Understanding James Baldwin
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92 pages
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The Harlem-born son of a storefront preacher, James Baldwin died almost thirty years ago, but his spirit lives on in the eloquent and still-relevant musings of his novels, short stories, essays, and poems. What concerned him most—as a black man, as a gay man, as an American—were notions of isolation and disconnection at both the individual and communal level and a conviction that only in the transformative power of love could humanity find any hope of healing its spiritual and social wounds.

In Understanding James Baldwin, Marc K. Dudley shows that a proper grasp of Baldwin's work begins with a grasp of the times in which he wrote. During a career spanning the civil rights movement and beyond, Baldwin stood at the heart of intellectual and political debate, writing about race, sexual identity, and gendered politics, while traveling the world to promote dialogue on those issues. In surveying the writer's life, Dudley traces the shift in Baldwin's aspirations from occupying the pulpit like his stepfather to becoming a writer amid the turmoil of sexual self-discovery and the harsh realities of American racism and homophobia. The book's analyses of key works in the Baldwin canon—among them, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, "Sonny's Blues," Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and The Devil Finds Work—demonstrate the consistency, contrary to some critics' claims, of Baldwin's vision and thematic concerns.

As police violence against people of color, a resurgence in white supremacist rhetoric, and pushback against LGBTQ rights fill today's headlines, James Baldwin's powerful and often-angry words find a new resonance. From early on, Baldwin decried the damning potential of alienation and the persistent bigotry that feeds it. Yet, even as it sometimes wavered, his hope for both the individual and the nation remained intact. In the present historical moment, James Baldwin matters more than ever.


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Date de parution 17 avril 2019
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781611179651
Langue English

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UNDERSTANDING
JAMES BALDWIN
UNDERSTANDING CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN LITERATURE
Matthew J. Bruccoli, Founding Editor
Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
UNDERSTANDING
JAMES BALDWIN
Marc Dudley
2019 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
www.sc.edu/uscpress
28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at http://catalog.loc.gov/
ISBN 978-1-61117-964-4 (hardback)
ISBN 978-1-61117-965-1 (ebook)
Front cover photograph Ulf Anderson
http://ulfanderson.photoshelter.com
CONTENTS
Series Editor s Preface
Chapter 1
Understanding James Baldwin
Chapter 2
In the Beginning: Fictional Foundations in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni s Room
Chapter 3
Another Chapter, Another Life, Another Country: Baldwin s Big Book of Ideas
Chapter 4
Eyes on the Prize: Baldwin, the Essay, and Civil Rights Discourse
Chapter 5
Telling a True Story, Differently: Baldwin s Short Fiction and Drama
Chapter 6
When the Sun Goes Down: Baldwin, the Later Years
Notes
Bibliography
Index
SERIES EDITOR S PREFACE
The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series was founded by the estimable Matthew J. Bruccoli (1931-2008), who envisioned these volumes as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers, a legacy that will continue as new volumes are developed to fill in gaps among the nearly one hundred series volumes published to date and to embrace a host of new writers only now making their marks on our literature.
As Professor Bruccoli explained in his preface to the volumes he edited, because much influential contemporary literature makes special demands, the word understanding in the titles was chosen deliberately. Many willing readers lack an adequate understanding of how contemporary literature works; that is, of what the author is attempting to express and the means by which it is conveyed. Aimed at fostering this understanding of good literature and good writers, the criticism and analysis in the series provide instruction in how to read certain contemporary writers-explicating their material, language, structures, themes, and perspectives-and facilitate a more profitable experience of the works under discussion.
In the twenty-first century Professor Bruccoli s prescience gives us an avenue to publish expert critiques of significant contemporary American writing. The series continues to map the literary landscape and to provide both instruction and enjoyment. Future volumes will seek to introduce new voices alongside canonized favorites, to chronicle the changing literature of our times, and to remain, as Professor Bruccoli conceived, contemporary in the best sense of the word.
Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
CHAPTER 1
Understanding James Baldwin
Columbus was discovered by what he found.
James Baldwin, Imagination
All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.
James Baldwin, The Precarious Vogue of Ingmar Bergman
At forty James Baldwin was already midway through a stellar career when he collaborated with a high school friend turned professional photographer, Richard Avedon, to create a kind of visual poetry he entitled Nothing Personal . The title would prove to be both overtly ironic and a harbinger of things to come. In crafting these essays with pictures, Baldwin was interested in pursuing one principal angle: the isolation of the human soul, or as biographer W. J. Weatherby suggested, alienation of people, what keeps them apart. 1 Several of Baldwin s early works had aptly dealt with this same theme, and Baldwin would wrestle with the complications of human relations his entire literary life. In doing so, he simply continued the ongoing conversation that so many writers before him had started. Not the least of these conversations were those begun by Charles Dickens a century before him: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree comparison only. So begins Dickens s A Tale of Two Cities . As a child, James Baldwin loved Dickens; as an adult, Baldwin lived Dickens, championing his own brand of justice for a world he saw falling woefully short of its grand potential. 2 Even when he was not front and center as champion, James Baldwin was a witness.
While much has been made of his youthful adoration of Harriet Beecher Stowe s Uncle Tom s Cabin (his mother purportedly hid his well-worn copy from him to save his eyes) and his more cynical reading of it years later, comparatively little has been said about his attraction to Dickens. In his reflective years, Baldwin would become more fully appreciative of the imprint Dickens s writing would have on his own worldview. In fact, reflecting on his career s major influences at its midpoint in 1970, Baldwin succinctly conjured his holy trinity: Formative influences: my father, the Church, and Charles Dickens. 3 It only seems appropriate that this volume on James Baldwin should begin with allusions to Dickens. Few opening lines of any novel are more iconic than those opening Dickens s 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities . Moreover, few opening lines encapsulate so precisely the state of the world in both Dickens s day and, by extension, Baldwin s. Dickens transports his readers to eighteenth-century France and paints a world born of radical change. The year 1789 was a touchstone, marking the Bastille s storming and revolution in France. It also marked George Washington s election to the office of American president, legitimizing a new nation. The publication year of A Tale of Two Cities , 1859, was a year of sea change as Charles Darwin publicly posited his natural selection theories in Origin of the Species , and across the Atlantic, John Brown was hanged after a failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, marking the beginning of the end of the American union. In December of the very next year, South Carolina seceded from the union, and just months after that, Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter, sending America headlong into its own civil war. Dickens as nineteenth-century reporter and prophet could not be more prescient; his words reverberate a century later.
