Going to Meet the Man
One of the short stories in James Baldwin’s new collection tells of a well-adjusted Negro schoolteacher and his young brother Sonny, a jazz pianist, drug-addict, drop-out. The relationship is heavy with care, constricted with fear, until one night Sonny brings his brother to a place in the Village. The music starts, a man named Creole leads off (bass fiddle), Sonny moves in on the piano, the burdens are suddenly lifted, and in the intensity of the playing (as Keats said of King Lear) all disagreeables evaporate. In another story a responsive Frenchman visiting the Negro hero puts on a record: Mahalia Jackson singing I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song. Mr. Baldwin seems to think of his art in similar terms; as a great release, redemption, a long blast on the horn, a flare; afterwards, rest. “Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning.” Hence, in Mr. Baldwin’s fiction, sex is the jazz of life; preferably homosexual. Dreams of fair women are fine for men who like that sort of thing, but the real jazz is a homosexual relation between Black and White. Mr. Baldwin introduced this nuptial image for the first time, as far as my researches go, in his famous lecture at Kalamazoo College. It is featured again in Another Country, when Vivaldo meditates on the death of Rufus Scott and thinks of a redemptive opportunity lost. In Nobody Knows My Name it is implicated in the notion of “accepting our humanity.” By now, it has become enormously extended: everything now depends upon a Negro of homosexual and heterosexual capacities who marries the whole white world. That way, we get Love.
I do not offer this image as an example of Mr. Baldwin’s straight thinking, but to suggest that his celebrated eloquence is partly the pressure of need, partly hatred, partly an hysteria of the imagination, and partly something else struggling to get out. The new book makes this a little clearer. Written at intervals since 1948, the short stories can be read as footnotes to the novels, but this is unfair. Some of them are slight things, hardly more than sketches, unofficial essays prophesying fire next time. But there are two stories, “Sonny’s Blues” and “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” which are far better than anything else Mr. Baldwin has done in fiction.
The merits of Mr. Baldwin’s work are clear enough. He has, to begin with, a high-pressure rhetoric closely related to old-style preaching. His best essays are sermons. The most vivid pages in Go Tell It on the Mountain represent Gabriel’s sermon, at the Twenty-Four Elders Revival Meeting, on Isaiah, 6, 5: “Then said I, ‘Woe is Me!’—for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” In one of the new stories, “The Outing.” there is a memorable …