On 1 February 2001 eight writers came to pay homage to James Baldwin in the Lincoln Center in New York. The event was booked out and there were people standing outside desperately looking for tickets. The audience was strange; in general in New York an audience is either young or old (in the Lincoln Center, mainly old), black or white (in the Lincoln Center, almost exclusively white), gay or straight (in the Lincoln Center it is often hard to tell).
The audience for James Baldwin that evening could not be so easily categorised: it was, I suppose, half black, half white; half young, half old; three-quarters straight, a quarter gay. Also, there were a large number of young black men who had come alone, who carried a book and an aura of seriousness and intensity. There were a good number of writers. Some of Baldwin’s family was there.
The speeches made it clear that James Baldwin’s legacy is both powerful and fluid, allowing it to fit whatever category each reader requires, allowing it to influence each reader in a way that tells us as much about the reader as it does about Baldwin. And what it tells us about Baldwin has to do with his contradictions, the large set of opposites which made up his personality. He was, for some of his life, a pure artist, using Jamesian techniques and cadences. He was also an agitator and a propagandist, political and engaged. He was steeped in the world of his Harlem childhood. He also loved the bohemian world of Greenwich Village and Paris. He was a loner. He was also a deeply gregarious and social being. He was the most eloquent man in the America of his time. His legacy is also one of failure.
It is hard to decide what part of him came first. Was the colour of his skin more important than his sexuality? Was his religious upbringing more important than his reading of the American masters? Were his sadness and anger more important than his love of laughter, his delight in the world? Did his prose style, as the novelist Russell Banks claimed that evening, take its bearings from Emerson, or was it, as the writer Hilton Als put it, “a high-faggot style”, or did it originate, as John Edgar Wideman claimed, from a mixture of the King James Bible and African American speech? Was it full of the clarity, eloquence and intelligence that Chinua Achebe suggested? And was Baldwin’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement a cautionary tale for other writers, as Hilton Als insisted, or one of the things we should most admire him for, as Amiri Baraka argued? Is his best book the book that hasn’t yet appeared – a volume of his letters – as Hilton Als proposed? Are his essays his finest work, as many now believe? Are his early novels his enduring legacy, books which “blew my mind”, as Chinua Achebe said that evening?
The relationship of all the speakers, and indeed of the audience, to Baldwin’s work remains intense. The complexity of his character, the power of his prose and the abiding importance of his subjects make him a writer to argue with and confront as well as to admire. He made his essays out of his arguments with himself, and this gives them a compelling honesty and edge. In his novels, he sought to explore the parts of the self which most of us seek to conceal. He was also concerned with style, with how you write a sentence, how you control the music and rhythms of prose.
Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the eldest of a large family. His father died when he was 19. “On the same day,” Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son (1955), “a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem… As we drove him to the graveyard, the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent and hatred were all around us.”
Baldwin began with a very great subject: the drama of his own life echoing against the public drama. He also began with certain influences. He listed them in Notes of a Native Son: “the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech – and something of Dickens’s love for bravura”.
However, he added something of his own to his inherited subject and the influences he listed. It was something so all-pervasive in his work, both the essays and the fiction, that he may not have even noticed it, although he was alert to his strange relationship to tradition. He used and adapted the tone of the great masters of English eloquence: Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Hazlitt, Emerson and Henry James. He brought, he wrote, “a special attitude” to “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… These were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain for ever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.”
By appropriating the heritage of English prose, Baldwin learned not only a style but also a cast of mind. The cast of mind used qualification, the aside and the further sub-clauses as a way to suggest that the truth was brittle and easily undermined. His prose played with the explicit and the implicit, the bald statement and the sceptical gloss. His style could be high and grave and reflect the glittering mind; his thought was embodied beautifully in his style, as though fresh language had led him to fresh thought.
From Henry James, he also learned a great deal about character and consciousness in fiction, the use of the single point of view, and of nuance and shade. Early in his career, he had what Eliot said of James, “a mind so fine that it could not be penetrated by an idea”; but later on public events, and indeed private ones, pressed in on his imagination, and forbade him the sort of freedom he naturally sought. His own heritage both freed and cornered him, freed him from being a dandy and freed him into finding a subject, and then cornered him into being a spokesman or an exile, cornered him into anger.
In his speech that evening in the Lincoln Center, Achebe spoke of an uncanny connection between his own work and Baldwin’s. In Things Fall Apart, the portrait of the father’s anger and powerlessness is very close to the portrait of the father in Baldwin’s essays and his fiction. That this father, who died when Baldwin was 19, was not really his father – he never knew the name of his real father – made his regret at not knowing him and not liking him all the greater.
“Handsome, proud and ingrown, ‘like a toenail’, somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with war paint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met… When he died I had been away from home for a little over a year… I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.”
