The Better James Baldwin
Allen, Brooke, New Criterion
Anyone familiar with the fiction and nonfiction of James Baldwin is aware that the formative influence upon his life and career was his stepfather. Baldwin was an illegitimate child; when he was three years old his mother married David Baldwin, a Southerner who had come to New York as part of the large stream of black migration north after the First World War. The elder Baldwin labored in a Long Island factory during the week and preached in Harlem storefront churches on Sundays. As a preacher, he was passionate but hardly successful: his increasingly bitter harangues were off-putting to his congregations, and he descended, over the years, to ever smaller, grimier, and more insignificant houses of worship.
Young Jimmy was never told that David Baldwin was not his real father, a fact that he discovered quite by accident when he was a teenager. He was in effect the eldest Baldwin child in what was to become a large family. David Baldwin was a powerful, brooding presence who cast a pall over the entire family. "He looked to me, as I grew older," James Baldwin wrote, "like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears." He was "the most bitter man I have ever met," who emanated "absolutely unabating tension.... I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home."
Baldwin portrayed his stepfather in all his rage, violence, and religious hypocrisy as the preacher Gabriel Grimes in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and in that novel he also described his own temporary religious conversion, his experience, as a teenager, of being "saved." He acknowledged that his decision, at the age of fourteen, to become a child preacher was a way in which he could confront his stepfather on his own terms and his own turf, and beat him there. This task turned out to be almost pathetically easy, for David Baldwin's simmering rage and hatred, never far below the surface, made him an unpopular preacher, while Jimmy, endowed with the charm of youth and with the verbal glibness that was later to mar so much of his writing, made an immediate hit.
It was only a few short years before the younger Baldwin came to recognize his father's brand of religion -- and by extension his own -- for what it was: a justification of, and consolation for, the cruelties and injustices that black Americans felt powerless to change, and the sublimation of the debilitating anger that threatened at every minute to overpower them: a "dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted, one can never be really carefree again.... There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood -- one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it."
David Baldwin had surrendered to it long since, a process his stepson vividly reimagined in Go Tell It on the Mountain. "Hating and fearing every living soul including his children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching towards the world which had despised him," the elder Baldwin went, over the years, from being merely an angry man to one who was literally mad. Laid off from his job, he took to sitting all day at the kitchen table, gazing out of the window and shouting Old Testament curses; eventually he refused to eat, claiming that his family was trying to poison him, and wandered in the streets until he was committed to a state mental institution. Raving and paranoid to the end, he died of tuberculosis just before his stepson's nineteenth birthday.
To James Baldwin, his stepfather remained, throughout his life, a fearsome example of what the same "dread, chronic disease" might work on him or on any of his black friends. The picture of his stepfather was never far from his mind, and when, as a young essayist and fledgling novelist, he decided in 1948 to leave New York for Paris, he looked on the move as flight, a necessary measure to keep him from going the same way. "By this time ... I was mad, as mad as my dead father. If I had not gone mad, I could not have left." "I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles -- perpetually attempting to choose the better rather than the worse."
The story of James Baldwin's career is in essence the story of that attempt. The question is whether or not he succeeded in it. I believe that the attempt was real -- was, in fact, profoundly earnest -- but that over the long run he failed; that, although he knew enough to choose "the better" initially, he lacked the stamina and the courage for the long-term effort. The Library of America's new editions of Baldwin's essays(1) and early novels,(2) both volumes selected and edited by Toni Morrison, offer the opportunity to assess the career as a whole.
In Collected Essays, Ms. Morrison has brought together the published collections, Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976), and thirty-six previously uncollected pieces. With the fiction, however, she has exercised far stricter control: she has included only the first three novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni's Room (1956), and Another Country (1962), as well as the short story collection Going to Meet the Man (1965). Omitted, in other words, are not only Baldwin's plays, Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) and The Amen Corner, but his three later novels, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979). The omission of these novels is an act of mercy, both to Baldwin and to the reader, for they are fatuous, meandering, unedited rehashes of his earlier themes, and their inclusion would have done Baldwin's current reputation far more harm than good.
