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The Magic of James Baldwin

The draining away of James Baldwin’s magic was a drama much discussed in the years leading up to his death in 1987 at the age of sixty-three. There had been the first act of waif in Harlem, literary vagabond in Paris, and avenging angel of the Freedom Summer, when his exalted voice captured the tension of a nation confronted by what looked like a choice between honoring and betraying its ideals of social justice. The essays, novels, and short stories had come with all the authority of purpose and brilliance of language any young writer could hope for. Then followed the last act of weary old believer riding the transcontinental winds, when the social strife to which he had committed himself as a witness seemed to frustrate his gift for describing what was going on in mad America and in his midnight self.

In the late 1960s Baldwin the panelist was roughly treated in some black militant quarters, which blotted out the occasions when he had been sharply interrogated by white commentators. Baldwin repudiated the status he worried he’d been given as the “Great Black Hope of the Great White Father,” and found a way to keep on going. Seven of his twenty-two books were published between 1971 and 1976.

Baldwin minded the drama of apostolic succession others tended to cast him in. He did not consider himself written-out or irrelevant, in much the same way that Langston Hughes and then Richard Wright had felt that no one was going to sideline them before their time. However, his later essays and his last, very pro-family novels failed to convince a large part of his audience that his work still held the revelatory subtleties so long associated with his name. Because of the Pauline obstinacy with which he stuck to his subjects, these later works were unfavorably compared to the earlier ones that had made him a star.1

Three years ago the Modern Library brought out a new hardcover edition of The Fire Next Time and this bold essay which first riveted the public mind more than thirty years ago has returned, properly enshrined with much else in two Library of America editions. One volume gathers together his essays, the other his early novels and stories.


The Lord may not be there when you want Him, but when He gets there He’s right on time, church people used to say. A sense of timely intervention surrounds the publication of Baldwin’s work in such a distinguished series, because so many hundreds of his pages coming all at once urge us to concentrate our attention on what he actually wrote. Though Baldwin’s books have long been in circulation, cultural memory has not been fair to his toughness. The image has grown of this improbable duckling with a swan’s sensibilities persecuted by fortune’s magpies. Perhaps we like our dead black heroes a little on the fabulous victim side.

Perhaps also the sheer elegance of his prose style has upstaged the fierceness of his message. Baldwin was a deeply civilized man, but he refused to become middle class, and he maintained a streetwise distrust of the poses of deracination and alienation, including his own, and of the bohemian escapes available mostly to white people and to the privileged in general. He did not subscribe to the romance of exile; he had little patience with the cries the Beats and their student admirers made about being oppressed. He was obsessed with defining freedom, but he did not present himself as a free spirit. Most of the time in his writing he tried to subdue the certainty of divine election that raged around the nation’s flinty moral core.

It hardly seems possible that the voice of Baldwin’s early essays has become historical, that fifty years have gone by since he first announced himself on the scene. Baldwin wrote about the racial situation in the US largely in terms of Anglo-Saxon and Afro-Saxon that William Dean Howells would have understood. But maybe one of the reasons he gets escorted down the catwalk of contemporary identity politics as a martyr to Difference is that much of what he had to say about race came in the form of autobiographical reflection. The sympathy-sucking, almighty “I” is everywhere these days.

Baldwin laced his writings with explicit warnings against the chill of self-exposure. However, it is not just because of his self-restraint that he remains a powerful tutelary presence in the uses of the first person. Though he found in his writing a permanence of self that the insecurity of his social condition could not threaten, his own experience interested him mostly for what it told him about the larger world. “The Negro in extremis,” F.W. Dupee called him, pointing out that if Baldwin’s skin color constituted his fate then he made of it an existentialist virtue.2

Baldwin said he was born with his subject matter and he meant it—but not at first. He published more than two dozen reviews and essays before his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). He counted his apprenticeship as a reviewer of books by and about blacks—being black supposedly made him an expert, he said—among the reasons he packed his bags and went to France at the age of twenty-four. The majority of the ten pieces that make up his first essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955), are also from those postwar years.