Baldwin’s bitterness was fired by working in a defence plant in New Jersey during the war, and learning that “bars, bowling alleys, diners, places to live” were closed to him. There was something about him that made him insist on going into these places, suffering rejection, forcing them to refuse to serve him. He described his last night there when, having been refused in a diner, he went into “an enormous, glittering and fashionable restaurant in which I knew not even the intercession of the Virgin would cause me to be served”.
He sat at a table until a waitress came and said: “We don’t serve Negroes here.” He noted the fear and the apology in her voice. “I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands.” Instead, he threw a half-full mug of water at her, missed and ran. Later, he realised that he “had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly, but I did see this: that 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.”
Baldwin’s tone in these early essays was not simply political; he was not demanding legislation or urgent government action. He did not present himself as innocent and the others as guilty. He sought to do something more truthful and difficult. He sought to show that the damage had entered his soul and could not be easily dislodged, and he sought also to show that the soul of America itself was a great stained soul. He shook his head at the possibility that anything other than mass conversion could change things. He had not been a child preacher for nothing.
How from this raw anger one of the finest prose stylists of the age emerged remains fascinating. He moved downtown after his father died and began to hang out in Greenwich Village. “There were very few black people in the Village in those years,” he wrote in 1985, “and of that handful, I was decidedly the most improbable… I was eager, vulnerable and lonely… I am sure that I was afraid that I already seemed and sounded too much like a woman. In my childhood, at least until my adolescence, my playmates had called me a sissy… On every street corner, I was called a faggot.”
He found odd jobs and then lost them, washing dishes, working as an elevator boy. He drank, he had casual affairs, he suffered a number of nervous crises. The five years between the death of his father and his leaving New York remained for him nightmare years during which he came within a breath of self-destruction. The colour of his skin caused him, in both his essays and his fiction, to create a version of America which was passionate and original; his homosexuality caused a similar attempt to describe and dramatise the sexual politics of his time.
“The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity,” he wrote in 1985. “This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden – as an unpatriotic act – that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.” In an essay on Richard Wright, published in 1951, he wrote: “And there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt briefly and for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees or to varying effect, simple, naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruellest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled.”
In 1962, Baldwin published Another Country, which dealt with masculinity and race and rage and the fate of a young musician from Harlem who had dared to live in Greenwich Village. Rufus, the central character, has felt hatred and been brushed by its wings, but Baldwin was alert to the danger of making him merely an angry black man, or a victim. In “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” (1960) he had mused on the white people he had met in downtown New York in his early twenties:
“In the beginning, I thought that the white world was very different from the world I was moving out of and I turned out to be entirely wrong. It seemed different. It seemed safer, at least the white people seemed safer. It seemed cleaner, it seemed more polite, and, of course, it seemed much richer from the material point of view. But I didn’t meet anyone in that world who didn’t suffer from the same affliction that all the people I had fled from suffered from and that was that they didn’t know who they were. They wanted to be someone that they were not.”
Baldwin knew to make his hero bad as well as brilliant, to place a violent and self-destructive charm at his core and to make his white friends uneasy and complex figures too, unable to protect themselves. The first eighty pages of the book are astonishing as we watch Rufus move towards his doom. In a second essay about Richard Wright, Baldwin had alluded to the “body of sexual myths… around the figure of the American Negro” who “is penalised for the guilty imagination of the white people who invest him with their hates and longings, and is the principal target of their sexual longings”.
Rufus is aware of this and suspicious of his own attractions. He will grow to hate the white woman who wants him. He will grow to despise and distrust his white friends. He will walk the city, destitute and forlorn. He will do what Baldwin’s friend Eugene Worth did in 1946: he will finally jump to his death off the George Washington Bridge. Baldwin later said that there were no fictional antecedents for Rufus: “He was in the novel because I don’t think anyone had ever watched the disintegration of a black boy from that particular point of view. Rufus was partly responsible for his doom, and in presenting him as partly responsible, I was attempting to break out of the whole sentimental image of the afflicted nigger driven that way” – ie to suicide -“by white people.” Rufus is a tragic hero caught between the time when men such as him had no freedom and the time to come. The city has opened its doors to him, but only enough for him to feel danger and threat. He is like someone who has been released from solitary confinement into the wider prison.
Two years after the suicide of Eugene Worth, Baldwin left New York and moved to Paris. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in Paris,” he told the Paris Review in 1984, “but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.”