The ultimate power of a serious novel, as opposed to that of a comic one, lies in its level of sincerity, the intensity with which it is felt. A great novel, though it does many other things as well, always communicates a potent emotional force. Go Tell It on the Mountain, published when Baldwin was twenty-nine, is a very good novel, possibly a great one; it reaches a level of fine emotional honesty that none of his other fiction, not even the popular Giovanni's Room, would find. It is his most autobiographical piece of work and at the same time his most imaginative; it is the only one, I believe, that lives up to his dictum that "all artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up. All of it, the literal and the fanciful."
Go Tell It on the Mountain tells the story of the Baldwin family as James Baldwin knew it, and its history as he imagined it. Most of it takes place during a cathartic session of shouting, singing, and testifying in a Baptist church in Harlem, during which the collective history of the Grimes family is related in an interwoven series of flashbacks. Young John Grimes -- James Baldwin at the age of about fourteen -- is the central consciousness, as he observes the goings-on in church with the sensible cynicism of extreme youth. His stepfather, Gabriel, dislikes him and justifies the dislike by identifying the boy with Sin, in this case the sexual sin of his mother. John, like Baldwin, finds himself "saved" at the end of the novel, but as in Baldwin's case the experience is spurious, a dishonest fashion of incorporating emotional crisis, or of finding a way to bear that which cannot be borne.
The religion of the adults, of course, is equally false, and in a series of three stunningly executed flashbacks we learn much about Gabriel Grimes, his wife Elizabeth, and his sister Florence: what they are, and what has brought them to this moment on their knees before a false God. Exposed are Gabriel's own sin and grief, Elizabeth's lost chance for love, and Florence's anger, ambition, and blighted hopes. The language is pithy; the descriptive passages, brief and always to the point. There are a few false notes: Richard, John's dead father, is too obviously the father the author would dearly love to have had rather than a real human being like Gabriel or like John himself, and the long sections of singing and prayer go on too long, and make their statement too obviously. But as a whole the novel is wonderfully true.
Baldwin certainly endorsed Marx's opinion that religion is the opium of the masses. He himself saw it, most specifically, as the opium of the oppressed. In The Fire Next Time, he wrote:
The principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.... there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.
What makes Go Tell It on the Mountain so remarkably skillful is the way in which it exposes the falsity of this sort of "religious" impulse while at the same time using the metaphors of Christian doctrine to expose real truths. Elisha, a kind and frightened young man who has taken refuge from the world's challenges by becoming a deacon and giving his life to the church, is telling the truth -- though it is not quite the truth he understands -- when he says "The Devil, he don't ask for nothing less than your life. And he take it, too, and it's lost forever.... You in darkness while you living and you in darkness when you dead.... [The Devil] got as many faces ... as you going to see between now and the time you lay your burden down."
Go Tell It on the Mountain is a story of the world Baldwin was born into. The world that he penetrated, and of which he became a central figure, was very different indeed, and his subsequent fiction is accordingly different from that one early novel. The Harlem of his childhood, during the 1920s and 1930s, retained a certain "small town" aura: most of the inhabitants came from the South (known as the "Old Country"), with a strong family, church, and neighborhood tradition. At the age of eighteen, Baldwin left this insular community forever and took up residence in bohemia, where he would spend the rest of his life: first Greenwich Village, later Paris, Istanbul, and St. Paulde-Vence. Most of his subsequent novels deal with international bohemia, and it is significant that they never captured their world with anything like the immediacy and the unselfconsciousness of Baldwin's Harlem novel.
Giovanni's Room, Baldwin's second novel, is generally considered his best or his second-best. In its day, it created a sensation: an explicitly homosexual work, shocking and revolutionary, published at the height of the conservative Eisenhower era. Its novelty factor was so great that assessment of its real merits was inevitably distorted Now, over forty years later, Giovanni's Room is no longer at all shocking. Is it any good?
Baldwin was much taken with Henry James at the time he wrote Giovanni's Room, and this obsession is reflected a little too obviously in the novel's structure and themes. The narrator is David, a young, white East Coaster. He has gone off to Paris for the traditional postcollege jaunt and then, like his fictional progenitor Chad Newsome, has lingered on, emotionally unprepared to go home and settle down to "real life." His father has begun to lose patience and is cutting off funds. His American girlfriend, Hella, currently traveling in Spain, is making preliminary noises about marriage.