In an elliptical preface of daring assertions, Baldwin defines his relationship to his subject matter. He argues that “the Negro problem” was nearly inaccessible from any profound point of view, because it had been written about so widely and “so badly.” A Negro risks becoming articulate only “to find himself…with nothing to be articulate about.” His past led to Africa, not Europe, which meant that he, Baldwin, “a kind of bastard of the West,” brought to “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude.” These monuments did not contain his history; they offered him no reflection of himself. “I was an interloper.” However, he had no other heritage, having been “unfitted for the jungle or the tribe.” He would therefore have to “appropriate these white centuries” and accept his “special attitude.”

He had hated and feared white people; had despised black people, “possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt” and in so doing had given the world a “murderous power” over him. This “self-destroying limbo” explains, he feels, why “prose written by Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh.” He does not expect the Negro problem to be his only subject, but it was the gate he had to unlock before he could write about anything else. Meanwhile, he sees in Faulkner and in passages of Robert Penn Warren the beginnings of “something better,” and, for him, Ralph Ellison is the first Negro writer to use in language “some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life.” Baldwin thus places himself on the side of serious literature, a position he elaborates on in two essays that follow.

In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he examines Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the cornerstone of American protest fiction. Baldwin condemns Stowe’s anti-slavery novel as a self-righteous “catalogue of violence.” Stowe was “an impassioned pamphleteer” interested in man’s relationship to God, not in relationships between humans. She could not embrace Uncle Tom without first purifying him of sin, robbing him of his humanity, and divesting him of sex. Her work is animated by a “terror of damnation.”

Yet because the supposed aim of protest novels is to bring 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…. 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.

The curses in Wright’s Native Son as an answer to the exhortations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Baldwin says, are a continuation of the impossible heritage of the Negro in America, that “country devoted to the death of the paradox.” Bigger Thomas’s sulfurous hate makes him submissive Uncle Tom’s descendant.

In “Many Thousands Gone” Baldwin again turns an unforgiving eye on Native Son. He describes how its mere publication in 1940 was written about as a triumph for American democracy, even though it was really just “one of the last of those angry productions” of the 1920s and 1930s. Baldwin contends that Wright assumed a false responsibility when he allowed himself to be cast as the representative of black people. But in recording his rage “as no Negro before him had ever done,” Wright captured the fearful image white people have in mind when they speak of the Negro.

Baldwin’s main objection to Native Son is that Wright attempted to redeem a monster on social grounds. Bigger’s force comes from his being “an incarnation of a myth.” The novel reflects, but does not interpret,

the isolation of the Negro within his own group and the resulting fury of impatient scorn. It is this which creates its climate of anarchy and unmotivated and unapprehended disaster; and it is this climate, common to most Negro protest novels, which has led us all to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse, such as may, for example, sustain the Jew even after he has left his father’s house. 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.

Bigger, meanwhile, satisfies the national taste for the sensational. He may through his crimes oblige people to see the results of oppression, but white people don’t really fear someone like him so much as they do ordinary Negroes who give no cause for complaint. Bigger remains a monster and this, Baldwin argues, supports the notion that Negro life is indeed “as debased and impoverished as our theology claims” and leads back to the assumption that to become truly human the black man “must first become like us.”

Stowe’s novel about a slave whose passivity made him a better Christian than whites and Wright’s work about a black boy whose environment made him reject his family and commit murder dealt with the most familiar parts of Baldwin’s heritage that he was trying to get away from: his church upbringing and his Harlem background. But it is also clear from the popular fiction with which he equates protest novels—Little Women, the novels of James M. Cain—that his reservations about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son as famous examples of a category of American literature to which he as a black writer was expected to contribute stem from his doubt that such books could earn lasting prestige as art. Protest fiction was just another ghetto, a proletarian literature in blackface. These essays are a declaration of Baldwin’s critical independence, as well as of his physical distance.

  1. 1

    See David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (Henry Holt, 1994); Randall Kenan, James Baldwin (Chelsea House, 1994); James Campbell, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (Viking, 1991); Horace A. Porter, Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin (Wesleyan University Press, 1989); W.G. Weatherby, Jr. James Baldwin:Artist on Fire (Donald I. Fine, 1989); and Caryl Phillips, “Dinner at Jimmy’s,” in The European Tribe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987). I am grateful to Mr. Campbell and to Mr. Phillips for sharing with me their files and thoughts on Baldwin.

  2. 2

    F.W. Dupee, ‘King of the Cats’ and Other Remarks on Writers and Writing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965; University of Chicago Press, 1984).

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