James Baldwin could have borrowed from Dickens in writing about the present world, too. The second decade of this young century has been both the best and the worst of times. The new millennium has witnessed the striking down of DOMA, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (introduced to legally disallow same-sex unions), in 2015. Conversely, since then a flurry of legislative activity at the state level worked to curb civil liberties for those in the LGBTQ community. The summer of 2015 also saw the continuation of a long black song of bloodshed, of conflict between police and black America and renewed media conversation surrounding an age-old issue. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland: all victims of racially charged police brutality. South Carolina state senator Clementa Pinckney was among nine shot dead by a self-professed executioner of racial law at Charleston s Emanuel AME Church that summer. In the span of months, race riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore Maryland. The following year Philando Castille in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana joined the victims list, and it only grows longer and the tragedy only deepens. Each of these incidents serves as a touchstone in the ongoing conversation about race in America. James Baldwin helped initiate that conversation over a half century ago. Although he died in 1987, Baldwin s continued relevance in the new millennium, decades after he last spoke to America, cannot be overstated. Baldwin s eloquent, sermonic, spiritual musings find a new resonance in today s sociopolitical culture.
In today s headlines one sees the very same issues that pressed hard on his mind all those years ago-years during which Rosa Parks engaged in quiet protest as she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama; Emmett Louis Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman; Martin Luther King, Jr., marched on the Washington Mall for freedom; and gay demonstrators rioted in New York s Greenwich Village over discriminatory practices. Gay rights and issues of race, issues of the color line-what W. E. B. Du Bois insisted would be the dominant twentieth-century issue-are certainly still at the forefront of issues facing twenty-first-century America. The United States Supreme Court s recent rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act, the recent wave of state supreme court decisions allowing for the civil union of same-sex couples, an immediate conservative backlash, and the spate of violence directed at people of color by police (the tiny city of Ferguson, Missouri, was little known before 2014 s police shooting of a black teenager) all attest to the timelessness of Baldwin s prophetic words. Baldwin knew the truth in Du Bois s prophesy early on, knew it was and that it would be so unless America confronted the demons that haunt it. If you can describe it, whatever it is, Baldwin once suggested, describe it. You are not at the mercy of something you don t understand. If you can describe it, you can outlive it. 4 That said, this volume on James Arthur Baldwin for the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series is long overdue.
Marking what would have been his ninetieth year, New York City proclaimed 2014 the year of James Baldwin and rightly so. Born in Harlem in 1924, James Baldwin was a child of New York. And although his life journey took him to worlds far away, Harlem was always on his mind. After all, Harlem Hospital welcomed him into the world, and he spent his early years playing in alleys off Park Avenue, but not the Park Avenue of American aspiration. His Park Avenue was uptown Park Avenue, littered with trash and peopled by those enduring the pangs of poverty. This was Baldwin s New York.
Baldwin was the eldest of nine children and spent the better part of his early years tending to siblings and dreaming of a world beyond familial obligation. He liked to say that he spent his youth taking his brothers and sisters over with one hand and holding a book with the other. 5 As a teenager, he would spend three years in training as a boy preacher, dispensing the gospel at a Harlem storefront church. Hundreds of such venues dotted the city during the 1920s, and the cloth culture permeated all of life. Always, though, the outside, secular world played the part of temptress to his righteous resolve. Movie houses offered an escape and a window to glitz and glamour, while the grime of the streets offered excitement. A personal fieldtrip to the public library facilitated by a grade-school teacher who saw in young James much promise would transform him. As Baldwin recalled in his later years in interviews for the Paris Review , during those formative years, I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. 6 Books consumed him and placed him in direct competition with his gospel proselytizing and with his stepfather, David.
Born the son of Emma Berdis Jones of Maryland, young Baldwin would never know his real father; he would say later that he never truly knew his stepfather either. He would, however, know the passion and the pain of a stepfather who was relentlessly severe, distant, and bitter. David Baldwin, Sr., day laborer and self-fashioned preacher, was born in the Deep South, the son of slaves, and he spent the bulk of his life remembering and reliving that history. He led an austere existence and spent his adult years in perpetual defiance, unwilling to bend to white will and expectation. His son James would remark that this white will broke him in the end. David Baldwin would spend the duration of his days as head of household preaching his gospel, rebuking the white man for his dominion over this world and admonishing his family to avoid it altogether. He would spend his final days embittered, frail and in poor health, on the brink of lunacy.
Following his stepfather s death, James Baldwin spent the rest of his years, and indeed the entirety of his literary career, getting to know this man with whom he seemed to share little outside of an adoptive name. Thus, James Baldwin s writing becomes a grand exercise in identity making. The paternal image became an appropriate metaphor for his relationship to his nation as a gay man, a black man, an American dispossessed. Whether it is an essay, a short story, a novel, or a poem, each of Baldwin s aesthetic exercises was an exorcism of sorts, as he sifted through personal experience and reconciled differences. Each scripted text became an act of confession. Baldwin was, after all, the son of a preacher man. Understanding James Baldwin begins there.
