Academic journal article ARIEL

"The Whole Root Is Somewhere in the Music": Jazz, Soul, and Literary Influence in James Baldwin and Caryl Phillips

Academic journal article ARIEL

"The Whole Root Is Somewhere in the Music": Jazz, Soul, and Literary Influence in James Baldwin and Caryl Phillips

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article discusses the contemporary British Caribbean writer Caryl Phillips and the twentieth-century African-American writer James Baldwin within a comparative framework that speaks to the expanding issue of international (and transnational) American literary influence. Baldwin has frequently been cited by Phillips as a major literary source, but the nature of this influence can be difficult to frame. The article is interdisciplinary in nature and takes its theoretical framework not from narrative theory but from music theory. Issues of creative repetition in black music and rhythmic counterpoint in jazz are suggested as models that can be applied to a relationship of literary influence. The article applies these issues to close readings of Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" (1957) and Phillips' In the Falling Snow (2009), focusing on the musical structures, themes, and motifs that permeate both texts.

Keywords: James Baldwin; Caryl Phillips; literary influence; jazz; blues; soul; In the Falling Snow, "Sonny's Blues"

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In his 1987 collection of essays, The European Tribe, British Caribbean novelist Caryl Phillips describes the European home of his literary mentor, the African-American essayist and novelist James Baldwin. Phillips visited Baldwin in the early 1980s as the older writer was coming to the end of his literary career and before Phillips would find literary fame with the publication of the 1990 neo-slave narrative Cambridge. For Phillips, the luxurious house in St. Paul de Vence, France served as an imaginative icon of isolation;

Whenever I arrive at the tall iron gates separating James Baldwin from the outside world, my mind begins to wander. The gates remind me of prison bars. I wonder if Baldwin has been in prison, or whether this exile, his homosexuality, or his very spacious home are the different forms of imprisonment. My mind becomes supple, it feels strong and daring, and although the questions and thoughts Baldwin provokes are not always logical, I have always found that there is something positive and uplifting about his presence. Baldwin, unlike anybody else I have ever met, has this ability to kindle the imagination. (The European Tribe 39)

The quotation raises two interesting questions for scholarship both on Baldwin and on Phillips. First: the image of the prison, when related to Baldwin, seems potentially illuminating if also potentially problematic--why should Phillips speculate, for example, that exile, luxury, or homosexuality should be viewed as "imprisonment" for the black American writer? Second: how should we conceptualise the ("supple," "illogical," "uplifting") influence that James Baldwin has on a young writer from outside of an American or African-American context?

Though the second of these questions strongly suggests the necessity of reading Baldwin in a comparative light, the writer, until relatively recently, has been underdiscussed by comparativists or by comparative Americanists. Much scholarship on his oeuvre centres on the literary models and other sources--whether white or black--that contributed to the making of Baldwin as an artist, but notably few critics have extended this treatment beyond the borders of American literary history. Baldwin as a source for other writers remains a much underdiscussed figure, though efforts to consider the writer outside of an American context have emerged in recent years. In this article, I hope to address these two striking oversights by placing the Phillips-Baldwin dialectic within a comparative framework that speaks to the expanding issue of international (and transnational) American literary influence.

There is an obvious and very striking juxtaposition within Phillips' image. The two figures follow very different trajectories: social, sexual, or identitarian "imprisonment" for Baldwin, creative liberation for Phillips. The image produced thus forms a challenging model for literary influence. …

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