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On James Baldwin

The following was originally given as a talk at Town Hall in New York City in February to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of The New York Review. A recording of the talk is available on the 50 Years blog, along with links to the articles that Darryl Pinckney discusses.

I had no idea why I was so absorbed in James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, but everyone else in the car knew. My father had been driving for so long he gripped the wheel with paper towels. It was 1967 and we were days from Indianapolis on our way to Disney Land. We were actually on Route 66 and I didn’t care. I was thirteen years old and I wasn’t causing trouble, sitting between my two sisters with Baldwin’s novel about a man’s love for another man in my face. I remember my mother glancing back at me. We’d driven through a dust storm a while ago, but I’d missed it.

Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them—in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.

Soon enough I had Another Country, Baldwin’s best seller, stashed away with what I considered porn. I’d not read his essays, because I knew that they were about race, a matter I was determined to put off for as long as I could. But the subject of race would not wait and in 1971 a teacher who understood showed me Baldwin’s “Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis” in The New York Review of Books. “The enormous revolution in black consciousness that has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America.” I come from preachers. I recognized that speaker.

Away and on my own at last, drinking and cruising, I read in my dorm room what I’d refused to at home. I fell under the spell of Baldwin’s voice. No other black writer I’d read was as literary as Baldwin in his early essays, not even Ralph Ellison. There is something wild in the beauty of Baldwin’s sentences and the cool of his tone, something improbable, too, this meeting of Henry James, the Bible, and Harlem. I can see the scratches in the desk in my room where I was reading “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin’s memoir of his hated father’s death the day his father’s last child was born in 1943, one day before Harlem erupted into the deadliest race riot in its history. I can feel the effects of this essay within me still.

However, there was a problem as new works by James Baldwin came out in the 1970s. They showed a falling off in his writing. His exhortations to the nation came across as perfunctory. Baldwin’s loss of his cool was a subject I thought I’d thought a lot about when in 1979 Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein suggested that I try to write about what would be his last novel.

Just Above My Head is a sprawling saga about a black gay gospel singer and his family. I am embarrassed more than three decades later by the knowingness of that review, from the typewriter of Mr. Little Shit. I was young, Baldwin was young no longer, and therefore I had his number. I eased scorn on what I saw as his sentimental portrayal of a gay couple. Because the two men in Baldwin’s novel consider themselves married, I accused him of having them imitate heterosexual behavior. He’d given up on sexual liberation, I said. Mary McCarthy advises that a good way to get started as a writer is to publish reviews. I was going about the business of trying to become a writer, willing to do so at the expense of this tender, brave, and brilliant soul.

A few years later at a party for Baldwin after he read his blues poems at the 92nd Street Y, I, drunk, asked—yes, asked—if he’d seen that review. He graciously said no and I’m afraid I can’t pretend that I did not in a seizure of self-importance rehearse some of my arguments against his book right there, in the middle of a cocktail party for him, this adored figure. His smile was all forbearance and understanding. He had my number. Then I was alone in the bedroom of Grace Schulman, the head of the Y’s poetry reading series. I heard a guy coming, Baldwin’s secretary, and simply stepped into Grace’s closet. Baldwin’s secretary sat on the bed and picked up the white phone. It was too late to say I was there, hiding among dresses with organdy sleeves. Minutes went by and after the secretary put out his cigarette, I went off into the unsteady dark.

James Baldwin died in France in 1987. His funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was the first funeral I’d ever attended. In 1998, the Library of America published editions of Baldwin’s collected essays and his early novels and stories. The New York Review let me turn my reviews of these books into opportunities to make up for the past. I’d some experience and had more sympathy for the pressures in Baldwin’s life, especially toward the end of the civil rights movement. Suffering has everybody’s number, he once wrote. I remembered and tried to honor that Baldwin’s exalted prose had made me decide something about myself.

He was right about so much in our political and social culture, not to mention gay marriage and how liberating is the freedom to be like everyone else. I said then and say again that his voice has not aged; that the journey out of Egypt is his true theme; and that in the kingdom of the first person he has few peers.

James Baldwin has been on my mind all my writing life, as has The New York Review of Books, ever since 1973, when the great Elizabeth Hardwick, surprised I’d not read F.W. Dupee on Baldwin, which appeared in the very first issue, sat me down with a big red bound volume of the first decade of the paper. Part of its luck was to have been bought in the 1980s by Rea Hederman, a hero of liberal journalism in the segregated South.

Over the years certain names on the cover of the Review have made my heart race. I miss Barbara Epstein every day, as do all her family and many friends. I am humbled by the lessons of Robert Silvers’s dedication. I have received so much from this noble intellectual enterprise. I learned of that English poet James Fenton from the pages of The New York Review of Books.

This is the wind, the wind in a field of corn.
Great crowds are fleeing from a major disaster
Down the long valleys, the green swaying wadis,
Down through the beautiful catastrophe of wind.

I thought, Whoa, and I still do, even after twenty-three years of making him cups of tea. And so thank you.

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