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James Baldwin: The Risks of Love

1.

James Baldwin had a way of sometimes signing off at the end of his books—“Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961,” “New York, Istanbul, San Francisco, 1965-1967,” or “Oct. 12, 1973, St. Paul de Vence.” Maybe the words spoke to Baldwin about the labor of composition, suggesting rooms where he’d worked, nights when he’d struggled. Think of “Dublin 1904/Trieste 1914.” As a way of signing off along the road Baldwin was traveling, such markers also said something about the glamour and cosmopolitanism that being a writer had always meant to him.

Baldwin said that throughout his adolescence, hemmed in at home and hemmed in by Harlem, he’d “read books like they were some kind of weird food.” But when he told Richard Wright he’d been dreaming of France since he was twelve years old, maybe he was tugging at an older person’s heartstrings a little. He doesn’t seem to have had any special feeling for French culture or for legends of the Lost Generation, though traces of Hemingway have been detected in his earliest stories. Similarly, Harlem Renaissance lore about Countee Cullen taking classes at the Sorbonne or Langston Hughes waiting tables in Montmartre doesn’t seem to have played much part in Baldwin’s dream of France either. Paris, as the capital of Baldwin’s personal and literary freedom, existed in the future that Wright suddenly projected for him. He followed Wright in 1948, determined to prevent himself from “becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” That was the language of universalism before people accepted that black writers had been speaking it all along.

Around the time that Baldwin left Harlem’s churches, New Jersey’s industrial marshes, and Greenwich Village’s bars for Paris, Henry James was returning to Europe in the luggage of a new generation of American expatriates. Otto Friedrich, a young recent Harvard graduate writing a novel in Paris, remembered that at Christmas in 1949 Baldwin gave him a copy of F.O. Matthiessen’s edition of James’s Notebooks inscribed with lines from The Middle Years that he himself had first quoted to Baldwin.1

Matthiessen challenged the position, made popular by Van Wyck Brooks in the Twenties, that James made a fatal mistake when he became an expatriate, because he cut himself off from his material and produced tempests in “exquisite teapots.”2 Matthiessen argued that James offered a robust examination of American values and the American character, raising themes about “the eternal outsider” and “the passionate pilgrim” that were pertinent to Baldwin. For Baldwin, James’s Americans, searching for experience, transcended their backgrounds in “deep and dark” Europe.

Toward the end of his life Baldwin recalled the isolation of not knowing French his first year in Paris. He was thrown back onto his own speech, which was closer to that of Bessie Smith than it was to that of Henry James, he said.3 But in his hunt for a model, it’s not hard to see the appeal that an American martyr to sensibility would have had for Baldwin, a deracinated young black writer seeking to ally himself with an aesthetic that held the protest tradition to be confining. And yet, for all that, too much romantic emphasis can be given to James’s influence on Baldwin’s work.

In the beginning Baldwin set the bar very high, and maybe one of the reasons his fiction generally doesn’t give off the effortless authority of his essays is that he was somewhat inhibited by how much he felt he needed to achieve as a novelist in order to consider himself validated as a writer. He came of age in the days of the quest for the Great American Novel, the definitions of which can seem old-fashioned or middle-brow in the present era. But the conventional literary novel, with its responsibility to reflect something profound about society, was Baldwin’s ennobling venture, his chosen form.

As a first novel worked on and worked on, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) hung over Baldwin’s head for as long as Invisible Man (1952) had over Ralph Ellison’s. But Baldwin was working with a third-person voice that was much less liberated than Ellison’s on-the-edge first-person narrator. For Baldwin, whose fictional imagination answered to a jealous creed of being true to experience, the autobiographical elements of Go Tell It on the Mountain were perhaps less than a blessing for a first novelist.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is about a religious family in Harlem so clearly based on Baldwin’s own that he no doubt had to think about appeasing or failing to appease the shadows of the real people that fell across his characters. By becoming a writer he meant to make the home folks proud, but grime in the remembered, then disguised, shabby living room can be wounding to a working mother and to siblings still calling that living room home. Baldwin’s mother was said to have been especially worried about how her husband was depicted in her son’s work. In the title essay of Notes of A Native Son (1955), Baldwin talks about his fraught relationship with his father, but gives no indication that Baldwin senior was not his natural father. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, the youthful main character is illegitimate, but hasn’t been told that the father who hates him is really his stepfather.