Baldwin s formative years at home in Harlem and in the church would shape much of his life and career. That early life was a tortured one, with a stepfather lording over his son closely and the outside world beckoning him perpetually. However, in the summer of 1938, the universe interceded on his behalf; Baldwin had a religious conversion that transformed his life and consciousness. The seeds of Baldwin s literary career were sown on the threshing floor when he was a teen. In fact, wrote James Campbell, he two books which are often taken as his best-the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and the essay The Fire Next Time -center on this moment. 7
James Baldwin became bona fide at fourteen. He became a junior preacher and for three years he proselytized at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly Church. During this time, he would seek inspiration from Father Divine (whose Peace Mission movements provided for the needy), Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and later a Harlem legislative representative, and Mother Horne, all preachers who had achieved a certain celebrity. Each also represented ties to home for Baldwin. All the while he dreamed of engaging with the world at large with a pencil and paper. The world won out. Encouragement from teachers such as Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen at P.S. 139, also called Frederick Douglass Junior High, confirmed what the young boy already knew. Within two years of donning his evangelical robe, young James realized where his true passions were and where they were not; the church was not his home. Keenly self-aware as a teen, Baldwin came to see the church as a convenient crutch whose sole purpose, were he to continue, would be to help him hide himself from the world, risk nothing, and deny himself in the process. Aptly enough, his last sermon as a preacher was entitled Set thy House in Order. As Baldwin biographer David Leeming suggested, for Baldwin it was always a critical choice between a certain safety and an all-out engagement with all of life. 8 And while his tenure at the pulpit did not last beyond his seventeenth year, its imprint on him as would-be artist proved indelible.
One hears reverberations of those very formative years in his writing; Baldwin s language, always informed by the sermonic tradition, is undulating, grandiose, allusive, epic. Further, he wrote with a proselyte s fervor, his aspirations always nothing short of a reader s total conversion. Baldwin s introductory description of young black boy John s religious conversion, as witnessed by his mother, Elizabeth, in Go Tell It On the Mountain is a case in point: As now, in the sudden silence, she heard him cry: not the cry of the child, newborn, before the common light of earth; but the cry of the man-child, bestial, before the light comes down from Heaven . On the threshing-floor, in the center of the crying, singing saints, John lay astonished beneath the power of the Lord. 9 Whether his subject matter is spiritual or secular, everywhere are the audible tracings of scripture.
Thematically, too, Baldwin repeatedly revisited the pulpit as he perpetually explored the relationship between father and (prodigal) son. He consistently mined memory and personal experience, always underscoring the import of lineage, of belonging, of home. Additionally, Baldwin protagonists often harbor secrets that threaten to consume them and most certainly alienate them. Confession, therefore, becomes an integral part of many a Baldwin text, as characters look to assuage a guilty conscience or else reconcile the gulf that separates them from others. Baldwin characters constantly negotiate with these secrets, with conscience, with histories that haunt, as they look to save themselves. Perhaps, then, the most pervasive of Baldwin s themes is salvation, and salvation is only possible through a realization of love. It is probably why an exploration of this thing called love, in its several iterations-this is Baldwin s profane equivalent of the Holy Ghost -permeates so much of the writer s work. He took on the mantel of a profane prophet, melding real and metaphysical. Baldwin saw the artist s charge as being that of a naturalist preacher, at once acknowledging the forces at work in the world, yet artfully, hopefully, endorsing the human spirit s potential. In so doing, an artist is to show human nature as it is, frail and vulnerable; to expose the ugliness, the sinfulness, of the world all around him; and to offer a salve for spiritual and psychic wounds born of living. In the end, always, the salve proffered is love. Baldwin began crafting this aesthetic prescription very early in his career.
Already as a boy, Baldwin had aspirations of writing the world. Winning a church prize in grade school and later garnering the adulation of high school friends, Baldwin knew from his earliest days that he was destined for authorship. Unfortunately but appropriately, Baldwin s early aesthetic yearnings would come into direct conflict with his father s more spiritual mandates. Amid these pangs, Baldwin s true artistry was born. His familial conflicts, complicated by a burgeoning homosexuality, helped lay the groundwork for a formal aesthetic founded upon empathetic principles that would define the writer for decades.
At fourteen and already at a crossroads in his life, preparing for a life behind the pulpit, Baldwin made the prescient declaration that he wished to be numbered among the great artists of [his] race. He cultivated that talent early with encouragement from his principal and teachers (including Cullen) at P.S. 124, where he became editor-in-chief of the school paper, the Pilot . Cullen took a special interest in guiding the boy, recognizing both his talent and his vulnerability, and his unspoken yearning for a father figure. Years later he was admitted into DeWitt Clinton High School, a more affluent school in the Bronx, where he mingled with the mainly white, Jewish student body, and talked all things literary. He became a fixture in the school s newspaper, the Magpie . Several of his school friendships would last a lifetime, and a handful he would cultivate into long-lasting artistic alliances. He would cowrite a play with editor Sol Stein and collaborate on a book project with photographer Richard Avedon. But it was his friendship with painter Beauford Delaney, forged when Baldwin was just sixteen years old, that would leave the greatest impression on him. Baldwin credited Delaney with literally showing him the light, impressing upon him deliberate aesthetic techniques regarding light usage in his own medium, and exposing him to the music of his people; Delaney drew sustenance and inspiration from vernacular music. From him Baldwin learned the rhythms of jazz and blues, along with an entire cultural aesthetic steeped in notions of spiritual suffering and redemption. Baldwin would imbue his own writing with this sensibility for the entirety of his career.
That career began in earnest with the publication of his first novel in 1953. It was well received and helped establish Baldwin as a burgeoning literary force. In actuality, his success was a long time coming. The publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain and its commercial and critical success were preceded by several years of dissatisfying toil, soul searching, and paying necessary dues. In 1943, in what would be a year of sea change for Baldwin, his stepfather died, and on the very day of his funeral, Harlem rioted. Both events would set young Baldwin down a path both private and public. This would include making peace with the revelation that the man he called daddy was in fact not his biological father, that man he might never know. His stepfather he might, but only after much soul-searching. Shortly after graduating high school, partly at the prompting of artist friends, many of them white, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village to be closer to what nourished his soul: art. Already in the 1940s, New York s art scene thrived there. In the Village, he communed with musicians, visual artists, and, of course, other writers. And here is where the seeds of that first novel were planted and nurtured. However, he would pick up and put down the pen multiple times during his years there, never quite being able to gain traction as he looked to translate those early pulpit experiences.
