts of noble qualities results in a neat symmetry: us versus them. The hagiographic approach helps to account for the flatness and didacticism of this work, as it did of Baldwin's last novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), a book that was also dogmatic in its insistence on families and marriage as joyous alliances against an oppressively conceived "them." From Baldwin's other writings, one knows he has had a far more complicated idea of the family.
Increasing disillusionment over the years may have led Baldwin to search for something like a "people's book." But there is a repetitious and inert quality to Just Above My Head. Attempting to be earthy, to render a vernacular, black speech, Baldwin loses something when he declines to use the subtle language of his essays. In many ways the bombast in Hall's narration creates not a closeness to the material but a peculiar distance from it. In using a kind of ordinary language, hoping for what Richard Wright once called "the folk utterance," Baldwin has denied himself the natural lyrical mode of expression for which he has such a high gift….
When Baldwin was young, in Paris, he quarreled with his "spiritual father," Richard Wright, over Baldwin's attack on the genre of protest novels. Wright felt betrayed and Baldwin defended himself by saying that all literature may be protest but not all protest was literature. Later, when recalling Wright's isolation from other blacks in Paris, his aloneness, his alienation, Baldwin wrote: "I could not help feeling: Be Careful. Time is passing for you, too, and this may be happening to you one day." Baldwin now writes as if he is haunted by this prophecy. Just Above My Head, with its forced polemical tone, represents a conversion of sorts, a conversion to simplicities that so fine a mind as Baldwin's cannot embrace without grave loss. (p. 33)
Darryl Pinckney, "Blues for Mr. Baldwin," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 19, December 6, 1979, pp. 32-3.