Go Tell It on the Mountain has a self-conscious, guarded formality that Baldwin didn’t need after this attempt to make peace with the ghosts in his father’s house. He tells a sadistic story, but there is an underlying gentleness in his farewell to the Harlem he came from. Kindness to his own sympathy is in the exculpatory psychology and also in the tone that announces the wish to make Lenox Avenue the setting for high art, to credit people who are socially marginal with being as capable of refined inner dramas and complex feelings about the ordering principles of their lives as any bourgeois family in fiction. The careful texture of Baldwin’s realism may explain why Langston Hughes concluded that Baldwin had written “a low-down story in a velvet bag.” Hughes’s criticism showed how little attuned to the black church the ear of the blues poet could be. Baldwin’s first novel is saturated with Scripture and the rhetoric about Judgment Day as a settling of earthly accounts that still has a special meaning for black congregations.

Baldwin wanted Go Tell It on the Mountain to be about black people, not about the race problem. The tender age of his protagonist helps to distance his Harlem story from the protest fiction he had criticized Wright and Chester Himes for writing. The novel opens in 1935, on the fourteenth birthday of Johnny Grimes, who has been marked by his family and their Pentecostal church to be a preacher. His severe father is a deacon, a “holy handyman.” Johnny faces an evening “tarry service” at the storefront church, Temple of the Fire Baptized, at which he is expected to “come through” to the Lord, to rise from “the threshing floor” as one of God’s anointed. The rituals of the all-night service will signal not only Johnny’s surrender to God, but also his submission to his father’s authority, after which his destiny in the church will be, so he fears, “irrevocable.”

Johnny’s father, Gabriel, once had a mighty reputation as an evangelist, but his work on the preaching circuit has long since been curtailed by the factory job he needs to support his family. Gabriel is consumed with hatred for whites and looks forward to the day when whites will show Johnny that to them he also is just another “nigger.” As interpreter of the Lord’s Word, Gabriel slaps Johnny’s long-suffering mother and savagely whips his rebellious, street-inclined younger brother. Johnny recognizes that his intelligence is a shield from, if not a weapon against, his father.

The question of Johnny’s place in US society is off in the future, but he knows enough to have decided that he will not be like his father, “or his father’s fathers.” There are libraries downtown that he hasn’t yet the confidence to enter, but he believes that if he can conquer the world his father has failed in, then he can put in place of the love his father denies him the approval of white people who despise black men like his father. He excels in school and has been told by white teachers that he “might become a Great Leader of His People,” though he has no interest in his people or in “leading them anywhere.” His father only tells him that he’s “ugly” and that he has “the face of Satan.”

Johnny can’t reconcile his attraction to the larger world with what his family has taught him is the will of God. The path to the experiences he craves seems to lead to sin’s precipice, which can mean the movies, not to mention his sexual awakening. His memories of going to church on Sunday include seeing people still in their Saturday night clothes and being curious about what the “muddy-eyed” men and harsh-voiced women did in the cathouses. The eldest of four children, Johnny has heard his parents in their bedroom “over the sound of rats’ feet,” and remembers the first time his mother disappeared and returned with a little stranger. A fifth child is on the way. Johnny is also preoccupied with the reason for his confusion in the presence of his new Sunday school teacher, the pastor’s seventeen-year-old sinewy nephew from Georgia who has already been censured for the sin that is waiting in his flesh.

The biblical-sounding vocabulary of “lewdness” and “loins” may be corny now, in the way that sexual terminology dates faster than most other things in fiction, but it isn’t coy. The attempt not to be shy about the “trembling,” “moaning,” and “mewing” is very much in character with the familiar-with-the-low but high-minded realism in that era of the daring but sober Problem Novel. A woman’s vagina is “her secrecy,” this being Baldwin, and she may find herself in the act of “uncovering some black boy’s hanging curse” for the same reason.

Sin, not racism, is the subject most discussed in Go Tell It on the Mountain, though the novel makes it clear that the people who debate the nature of sin have frustrated and brutal lives because they are black and poor. Their fear of sin is an expression of their having internalized the social controls that afflict blacks in segregated US society, which is why the seemingly arbitrary renunciations of the “holy life” offend Johnny in a way he cannot yet articulate. Church doctrine takes over from and embellishes the larger society’s rules. At the same time temptations to sin represent the limited chances blacks have to make choices as individuals. Sin presents itself to Johnny’s mind as a form of human potential.

  1. 1

    Otto Friedrich, “Jimmy,” in The Grave of Alice B. Toklas and Other Reports from the Past (Holt, 1989).

  2. 2

    F.O. Matthiessen, Henry James: The Major Phase (Oxford University Press, 1944).

  3. 3

    James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review, Vol. 26, No. 91 (1984); David Leeming, “An Interview with James Baldwin on Henry James,” in The Henry James Review, Fall 1986.

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