To pay bills during these hungry years, Baldwin took odd jobs. He was a restaurant waiter, an elevator operator, and layer of railroad track. This last work detail would take him to New Jersey, where the pay was considerably better, but the social conditions for a young black boy, even in the North, were sometimes nothing short of hostile. During these same years, he met Richard Wright-a man he had idolized since Wright burst onto the literary scene himself with his 1940 novel, Native Son . This friendship, forged in 1944, proved vital in both sparking the beginning of Baldwin s literary career-help from Wright came in the form of guidance, literary contacts, and grant money (the publishing house Harper and Brothers awarded him the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust)-and providing him with yet another surrogate father figure, while he exorcised personal demons. He would begin work on what would ostensibly become Go Tell It on the Mountain as a means of getting there. But work was slow. Complicating Baldwin s situation was his newly confirmed attraction to men; he declared himself a homosexual to a close friend from his days at Dewitt Clinton. While liberating in some respects, this revelation simultaneously compounded his feelings of disconnect; he was, after all, made to play the part of outsider in his own house. This same sensibility would haunt the pages of his writing in the years to come.
But personal liberation through writing came piecemeal. First, there was the matter of simply making money from his craft. To do this, he initially wrote reviews for the New Leader and the Nation , honing his critical eye and voice in the process. But Baldwin-as-artist felt constricted; he was commissioned to represent his people, to repeatedly read about and discuss being negro in America. For Baldwin such an assignment was not writing; it was reporting. His deliberate break from this charge was quickly rewarded. Writer and critic Irving Howe, in a 1961 review of Baldwin s second essay collection, Nobody Knows My Name , suggested that Baldwin s central concern as a writer was transcend[ing] the sterile categories of Negro-ness. 10 It was not until he himself truly felt racism s pangs that those seemingly trite tales gained some resonance. Baldwin left New York altogether in the fall of 1948 after one such incident; he personally felt, perhaps for the first time, the utter rage that infused all of Harlem on the day of his father s funeral, when he was refused service in a New Jersey diner one time too many. Calming himself would take time and distance; an extended stay in France beginning in November 1948 would afford him both. Soon after, the world would know James Baldwin, writer.
While ideas already percolated in his mind while living in the Village, Baldwin s literary career did not begin until Paris. There, Baldwin subsisted on fellowship money, small royalties, and the kindness of strangers. And he wrote. He wrote the first of several essays there, including Everybody s Protest Novel -this essay would singularly announce his arrival as one of the twentieth century s most distinct voices-which would appear in magazines including Partisan Review and Zero . In Paris, too, he forged what was arguably the most important relationship of his life; he met and fell in love with Lucien Happersberger, a Swiss artist living and working in France during Baldwin s first years there. Happersberger was both inspiration and safe haven for an artist in the making.
After several failed novel attempts, Baldwin wrote furiously during the winter of 1951, holed up in Happersberger s familial lodge in Switzerland. The result was Go Tell It on the Mountain . Critics praised Baldwin for his powerful and lyrical language in a novel as much in tune with the sermonic tradition as it was with issues of self-discovery. It would introduce the world to a handful of primary themes that he would revisit repeatedly throughout his literary career: the act of the criminal, the art of confession, the haunting of history (personal and public), alienation and exile, condemnation, and salvation through love. Following a young boy s spiritual journey and familial wrangling with a religiously zealous father, Go Tell It on the Mountain is Baldwin s own story fictionalized. It is autobiographical; it is confessional. It is a story about familial disconnect, a son s want of love, and a father s refusal to love. In the end it is about salvation. These themes would quickly become the hallmarks of Baldwin s writing. The novel s publication was both a commercial and critical success. From there, Baldwin never looked back-except, of course, in his writing.
In quick succession Baldwin followed his first novel with Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), and The Fire Next Time (1963), all three highly esteemed essay collections that seamlessly crafted narratives of autobiographic detail with often biting, broader social commentary. As both a Ford Foundation Grant winner and a Guggenheim fellow, Baldwin quickly earned a well-deserved international reputation as one of the nation s most discriminating and distinguished voices and a master of the essay.
In Notes of a Native Son (particularly in Many Thousands Gone, Everybody s Protest Novel, and Stranger in A Village ), Baldwin interrogated America s racial divide as something singular, something altogether peculiar. And he did this from the clarity of the expatriate s vantage point. In this collection the target is most often white America, and metaphorically, the American Negro is the perennial child estranged from his motherland.
In Nobody Knows My Name , published six years after Notes of a Native Son , Baldwin revisited those same central concerns but from the home front. In essays such as Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South, What It Means to Be Black and American, The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American, Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter From Harlem, and The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, Baldwin sharpened the more sanguine approach of his earlier collection. In Nobody Knows My Name , he claimed his American-ness outright, interrogated the American ghetto, and explored its psychological effects on those forced to live in it.
Additionally, he derided attachments to the Plantation Tradition and myths of the Old South. He also questioned the motives of William Faulkner and held up for all to see the fallacy of America s separate but equal doctrine and the nation s failed racial integration efforts. In this collection, too, he asserted the power of interior lives and the power of art to invoke change. These essays follow Baldwin s early prescriptive pattern, as he began each as a private narrative exercise and quickly extrapolated that interiority and applied it to the world at large. In each instance, America s black man is a seventh son, cast out, dispossessed, in search of home.