David, like Chad, has become inconveniently entangled, but in his case it is not with a European woman but with a European man, the handsome Italian barman Giovanni. Giovanni is vital, vulnerable, unstable; Hella, on the other hand, is endowed with every virtue of the unexciting, American variety. Which of the two will David choose?
There is no surprise ending, because Giovanni's Room is told in flashback by an extremely depressed David the night before Giovanni is to be executed for murder. We are given to know from the very beginning that David eventually rejects Giovanni; and we are also given to understand that in rejecting him he not only ruins Giovanni's life but denies his own nature and gives up every chance of happiness; in effect he sells his soul.
So far from being shocking, Giovanni's Room now appears merely a romantic, rather sentimental little novel. It is not without certain virtues: the scenes in the gay bars, and especially the conversations between the vieilles folles, are amusing. But the main action is more melodrama than drama, and the characters are nothing but types. David and Hella are mere ciphers, the first manifestations of Baldwin's already atrophying stereotype of white Americans, while the lovely Giovanni is a cardboard figure, a stage Italian: "It might have been better," David says of him, "if he'd stayed down there in that village of his in Italy and planted his olive trees and had a lot of children and beaten his wife. He used to love to sing...." He is supposed to be "vivid" and "winning," but his dialogue shows none of these traits; we are compelled to take David's unconvincing word for everything.
There is also, of course, the older, sophisticated European, a stock character in Baldwin's subsequent work. Here it is the dissipated old queen, Jacques, who advises David to love Giovanni: "Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last? since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? ... You play it safe long enough ... and you'll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever -- like me." And then there is the obligatory Jamesian motif, portentously intoned by Hella: "Americans should never come to Europe ... it means they never can be happy again. What's the good of an American who isn't happy? Happiness was all we had."
The high artificiality of the dialogue comes as an unpleasant surprise after the relaxed, natural speech of the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Perhaps it stems from the fact that David, Hella, and Giovanni are types, ideas rather than human beings, while Gabriel, Florence, and the other characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain resemble real people. Or perhaps it is because Baldwin has too little experience with the background, the class, the geographical rootedness he has imagined for them. When Knopf, Baldwin's publishers, received the manuscript of Giovanni's Room, they were unenthusiastic: Baldwin chose to believe it was because they had him pegged as a rising "Negro writer" who would prove consistently marketable as such, and didn't want him straying into untried territory. It is possible, however, that they sensed, and were distressed by, a false, stagy quality that was never again to be absent from his fiction.
In writing from the point of view of a white character, Baldwin was experimenting with what he conceived of as a "literature of integration." Almost alone among radical black intellectuals of the period, he praised his friend William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), in which the white, Southern novelist took on the persona of a black narrator, the leader of a tragic slave uprising. Baldwin felt strongly that Styron was to be respected for having even attempted this imaginative leap; it was, perhaps, not so different from the leap he himself had essayed with Giovanni's Room. Now that we are able to view both books at several decades' distance from the brouhaha that surrounded their publication, it is evident that Baldwin's attempt was far less successful than Styron's -- at least from my own, admittedly white, point of view.
And Baldwin's fiction continued to deteriorate: Another Country, his next novel, has all the faults of Giovanni's Room without its virtues of economy, structure, and good editing. This rambling book deals with a group of artistic Greenwich Villagers -- gay and straight, white and black, male and female -- and their various love affairs, and it is a mess: an undisciplined, immature, stupefyingly talky piece of work. Every character sounds exactly like every other character, and they all sound like Baldwin, even the children. The "dialogue" is downright funny:
It would be wonderful if it could be like that; you're very beautiful, Eric. But I don't, really, dig you the way I guess you must dig me. You know? And if we tried to arrange it, prolong it, control it, if we tried to take more than what we've -- by some miracle, some miracle, I swear -- stumbled on, then I'd just become a parasite and we'd both shrivel. So what can we really do for each other except -- just love each other and be each other's witness? And haven't we got the right to hope -- for more? So that we can really stretch into whoever we really are?
The semicolons, the dependent clauses, the qualifications: it all sounds a little like Henry James oddly transformed into a stoned hipster.