“I left America,” Baldwin wrote in 1959, “because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the colour problem here… I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or even merely a Negro writer.” The fate of Eugene Worth continued to haunt him. “I felt then, and, to tell the truth, I feel now that he would not have died in such a way and certainly not so soon, if he had not been black,” he said of Worth in 1961. In that year he also wrote: “My revenge, I decided very early, would be to achieve a power which outlasts kingdoms… To become a Negro man, let alone a Negro artist, one had to make oneself up as one went along.” He invented two role models for himself. One was the painter Beauford Delaney, whom he first visited in his studio in Greenwich Village when he was 16 and still a child preacher. “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.” Four years later, Baldwin met Richard Wright, who was 16 years older than him and, at that time, the most famous black writer in America. Wright encouraged Baldwin, read his work and recommended him for a grant. And, just as important, Wright offered him an example by going to live in Paris in 1946. (In 1952 Beauford Delaney, too, moved there.) When Baldwin arrived in November 1948, he found Wright sitting at a table in St-Germain. Wright introduced him to the world of expatriate bohemia.
Over the next six years, which were spent mostly in Paris, Baldwin produced two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, some of his best stories, and his first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, made up of pieces published mainly in Partisan Review, Commentary and Harper’s.
It would be easy to argue that Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room were written by different people. The author of Go Tell It on the Mountain was the young writer whose imagination was fired by his childhood and its trials, who had observed the older generation in his family, and had come to understand them better than he understood himself. He was concerned with their sensuality, their flesh as both a badge of glorious self and a source of shame and sinfulness. He tried to capture all this in the most beautiful sentences, and to fill their relationships, their privacies, their motives and their thought processes with nuance and qualification, and to note it down in well-wrought cadences. Henry James had come to Harlem. The novel was finished in 1952, accepted by Knopf and published the following year.
The arrival of Baldwin the essayist and novelist was greeted with joy by the New York editors he wrote for. Someone had emerged who could write wonderful prose, who had a sense of politics and the destiny of his people, who was wise and smart, who was from Harlem but had developed other perspectives, and whose first novel, in its treatment of religion and a Harlem only barely understood south of 125th Street, was compared to William James and William Faulkner.
In Paris in 1950 Baldwin had read A Portrait of the Artist and its hero’s story was not lost on him. The need to do battle with religion and his own oppressed nation, some of whose members were unhappy with his novel and his attitudes; the need to go into exile; the need to create a voice and mode of perception for a sensitive, literary young man: these became Baldwin’s needs as they had been JoyceÕs. What he mainly learned in France, he later said, “was about my own country, my own past, and about my own language. Joyce accepted silence, exile and cunning as a system which would sustain his life, and I’ve had to accept it too – incidentally, silence is the hardest part to understand.”
Baldwin’s editors and reviewers would have been happy had he gone on to recreate the conscience of his race in book after book. But two things were to interrupt what in 1955, with the publication of Notes of a Native Son, seemed to be a brilliant career. The first was his homosexuality and the second was the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1951 Baldwin had published “The Outing”, which is still one of his best stories. The church community who appear in Go Tell It on the Mountain go on an outing on a boat up the Hudson River. The story concentrates on a number of adolescent boys who are part of the church. It ends as follows: “All during the trip home David seemed preoccupied. When he finally sought out Johnnie he found him sitting by himself on the top deck, shivering a little in the night air. He sat down beside him. After a moment Johnnie moved and put his head on David’s shoulder. David put his arms around him. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened.”
This was dangerous territory in 1951. Baldwin had by now fallen in love with a Swiss man living in Paris, Lucien Happersberger, and despite the fact that Happersberger soon got married, Baldwin would remain involved with him, in various ways, for the rest of his life. The relationship between the two men and between Baldwin and a number of close women friends, and the general air of sexual ambivalence and dishonesty in Greenwich Village and Paris gave Baldwin the atmosphere for Giovanni’s Room. “Specifically,” David Leeming wrote in his 1994 biography of Baldwin, “it reflects his own wrestling with sexual ambivalence.”
Like David in the novel, Baldwin “had been engaged or nearly engaged. He, too… had tried to convince himself of his essential heterosexuality. But unlike David, he had willingly accepted the reality represented by Giovanni’s room when it came to him in the person of Lucien, to whom he dedicated the novel. Ironically, it was Lucien who married and who, several times over the years, rejected the room to which Jimmy called him and who, in Jimmy’s eyes, became David to his Giovanni.”
For his editors in New York, publishing a black writer was fascinating, but publishing a black homosexual writer was impossible. And there were no black characters at all in Baldwin’s second novel. There was nothing about “the Negro problem”. Thirty years later, in the Paris Review interview, Baldwin said: “The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book.” Knopf turned the book down. Baldwin’s agent advised him to burn it.
“When I turned the book in,” Baldwin later said, “I was told I shouldn’t have written it. I was told to bear in mind that I was a young Negro writer with a certain audience and I wasn’t supposed to alienate that audience. And if I published the book, it would wreck my career. They wouldn’t publish the book, they said, as a favour to me.” In London, however, Michael Joseph agreed to publish Giovanni’s Room and, later, in New York, a small publisher, the Dial Press, offered to bring the book out. It first appeared in 1956.