Baldwin would hone his words and sharpen his sights just two years later with the publication of what would perhaps become his most famous nonfiction work, The Fire Next Time . In it Baldwin once again addressed American race relations, but this time not as a series of general observations, but as a warning to the nation. Begun as a letter addressed to his nephew, the essay quickly transforms into a direct challenge to white Americans to accept their darker brethren into the national fold; equally key, though, to mutual success, will be a black acceptance of whites, failings and all. For Baldwin, love, once more, was the elixir; anything short of it, he promised, would result in a breakdown at the seams of the societal fabric. The Fire Next Time transformed this writer-in-earnest into a bona fide celebrity. Baldwin s face graced the cover of Time magazine in 1963. His legacy, it seemed, was already secure just a decade into his career. Interstitially, he published a play, two additional novels, and a collection of short stories. In each Baldwin again drew heavily on his own life. Published in 1954, The Amen Corner is a rousing play that serves as both an indictment of America s racial attitudes and an honest and raw interrogation of the church s (dys)function in the black community. As he did in Go Tell It on the Mountain , Baldwin had his protagonist face down the choice between an ascetic life (his mother is a woman of God) and the inherent beauty of the fallible life (his estranged father is a musician); in the end, as per Baldwin s own directive, David, the work s protagonist, chooses life. Real love-something found beyond church walls-prevails.
Baldwin quickly produced two novels in 1956 and 1961; both works broke new ground in their exploration of sexuality, decades (not years) before homosexuality, same-sex unions, and gender construction would become part of a greater national conversation. In writing these works, Baldwin heavily mined his own personal memories and experiences again, both as an expatriate living in Paris and most especially as a gay man living in a hetero-normative world. Passed on initially by publishers because of its subject matter, Giovanni s Room proved to be a trailblazing work once published. In this same-sex love story, Baldwin s protagonist grapples with the choice between the safety of acceptance and the dangers inherent in rebellion. Like John of Go Tell It on the Mountain , the protagonist of Giovanni s Room , David (who must come to grips with his homosexuality), is an outlier forging an identity in relation to a father who hardly knows him and a nation refusing to claim him. Six years later, Baldwin expanded the scope of his grand vision regarding love s many iterations with his addition of the (inter)racial component to relationships, both hetero- and homosexual, in his next novel, Another Country . This time the narrative backdrop is New York. Loneliness, the novel suggests, is ubiquitous and perfectly democratic in its affliction. As in life, tragedy in the novel perpetually looms large; but love, unadulterated and pure, is always the prescribed salve for the ailing. With their raw reflective honesty, both Giovanni s Room and Another Country helped usher in a new era in American identity politics. And Baldwin did this a half-century ago.
Baldwin s narrative mastery would come to include the short story as well; what he was able to do with the novel he distilled nearly perfectly in the shorter form. He provided further proof of his storytelling prowess with the story collection Going to Meet the Man , published in 1965. He amassed eight stories written through the years, some as early as 1948. The collection revisits the same alienation plaguing the Grimes family of Go Tell It on the Mountain , explores one brother s love for another, underscores the palliative effect of art, and demonstrates the blues value to a community left wanting.
Again, Baldwin s hallmarks are clearly observable: exile, love, art-as-salvation. Each story in this collection is an exploration of both human suffering, often precipitated by racism, and endurance. And endurance, they show, can be realized in any number of ways, whether it is pouring one s soul into a musical instrument, losing one s self in the arresting stupor of a drug fog, or fashioning discriminating, even prejudicial, narratives to avoid being subsumed by past deeds and haunting memory. Baldwin s narratives are still arresting today, his truths every bit as resounding now, as they were decades ago; stories from that collection, including Going to Meet the Man and Sonny s Blues, continue to be heavily anthologized and taught in classrooms everywhere over fifty years after their initial publication.
During these years James Baldwin s face was the face of intellectual and political debate, as he traveled the country and the world promoting equality; France, England, America, Turkey, and North Africa were all on the Baldwin travel itinerary. He battled wits with the likes of William F. Buckley and other intellectuals and social critics as he debated policy on college campuses. Years later, he would continue his crusade in the classroom as a teacher and on television, making the talk-show rounds in the process. The publication of his first two novels and his first essay collections introduced him to America, even while he put down stakes in France, but the death of Emmitt Till in 1955 brought him home. Consequently, he split much of his time between Europe and America during that turbulent time between the wars in Korea and Vietnam, touring the South, taking inventory. And he reflected on the deaths of several civil rights advocates, including his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ( No Name In The Street , published in 1972). He was asked by King to speak at the March on Washington in late 1963; he joined forces with marchers to protest voting discrimination; and he trekked from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He also visited and toured the South with Medgar Evers. Malcolm X, too, was both his political adversary and his ally. With King s death in April 1968, the winds of change shifted yet again; and Baldwin proved to be adept at change, as the civil rights era gave way to the age of Watergate, then to the era of the Iranian hostage crisis, and finally to the years of Iran-Contra. As always, Baldwin s commentary was prescient.
The death of the civil rights movement did not mean the death of prejudice in America, as James Baldwin was keenly aware. This awareness translated into an aesthetic responsibility. Of the many friends and compatriots struck down during the nation s most tumultuous years, Baldwin declared, I m the last witness. Everyone else is dead. 11 Racism s insidiousness often lay in its seeming invisibility.
With the advent of the 1970s, Baldwin set his sights on the entertainment industry and critiqued its persistent perpetuation of type in The Devil Finds Work (1976). Here Baldwin returned to form in the form that made him famous. Divided into three segments, this long essay is really one extended narrative in which Baldwin explored the power of the gaze both from behind and before the camera. As usual, Baldwin began from a personal space, reflecting on his fascination with cinema as a youth, and extrapolated personal experience to an interrogation of an industry and society of cultural consumers. From Birth of a Nation to the social-consciousness films of his boyhood-those films included Bette Davis in You Only Live Once -to the films of Sydney Poitier and even 1973 s The Exorcist , Baldwin examined an instrument whose sole purpose is manipulation. He also excoriated a Hollywood machine he insisted was losing whatever moral compass it once might have had, especially in its handling of race. While the collection received mixed reviews upon publication, in the years since it has been rightly reevaluated and labeled a classic; in film circles it is often hailed as seminal cinematic criticism. Once more, Baldwin dared to extend a legacy already unmatched.