Baldwin saw himself as following in the tradition of James, and addressing the American condition rather than simply the black condition. To a certain extent he did so, in his first two novels and, far more effectively, in his essays of the Fifties and Sixties. He was certainly capable of delivering home truths: some of his statements and contentions continue to be as disturbing today as they were when they were written. For instance:
The real role of the Negro leader, in the eyes of the American Republic, was not to make the Negro a first-class citizen but to keep him content as a second-class one. When the American people revile ... the Haitian, Cuban, Turk, Palestinian, Iranian, they are really cursing the nigger, and the nigger had better know it. The only time you'll hear nonviolence admired is when black men preach and practice it. Whites admire violence in themselves.
And America, he wrote, is "a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them."
These provocative statements would seem to elegantly refute Norman Mailer's remark that Baldwin was incapable of saying "fuck you" to the reader. But as time went on, Baldwin's work becomes increasingly studded with silly and meaningless generalizations. The Fire Next Time (1963), a long essay about Elijah Muhammed and the Black Muslim movement, is his last really good piece of nonfiction: from that point on he began to go over the top. No Name in the Street, his 1972 essay collection, shows Baldwin's transformation from a thinking, reflecting human being to a virtual automaton, a sort of Charlie McCarthy dummy who could be relied upon to spew out whatever fashionable radical opinion was currently most fashionable and most radical.
In middle age, Baldwin claimed cynically that he had once been "the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father." Here he was referring to the reputation he began to enjoy after the publication of his influential essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," which appeared in Zero in 1949 and was anthologized six years later in Notes of a Native Son. This essay was in essence an oblique attack on Richard Wright -- the first of several father-figures Baldwin was to symbolically slay -- which compared Wright's Native Son with Uncle Tom's Cabin, lumping them both together in the category of "protest novel." It was a thoughtful piece of work which is perhaps even more pertinent today than it was at the time it was written.
The avowed aim of the American protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever excessive demands they make of credibility. It is, indeed, considered the sign of a frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are both badly written and wildly improbable. One is told to put first things first, the good of society coming before niceties of style or characterization. Even if this were incontestable -- for what exactly is the "good" of society? -- it argues an insuperable confusion, since literature and sociology are not one and the same; it is impossible to discuss them as if they were.... The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.
This essay epitomizes Baldwin's early thinking. He was determined to escape his own categorization as a "Negro writer" as he had escaped ghettoization in a purely black community: in the Village, and later in Paris, he cultivated a wide circle of friends, both black and white. As a Civil Rights activist and spokesman, he declared himself an integrationist, a follower of King, and initially rejected the credo of the separatist Black Muslims. He wrote, again and again, of the possibility, indeed the necessity, of regenerative love between members of the races.
Yet by the late Sixties Baldwin had lost his spark of freshness and optimism forever, and had taken to the pernicious habit of "categorization" far more enthusiastically than Richard Wright ever did. He repeatedly expressed his newly developed opinion that "white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today;" and his essays, fiction, and the Broadway play Blues for Mister Charlie all illustrate that notion. He invented his own version of America, a country blighted by "an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life."
What caused this depressing turnaround? Probably a combination of factors. Genuine political disillusionment certainly entered into it; the murders of King and Medgar Evers shocked him deeply. Also his schedule and his habits, which had never been conducive to concentrated periods of work, became even less so as he aged. His drinking grew heavier, his hours later, his social life increasingly frenetic; terrified of solitude, he surrounded himself at all times with an entourage of acolytes and gigolos.
There was also an attention-getting element to Baldwin's displays of bitterness and rage, an attempt to seem more-radical-than-thou, for the fact remained that he was not taken entirely seriously by the militant branch of the Black Power movement. It must have been deeply humiliating to him when Eldridge Cleaver wrote that Baldwin's work contained "the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer of note in our time."
Baldwin's later work is written as though to refute this truly unfair claim and to assert to the world his own radical credentials. Over and over again, he schematizes America, dividing it into whites (self-deluding, infantile, ignorant, sexually cold) and blacks (passionate, sensual, sophisticated, knowing). His two stock white characters are the Southern redneck, like Lyle in Blues for Mister Charlie, and the lily-livered liberal, like Richard in Another Country. His stock black character is, above all, the passionate, tortured, and sensual artist. Where once he had stated his faith that the country could only be healed through love, real love between any black and any white was now deemed impossible. No white, however desperately he tried to bridge the gap, however abjectly he might grovel or abase himself, could ever understand a black, or redeem the crimes of his own race, or even be allowed to have an opinion on the subject. Whites were always wrong, always implicated in the crime of racial bigotry.
