Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

The Work of the
Sympathetic Imagination
James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas
in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
One should, for example, be able to see things that are hopeless and yet
be determined to make them otherwise.—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The
Crack-Up”

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two
ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance,
the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, men as they are….
the second idea … that one must never, in one’s own life, accept the
injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s
strength.—James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”

[W]it … involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of
every experience, of other kinds of experiences which are possible.—T. S.
Eliot, “Andrew Marvell”

JAMES BALDWIN’S FIRST, MAGNIFICENT, and highly influential collection of essays Notes of a Native Son invites comparison and contrast with Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. The title essay of that collection, on the other hand, invites comparison with Zora Neale Hurston’s much-anthologized essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Baldwin’s observation recorded above as one of my epigraphs invites a larger reflection, for his sense of the sympathetic imagination—my term, not his, but shared with Hurston nevertheless and worked out in the last few essays of the aforementioned collection—deserves placement and consideration alongside the more recognized observations of Fitzgerald and Eliot, which also stand as epigraphs here. Baldwin is onto something of the very first magnitude—his description calls to mind, for example, the capacious way of the essay, at the making of which he was an undenied master.

“Notes of a Native Son” begins with the links between father and son that will score the account of “Jimmy,” along with those between his father’s

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