Two years before, Baldwin marked his return to fiction with the publication of his fifth novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). As with his essays on race and representation in Hollywood, in this novel Baldwin continued his interrogation of a social order still tolerating race-based brutality, even after enduring so much bloodletting in the preceding years. This time, the target was more foundational. Set in Harlem and following the fallout of a race-based rape allegation, If Beale Street Could Talk is an indictment of both the so-called national dream and ideals of justice for America s black and brown people. Written as a testament to a community s strength and endurance, Baldwin s novel is a kind of blues-in-motion, and its attention to vernacular traditions underscores this point. Of the blues, Baldwin suggested, It is the ability to look on things as they are and survive your losses, or even not survive them-to know that your losses are coming. To know they are coming is the only possible insurance you have, a faint insurance, that you will survive them. 12 While the direction of Baldwin s gaze had shifted, his thematic concerns had not. Present in this text are the same touchstones of his earliest narratives: familial disconnect, discrimination, religion as a false shield against the profanities of the world, and love as a potent antidote to this world s poisons.
Appropriately, Baldwin closed the decade with a major exploration of love s endless possibilities. In 1979 Baldwin published his final novel, Just Above My Head . This work was a confluence of all things acutely James Baldwin, and while the critics were mixed in their reception, the novel ultimately proved to be an amalgam of several things literarily fine. Once more there are touches of that sermonic tradition and the music of the streets as the novel revisits Harlem, the Pentecostal Church, and the family. It centers on the Montana family, who act as Baldwin s prism for interrogating racism and violence. Moreover, the novel shifts the focal point of that violence from domestic streets to a looming threat of conscription and war raging in Korea. That violence also gets transmuted and translated within the family circle, as familial secrets become palpable sources of narrative tension. Baldwin further complicated the narrative fabric by reestablishing the sexual inquiry begun in Giovanni s Room and Another Country. Just Above My Head is, as some have pointed out, a sprawling text. Some critics even suggested it was simply Baldwin s answer to critics who saw him losing touch with certain political realities. 13 With a nod to Black Nationalism, the Korean War, poverty, and homosexuality, this novel s sheer scope and ambition defies such simple claims.
If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head , with their ultimate faith in (black) family and traditions, became emblematic of the fiction Baldwin would write in his final years. While sometimes dismissed by critics because of their perceived didacticism and lack of nuance, these works arguably mark a strong return to those themes of social corruption (racism and homophobia, most especially) that forged a career. They also show a writer who was trying new things. In the years after both the cries for Black Nationalism and Baldwin s very open critique of those same cries had begun to diminish, his ideals of home became expressly racialized; and his texts more overtly embraced a vernacular tradition first discovered in that Harlem church from which he had fled so long ago. The 1980s were beckoning: James Baldwin was ready and listening. Echoes of the Baldwin of old are heard in the works he produced during the years of Ronald Reagan s Cold War diplomacy and trickle-down economics.
Conversely, Baldwin demonstrated he still had a new thing or two to show his readers, or rather, tell them. His literary output in the years just before his death in late 1987 was relatively small, but the creativity, the potency, and the relevance were still there. He showcased these qualities both in the form that made him famous, the essay, and the form that informed all of his writing, the poem. For example, in an essay published in the New York Times , Baldwin castigated the powers-that-be for its dismissal of so-called Black English and, in turn, defended that idiom as a function of continued social oppression. 14 And in Here be Dragons, an essay published just two years before his death, Baldwin moved into relatively uncharted territory in addressing, head-on, issues of androgyny and sexual identity. 15 Never had Baldwin been so direct in his examination of such concerns; seldom had an essay been more powerful.
Baldwin even ventured into notably uncharted waters with the publication of formal poetry in his last years. However, as poet and National Book Award-winner Nikki Finney noted, Baldwin, in his pure lyricism, had in fact been writing poetry all his life. Baldwin reified his lifelong aesthetic vocation with the publication of his first official collection of poetry, Jimmy s Blues: Selected Poems , in 1985. Here he offered brief bursts of concentrated imagism (see 3:00 a.m. [for David] ) and extended dramatic narratives that revel in the political and the vernacular tradition (see Staggerlee Wonders ). There are reflections on the familial (with poems to both his mother and his brother), on the religious, on the political, on love. Aptly enough, as if to remind his readers from whence he came-indeed, where he had been all along-a poem entitled Confession sits centrally in this collection. But Baldwin was not done quite yet. As if to further underscore the importance to him of poetic aesthetics, a small collection of additional poems would be published posthumously two years after his death (in an exclusive, quite limited edition) entitled Gypsy . 16 What he wrote in those final years marked a return of sorts to the form that made him and a return to those primary tenets that undergirded his aesthetics: the criminal or deviant, haunting history, alienation and difference, salvation, love. James Baldwin was nothing if not consistent, true to himself to the end; James Baldwin the artist had come full circle.
James Arthur Baldwin was both a literary luminary and a political force during America s civil rights movement(s). His face was effectively the face of both the Washington National Mall and Stonewall. Simply put-and running counter to formalist arguments often levied by artists and critics alike-one cannot fully understand James Baldwin s writing through reductive engagements or attempts to separate the artist from his art. Baldwin s voice and personal experience was David s in Giovanni s Room , Rufus s in Another Country . He was a novelist first, but he engaged the world with a poet s heart, just as he viewed the world with an essayist s eye. He wrote with that same critical eye and attention to detail and imbued his fictional landscape with a voice straight out of any number of his nonfictional essays. As an openly gay, black man during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s here at home, Baldwin became an early voice, on the vanguard, for civil rights advocacy around the world.