Baldwin eventually depicted White America as more than just a sick society; he claimed that it was in fact a conspiracy. Baldwin had always endorsed the concept of collective responsibility. In his saner days, he had stated his views eloquently: "The world in which people find themselves is not simply a vindictive plot imposed on them from above; it is also the world they have helped to make. They have helped both to make and to sustain it by sharing the assumptions which hold their world together." Now, however, he descended into paranoid raving. Society's ills were not simply a result of failings like ignorance, apathy, and prejudice, but of an active, well-organized plot hatched by white supremacists -- that is, all whites.
Whites, thinking "If you can't beat them, stone them," dumped drugs into the ghetto. The educational system of this country is, in short, designed to destroy the black child. It does not matter whether it destroys him by stoning him in the ghetto or by driving him mad in the isolation of Harvard. Therefore, in a couple of days, blacks may be using the vote to outwit the Final Solution. Yes. The Final Solution. I yet contend that the mobs in the streets of Hitler's Germany were in the street not only by the will of the German State, but by the will of the western world, including those architects of human freedom, the British, and the presumed guardian of Christian and human morality, the Pope.
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin had considered Elijah Muhammed's call for a separate, black nation in America, the ultimate segregation. He considered it carefully: after all, he wrote, "If this sentiment is honored when it falls from the lips of Senator Byrd, then there is no reason why it should not be honored when it falls from the lips of Malcolm X." But he concluded that "the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other -- not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam.... we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation."
Yet in subsequent years Baldwin's own philosophy became even more intransigent and impossible than that of the Black Muslims. At least they had a solution to propose; he, it seemed, had none. He had dismissed his earlier ideas about love and mutual connection as having been naive, but he had nothing with which to replace them, and while he insisted that America was both black and white and must remain so, all of his work, fiction and nonfiction, implicitly denied the possibility of merging and connecting. As Baldwin aged -- he died in 1987 at the age of sixty-three -- his writing and his statements became increasingly irrational until it seemed that his worst nightmare had come true: he, like his stepfather, had gone mad.
If Baldwin considered himself to have a literary idol, it was probably Henry James; but as a writer and as a cultural influence, Baldwin was in fact much closer, at least in his better work, to the Englishman E. M. Forster than he was to James, his compatriot and fellow exile. Forster and Baldwin shared an almost religious faith in the sacramental and redemptive nature of love, and specifically of the sexual act. They also shared and propagated a simplistic and nonsensical stereotype of Anglo-Saxon culture as frozen, antisensuai, emotionally out of touch, and unnatural, and a corresponding sentimental notion of non-Anglos as elemental, natural, and free: Forster's prototype of the sexy Mediterranean corresponds perfectly to Baldwin's prototype of the brilliant and intense Harlem jazz musician. Both homosexuals, the two writers idealized male characteristics and male friendship and show only a token interest in women, and a cursory understanding of them.
Like Forster, Baldwin was, at least at the beginning, an idealist. The extraordinary rage with which he reacted to the inadequacies of human behavior presupposes an idealism about what human behavior might or should be which few people of his high intelligence share; only an essential idealist could finally end up so bitter, so disappointed by the vagaries of the human animal.
Again like Forster, Baldwin believed that art and social criticism were, and should be, inextricably linked. In "The Creative Process," an essay published in Creative America in 1962 and not previously anthologized, Baldwin brilliantly explores the role of the artist.
Society must accept some things as real; but [the artist] must always know that the visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and all our achievement rests on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted....
For as long as he took nothing for granted, Baldwin made a substantial contribution to the literature and the cultural dialogue of his time. It was when he broke his own rules and started to assume, started taking things for granted, that his contribution sadly ceased to be valid.
(1) James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison; The Library of America, 869 pages, $35.
(2) James Baldwin: Early Novels anal Stories, edited by Toni Morrison; The Library of America, 970 pages, $35.
Brooke Allen reviews books regularly for The New Criterion.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Better James Baldwin. Contributors: Allen, Brooke - Author. Magazine title: New Criterion. Volume: 16. Issue: 8 Publication date: April 1998. Page number: 29. © 1999 Foundation for Cultural Review. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.