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 sermon by Father James of the Mount of Olives Pentecostal Assembly. Mr. Baldwin’s own performances in this genre are impressive; he is not a gleaming Public Man for nothing. He has something to say and he says it over and over again: an unbeatable formula, given modern methods of communication. When the public style goes flat, it is normally because he has run out of wind: “If we are not able, and quickly, to face and begin to eliminate the sources of this discontent in our own country, we will never be able to do it on the great stage of the world.”
There are also the autobiographical pieces. When Mr. Baldwin has an event to record, something to report or remember, the sentences sway to the rhythm of the action and the deed is magnificently “done.” In Notes of a Native Son there is the essay about his preacher-father, a beautiful piece of work. In Nobody Knows My Name I think of the hilarious meeting of the Franco-American Fellowship Club in Paris, with poor Richard Wright, as Auden said of Yeats, “silly like us.” And there is the visit to Elijah Muhammad, in The Fire Next Time. These things are splendidly written, because Mr. Baldwin has a remarkable sense of “the way it was,” and he trusts that sense all the way.
But then there are the novels. They seem to me, when all is said, very bad. “The way it was” is one thing: “the way it might be” is another. Mr. Baldwin is weak on invention. If he has seen or heard or suffered something, he can transcribe it. But if he has to invent a character, imagine a world for him, and devise other characters to live in that world, he is defeated. Worse still if he has to develop the action, complicate the characters, show one thing pressing upon another. Even the best of the short stories are precarious structures, eleventh hour achievements: the novels are poor enough when short, frightful when long. For one thing, Mr. Baldwin’s characters, under this pressure of development, all talk like Mr. Baldwin. They have no life apart from his life. In Another Country Cass gets into a taxi and starts thinking of Eric. Even as Mr. Baldwin’s characters go, Cass is extremely limited in her perception. But her reflections are given thus:
She would have been glad to know his body, even though the body might be all that she could know. Eric’s entrance into her, her fall from—grace?—had left her prey to ambiguities whose power she had never glimpsed before. Richard had been her protection, not only against the evil in the world, but also against the wilderness of herself. And now she would never be protected again.
So Mr. Baldwin makes his feeling serve for all feeling, his intelligence for all intelligence. He cannot imagine things different from his own. In Giovanni’s Room the first meeting of David and Giovanni sounds like Mr. Baldwin reading one of his essays to himself, aloud, for later transmission on an educational network. So the novels are almost entirely deficient in measure, in scale; for how can you measure things which are all equally you? Mr. Baldwin has only himself to imagine. Presumably this is why he cultivates his own “strangeness”; as in Nobody Knows My Name when the Black Boy (Baldwin) looks at the White Boy (Mailer) and finds what Love cannot do: “It could not make me over, for example. It could not undo the journey which had made of me such a strange man and brought me to such a strange place.”
Mr. Baldwin may have had trouble in accepting his strangeness, but he has managed it and now would not be seen without it. But Yeats’s idiom in “Anima Hominis” comes to mind:
We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians, who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty; and, smitten even in the presence of the most high beauty by the knowledge of our solitude, our rhythm shudders.
Mr. Baldwin has a constant quarrel with others, and it is a real and justifiable quarrel, but he gives no sign of quarreling with himself. He uses the word “Love” as if he had a patent on it, and in Notes of a Native Son he speaks of his real life being in danger “from the hate I carried in my own heart,” but the novels are an interminable quarrel with others, a binge of hatred. The title story in Going to Meet the Man is a sadistic sexual fantasy on the mutilation of a Negro. The detail runs to burning testicles, a can of kerosene, the charred corpse, the joy of the avengers. These images are attributed to Jesse, a local Deputy Sheriff, and the color-scheme is suitably reversed, but the images are Mr. Baldwin’s images, rounding out the symmetry of Another Country, where Jesse’s Gothic scream was first heard.
The new book contains eight stories. Five of them are familiar to readers who keep up with the magazines: “Previous Condition,” “The Outing,” “Sonny’s Blues,” “Come Out the Wilderness,” and “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon.” The remaining stories are published now for the first time: “The Rockpile,” “The Man Child,” and “Going to Meet the Man.” The themes bear Mr. Baldwin’s trademark: hatred between father and mother; young homosexual love; middle-aged homosexual love; Black married to White; how they order these things better in France. In “Previous Condition” a Negro actor is thrown out of a white room by a white landlady: the result is a dream of violence which will certainly boost membership of the Klan. The story is a frame-up, though, as the sensitive black plant wilts in the glare of the white man’s culture:
I looked at the ads, unreal women and pink-cheeked men selling cigarettes, candy, shaving cream, nightgowns, chewing gum, movies, sex; sex without organs, drier than sand and more secret than death.
This reminds me of the scene in Another Country where Rufus cries his heart out to Vivaldo, accompanied by Bessie Smith singing Backwater Blues. “The Man Child” is a better story, about the murder of a boy by a man who loves the boy’s father. “Sonny’s Blues” is very impressive; especially the long conversation in which the teacher’s mother tells him about the white men who killed his uncle, gunning him down with a car. The only serious defect in this story is the old defect that the characters are too often merely Mr. Baldwin’s mouthpieces. When Isabel complains about Sonny playing the piano all the time, the complaint comes in the voice of James Baldwin; it is merely a function of his larger, incessant complaint. There is a curious ventriloquism in these reported speeches: we see Isabel making the gestures, but what we hear is the old preacher-prompter, sounding off:
Isabel finally confessed that it wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound. And the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make any sense to any of them—naturally. They began, in a way, to be afflicted by this presence that was living in their home. It was as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster. He moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all…it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him.
But where is Isabel? Again, when Sonny talks about the unreality of other people, he fades off into Mr. Baldwin—his voice, his tone, his everything—author of The Fire Next Time. Still, the story manages to hold on, surviving, and it lodges in the mind.
The meat of the book is “This Morning. This Evening, So Soon.” An American Negro singer in Paris is visited by his sister, a schoolteacher from Alabama. He is married to a white girl, Harriet, a Swede, and everything there is fine. Recently, he has made a hit in a film, and fame has come. Now, the night before leaving for the feared U.S.A., he goes out on the town with his French director. They meet a quartet of Southern boys and girls, and a Tunisian ex-prizefighter called Boona, light of finger because life is rugged. So the story proceeds. Ten or fifteen pages later you notice that something is missing. Then you place it: no scream, no hatred, no burning testicles, no grinding axe. We are in yet another country, a place rarely visited by Mr. Baldwin. If France is really like this, there is no excuse for being anywhere else. Anyway, the story brings out the artist in Mr. Baldwin, that suffering thing struggling to escape. It is a short story, so he does not have to strain, pulling and hauling, pumping the prose: there is no recourse to the Public Address System. It is beautifully done. When the American lapses into hate, you catch for a paragraph or two the old familiar venom, blues for Mr. Baldwin, but it passes: other things are acknowledged. The relationship between the singer and his director is sketched with notable tact; there is no attempt to pluck out the heart of every mystery. The incidents are unspectacular: the singer and his party move from one nightplace to another, a girl loses ten dollars, Boona seems to have stolen the money. So the night ends. The singer goes back to his apartment, to his wife, his sister, his son Paul. No more; but enough. Measure, scale, tact: these are the marks of the story. And the writing is at once controlled and free.
December 9, 1965