In the Kingdom of the First Person
At The New York Review’s fiftieth anniversary celebration at Town Hall in New York on February 5, 2013, Darryl Pinckney spoke about his lifelong engagement with the writing of James Baldwin. You can read his lecture in the April 4 issue or listen to a recording of it here:
The articles discussed by Pinckney are excerpted below.
On the very first page of the first issue of The New York Review in February 1963, F.W. Dupee reviewed James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
February 1, 1963His role is that of the man whose complexion constitutes his fate, and not only in a society poisoned by prejudice but, it sometimes seems, in general. For he appears to have received a heavy dose of existentialism; he is at least half-inclined to see the Negro question in the light of the Human Condition. So he wears his color as Hester Prynne did her scarlet letter, proudly. And like her he converts this thing, in itself so absurdly material, into a form of consciousness, a condition of spirit.
In 1971 a teacher of Darryl Pinckney’s gave him Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis, which appeared in the Review that January.
January 7, 1971The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make black people despise themselves. When I was little I despised myself, I did not know any better. And this meant, albeit unconsciously, or against my will, or in great pain, that I also despised my father. And my mother. And my brothers. And my sisters. Black people were killing each other every Saturday night out on Lenox Avenue, when I was growing up; and no one explained to them, or to me, that it was intended that they should; that they were penned where they were, like animals, in order that they should consider themselves no better than animals. Everything supported this sense of reality, nothing denied it: and so one was ready, when it came time to go to work, to be treated as a slave.
In 1979, editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein suggested that Pinckney review what would be Baldwin’s last novel, Just Above My Head, a sprawling saga about a gay gospel singer and his family. “I am embarassed more than three decades lates by the knowingness of that review,” Pinckney said at Town Hall, “from the typewriter of Mr. Little Shit.”
December 6, 1979Increasing disillusionment over the years may have led Baldwin to search for something like a “people’s book.” But there is a repetitious and inert quality to Just Above My Head. Attempting to be earthy, to render a vernacular, black speech, Baldwin loses something when he declines to use the subtle language of his essays. In many ways the bombast … creates not a closeness to the material but a peculiar distance from it. In using a kind of ordinary language, hoping for what Richard Wright once called “the folk utterance,” Baldwin has denied himself the natural lyrical mode of expression for which he has such a high gift.
A decade after Baldwin’s death the Library of America published editions of his collected essays and his early novels and stories. Pinckney reviewed them in this piece.
November 19, 1998The 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.
Pinckney also first learned of “that English poet James Fenton” in the pages of The New York Review. His poem “Wind” was quoted by Seamus Heaney in this 1984 piece:
October 25, 1984This 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.
March 14, 2013, 6 p.m.