Both Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room were declarations of independence for Baldwin. In the first, he dramatised the destiny of a black family in Harlem, but refused to allow that destiny to be shaped by a plot in which being black could only lead to mayhem and tragedy. In that sense it is as much a landmark in American writing as Dubliners was in Ireland. Dubliners refused to allow its characters to have their destiny shaped directly by Irish history, by the land wars or the British presence. Both Joyce’s characters and Baldwin’s characters suffer because of what is inside them.
In effect, Baldwin was refusing to write a parable of race relations. A few years before Go Tell It on the Mountain, he had published two essays, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949) and “Many Thousands Gone” (1951), which were essentially attacks on Richard Wright’s novel Native Son and the fact that the life of its hero, Biggar, “is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear”, that “his fear drives him to murder and his hatred to rape”, and that below “the surface of the novel there lies… a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy”.
In rich, allusive prose, Baldwin described Native Son as a protest novel whose “climate of anarchy and unmotivated and unapprehended disaster… has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual and intercourse… But the fact is not that the Negro has no tradition but that there has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.”
In writing Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin made it plain that he was profound and tough enough to declare his independence from what others might have called his heritage, his natural subject-matter. For a black man to decide to write a novel with mainly gay white characters, set in France, was a brave political act. However, to place a murder at the centre of his gay plot was to do to homosexuals what he had attacked Wright for doing to black people – adding impetus to the popular notion that they were alarming. Needless to say, there was no one to point this out at the time.
Baldwin at his best has two voices. One is the third-person narrative of his first novel and the opening chapters of Another Country. The prose is dense; there is a fierce concentration on the single consciousness; the tone is relentless. The other is his own first-person voice, the voice of his essays. This voice is earnest, it deals in difficult truths and it has an urgent edge to it, but it is also personal and private, written in a tone which whispers and insinuates rather than hectors.
The power of the voice in the essays makes the first-person voices Baldwin created for his fictional characters in Giovanni’s Room, Tell Me how Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), Just above My Head (1979) and some of the stories in Going to Meet the Man (1964) seem paler, less urgent and less complex. In spite of this, Giovanni’s Room remains a powerful book because of the simplicity of its drama and the intensity of its vision. It deals, in the end, with the same subject as Go Tell It on the Mountain and deals with it at the same level of seriousness. The subject is the flesh and sexual longing, and the closeness of treachery to desire, and the way the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind.
Like other gay writers, Baldwin could take nothing for granted. The colour of his skin had made it necessary for him to watch every word. Then sexual desire led to his being told that he should burn his book. His intelligence, the energy of his wit and his longing for love ran up against history and the hardness of the world, against the prejudices which people had about a man who was black and gay. Everything in his fiction is bathed in the sadness which resulted.
His religious background and his own sexuality gave him the flesh and the devil as a great subject. His position as the eldest of his family, the surrogate father to his siblings, his position as the outsider – the writer, the homosexual, the one with the missing father – may explain his other great subject: the love between siblings. This love in his fiction is all the more fierce and concentrated because it involves the sibling as witness to the other’s self-destruction, the other’s pain.
In his Paris Review interview he said: “My family saved me… I mean that they kept me so busy caring for them, keeping them from the rats, roaches, falling plaster, and all the banality of poverty that I had no time to go jumping off the roof, or to become a junkie or an alcoholic. It’s either/or in the ghetto… The welfare of my family has always driven me, always controlled me. I wanted to become rich and famous so no one could ever evict my family again… The greatest things in my life are my brothers and sisters, and my nieces and nephews.”
From his first story, “The Rockpile”, in which the brothers John and Roy appear, to Go Tell It on the Mountain, from the story “Sonny’s Blues” to Tell Me how Long the Train’s Been Gone, the love between brothers in Baldwin is elemental, like Greek tragedy in its sense of foreboding. In “Sonny’s Blues”, one brother is weak and the other strong enough merely to suffer the powerlessness of the person who is forced to look on. Caleb in Tell Me how Long the Train’s Been Gone is doomed, but the drama enacted in the novel is the drama of his doom as witnessed by his younger brother, the narrator, who feels for him an attachment which is fiercer than love because it knows that loss and the possibility of a tragic fate are included in the bargain. So, too, in Another Country, Ida, one of Baldwin’s greatest creations, enters the novel, as Antigone enters the play, because of her love for her brother Rufus. She, too, becomes a witness to a sibling’s doom. The emotion surrounding family attachment in Baldwin’s fiction is so deeply felt and, in much of the fiction (including books which fail in other ways), so carefully manipulated and controlled that it is central to his achievement, one of the reasons he continues to be read with such intensity.
· The article continues.
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