As such, James Baldwin touched the lives of many, and over a quarter century after his death, his work continues to do so. He knew Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and met the likes of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Robert Kennedy. Baldwin s literary friends included Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, William Styron, Amiri Baraka, and Toni Morrison, all stalwart artists with far-reaching influences of their own. Morrison continues to sing Baldwin s praises even now. In 1982 President Fran ois Mitterrand of France bestowed upon him that country s highest decoration, the French Legion of Honor. Here in the United States, the U.S. Postal Service commissioned an official stamp with Baldwin s likeness on it in 2004, an honor often reserved for heads of state. He joined only a select few literary luminaries to receive such an honor (the shortlist includes Mark Twain, Flannery O Connor, and Ernest Hemingway). Most recently, New York City proclaimed 2014, the ninetieth anniversary of Baldwin s birth, The Year of James Baldwin. Furthermore, marking related publication anniversaries, several presses are reissuing his classic texts to commemorate his literary greatness. In a moment in which Americans both celebrate the strides of the marginalized (hailing the election of the nation s first president of color) and interrogate themselves in light of racialized violence-whether in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; North Charleston, South Carolina; or Minneapolis, Minnesota-James Baldwin matters. In a moment in which a federal mandate legalized in all fifty states the civil union of same-sex couples and as governmental representatives debate antigay and transsexual legislation, James Baldwin matters. As a testament to the power wielded by her friend, Toni Morrison suggested to him (and the world) in eulogy what so many have learned through their engagements with his writing: You gave us to ourselves to think about, to cherish. 17 Such is the legacy and relevance of James Baldwin.
Thus, as already noted, a volume about James Baldwin as part of the University of South Carolina Press s Understanding Contemporary American Literature series is long overdue, but it is also perfectly timed. Baldwin s prolific output alone-with six novels, three plays, and countless essays to his credit, Baldwin wrote and published right up to his death in December 1987-warrants special consideration. Proliferation aside, Baldwin s mark on both the literary world and the world at large is undeniable. Simply put, he was more than a writer who said something; as an artist actively engaged in public discourse, he was a writer who did something. As Peniel E. Joseph suggested in his foreword to Herb Boyd s Baldwin s Harlem , Baldwin forever transformed public commentary and political inquiry on issues of race, violence, and democracy in America. 18 A reader simply cannot separate James Baldwin from the history he lived or the history Americans continue to live.
CHAPTER 2
In the Beginning
Fictional Foundations in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni s Room
[James Baldwin] lived his life as witness he wrote until the end.
Amiri Baraka, Eulogy
The eulogy Amiri Baraka delivered upon James Baldwin s death, on a cold December day at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, is a testament to the part his friend Jimmy played in the lives of those individuals he knew well. Baraka s words also speak to Baldwin s relationship to a world he knew well. As an artist, James Baldwin bore witness to life. And in a venue and in a parlance most appropriate to James Baldwin s story, Baraka testified on this day, just as his friend had done his entire life.
Baldwin s beginnings were in the church and in the streets, and it is no coincidence that his fictional beginnings were there, too. Young Baldwin grew up on Park Avenue, but he was quick to point out that while perhaps it was not the Park Avenue of popular lore, it aptly both was and was not America s Park Avenue. 1 Appropriately, as a marker of time and of place, railroad tracks divided whites from blacks, separated haves from have-nots. And amid prejudice and squalor, and against all odds, a child played, an imagination flourished, and a writer was born. Baldwin s life thus reads like those crafted by his childhood literary hero, Charles Dickens, and thematically his own early fiction draws heavily on the Victorian s.
Comparisons, then, for the uninitiated, are both appropriate and quite helpful. Dickens and Baldwin were kindred spirits, separated by an ocean and a century of living. Dickens was born the second of eight children, spent his childhood poor, and would devote a lifetime to examining ideas of social justice. He also spent those years exploring familial relationships and revisiting childhood memories. 2 James Baldwin, the eldest of nine children, son to a father he would never know, stepson to a poverty-stricken preacher whose own penchant for cruelty seemed to come from the pages of a Dickens novel, was also a social advocate in the making; and he read and watched Dickens s words unfold on the page and flit onto the big screen as a boy. Baldwin would consume these narratives, internalizing and claiming Dickens s recursive themes as his own as he began to craft his life story through art. Baldwin s writing, like the Victorian s, is highly reflective. Like Dickens s David Copperfield, Baldwin the man would revisit his early life time and again and mine it perpetually in his own writing. In Faulknerian fashion Dickens suggested repeatedly that the past is never wholly past; like a ghost, it haunts until confronted. Baldwin realized this truth, too.
Like those of Dickens, Baldwin s concerns were born of the pervasive alienation of the human condition. Dickens dared to ask, how well does anyone really know another? Likewise, Baldwin suggested his charge as writer was simple: When I am writing a novel, I am writing about me and all of you, and the great difficulty is to discover what connects us. Something does connect us, and what it is is hidden. 3 Always, secrets both bind and separate individuals. Baldwin s characters in particular often harbor secrets deep and profound and existential in nature. Writing is discovery in motion, and the private life, his own and that of others, is the writer s subject-his key and ours to his achievement. 4
History, both private and public, served as a specter for both writers. Histories haunt defiantly ignorant characters and conversely liberate the valiant. Thus, for both Dickens and Baldwin, textual explorations became explorations of tyranny and freedom. For Dickens, freedom was the product of revolution, a concept Baldwin would come to know only too well during the years of America s own struggles for civil liberties. Further, freedom, indeed salvation, would only truly be realized through the making of hard choices, through sacrifice, and through acts of love. The act of loving itself becomes the individual s ultimate act of revolution.
From this site Baldwin s first three fictional works were born: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni s Room , and Another Country are his literary testimony. These texts serve as a fine primer for those newly acquainted with the author. All three novels introduce readers to the thematic concerns and narrative techniques that define Baldwin s literary career. All three texts, the first two especially, are intensely personal; in them Baldwin is the great confessor, exploring and challenging sexual and racial identity politics, while interrogating his relationship with his father and the church that raised him. Each of these areas of exploration represents a facet of Baldwin s own life that he mined for his art, held up for scrutiny, and laid bare to the world. All three novels are fictional sites of self-discovery that he would revisit again and again in various iterations in the years that followed.
Go Tell It on the Mountain
James Baldwin s early success with Go Tell It on the Mountain (he was only twenty-nine years old when fame came calling) belies his early struggles with his art, with expectation, and with the long shadow cast by literary predecessors. Ironically, it was the longest of those aesthetic shadows that helped him secure this text s publication; Richard Wright, with whom he would eventually part ways creatively and from whom he would strive vehemently to separate himself, acted as an early mentor and creative counselor. In fact, he helped Baldwin land his first contract with the Harper and Brothers publishing firm after the initial rejection of an early manuscript with the working titles of In My Father s House and Crying Holy. That early encouragement paid off: the novel Baldwin gave to the world in 1953 was an imminently more polished and self-assured work than the one begun in 1948.
Reviews for Go Tell It on the Mountain were, by and large, very good. While the New Yorker made the impossible comparison to Ralph Ellison s Invisible Man and found Baldwin s work wanting, the New Republic , the Nation , and Saturday Review all joined an effective chorus singing the praises of a new talent proselytizing and pushing a new aesthetic. 5 Immediately, as per his aspirations, Baldwin sought to free himself of the aesthetic shackles he felt were constricting him. He did this by deliberately writing against what he saw as type. This novel would be his chance to once and perhaps forever break out of the cage of Negro writing. 6 Moreover, as Donald Barr noted in his 1953 New York Times review, the novel does not produce its story as an accumulation of shocks (as most novels of Negro life do). Here, the reviewer praised Baldwin for avoiding this formula, surely alluding to the likes of Wright, whose own reputation as a racial protest writer grew from a penchant for shock and awe. In fact, Wright s 1940 novel Native Son did more to perpetuate this literary formula than any other work of the time. Moreover, as Barr suggested, Baldwin s foray into long fiction was anything but reductive; instead, what the world received in Go Tell It on the Mountain was a beautiful, furious first novel. 7
It was a first novel whose beauty and fury were born of an altogether different agenda: it is a compendium of confessions working towards a kind of liberation for both the characters driving the narrative and the author crafting it. And that is the first prescriptive clue the uninitiated reader should take in reading Baldwin. Because so much else afterwards follows a template established by his first fictional text, the lion s share of this chapter will examine the thematic concerns born of that work. Baldwin s confessional narrative strategy reveals his deep investment in scripture to tell his tales. Although his tenure in the pulpit was brief, its impact on his art was profound.
Taking its title from a nineteenth-century spiritual, Go Tell It on the Mountain lives up to its own titular promise in terms of both form and subject. 8 Scripted in biblical language, the novel s more technical elements already announce Baldwin s arrival as spiritual sage. Underscoring this message are the myriad names with biblical roots littering the text: Gabriel, Ruth, Deborah, Elizabeth, Ester, Elisha, and John; even the derivation of Florence points to the church. 9 As Langston Hughes suggested of Baldwin in his 1956 review of the novel, he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing. 10 The wave-like flow and beat of his words are at once arresting and undulating, and very much in the vein of his formal scriptural training. With them Baldwin captured the austerity and beauty, the precision and power, of the King James version of the text that molded his worldview.
Consider these brief excerpts from the novel s opening chapter as evidence of that scriptural impulse at work: And the darkness of John s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings; like the silence of the church while he was there alone, sweeping, and running water long before the saints arrived. It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared. Again, even as he describes the mundane: Dirt was in the walls and the floorboards, and triumphed beneath the sink where roaches spawned; was in the fine ridges of the pots and pans, scoured daily, burnt black on the bottom, hanging above the stove; was in the walls against which they hung, and revealed itself where the paint had cracked and leaned outward in stiff squares and fragments, the paper-thin underside webbed with black. Dirt was in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove, and lived behind it in delirious communion behind the corrupted wall (14, 18). Like that ubiquitous filth, spirituality bathes Baldwin s body; the Bible s influence is omnipresent.
Further underscoring Baldwin s Pentecostal roots is the text s narrative design. The traditional song from which Baldwin borrows his title celebrates a savior s birth and a follower s ultimate redemption, and the novel reflects Baldwin s own profound wrangling with both his stepfather and the Holy Ghost. The novel s opening bears out this truth beautifully: Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father . Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late (1). In short, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a novel about a father, a son, and a holy ghost.
Additionally, the novel is constructed like a modern-day Pilgrim s Progress , with the protagonist s fate foretold in the novel s title and opening sequence. The novel s three parts each indicate a point along the road to conversion: The Seventh Day, The Prayers of the Saints and The Threshing Floor. The trajectory immediately points toward salvation. Moreover, the novel s second part, The Prayers of the Saints, is further divided into three separate chapters, each indicative of a separate soul s supplication: Florence s Prayer, Gabriel s Prayer, and Elizabeth s Prayer. Additionally, each of the novel s six chapters is prefaced with language befitting a king (James especially): And the spirit and the bride say, Come. / And let him that heareth say, Come ; And they cried with a loud voice, saying, / How long, O Lord, holy and true, / dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? ; Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone (1, 73, 249). In each instance Baldwin has formalized and aggrandized the parochial and the personal, while infusing his text with a spirit that permeates and pushes the narrative.
Much of Baldwin s work is rife with spiritual wrangling, as lost and tortured souls stand outside a familial house wishing to be (re)claimed, wishing for communion. Go Tell It on the Mountain establishes that blueprint. All the novel s plotting-what plotting there is-takes place over the course of a day, Sunday, and within the confines of the Grimes house and the Church of the Fire Baptized. Gabriel Grimes, patriarch, full-time menial laborer, and part-time preacher, has grand expectations for those around him. He is distant to his family of six, especially to John. Part of this is Gabriel s sublimation of his overwhelming sense of personal failure in a world overwrought by sin; part of it is his sense of impotence as a black man at the mercy of a white world. Standing before his father but feeling miles from him, John especially senses Gabriel s frustration.

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