A Memory of James Baldwin

“Elegant” is a word that keeps coming to me in connection with Jimmy Baldwin. That was how he struck me the first time I met him, back in the late Forties in a midtown west-side restaurant—The Blue Ribbon, I think it was—and it is the word that came to the lips of a black girl student in a class I’m now teaching when I asked her how she would characterize Baldwin—we were talking of black writers. His voice, I suppose, was part of it—soft, light, slightly breathy, hesitant as if from fastidiousness. But my student cannot have known his voice; elegance (described by Webster as “refined grace”) must have been conveyed to her by his writing. Unless as a child she heard him on radio or saw him on television.

The day I met Baldwin in The Blue Ribbon (?), William Phillips, one of the editors of Partisan Review, had asked me to come along to lunch. William must have attached some importance to the occasion, as he had dressed up for it and seemed nervous. Baldwin was at ease, so that I at once felt rather gay with him: He was not the first black writer I ever knew, or the first black intellectual, but he was the first black literary intellectual. As I remember, we talked about Henry James that day but also about figures on the current literary scene: Baldwin had read everything. Nor was his reading colored by his color—this was an unusual trait. He had what is called taste—quick, Olympian recognitions that were free of prejudice.

Trying to think now of what or whom he reminded me, I light on Delmore Schwartz. Yes. That would have been the early Delmore Schwartz, when he, too, had a soft, breathy voice, careful diction, fancifulness, and an immense delight in books—the Delmore who likened himself to a Hershey bar and was writing at about that time of the red shoes of the Duchesse de Guermantes, not the crazed Delmore of the later years.

Anyway, it was a literary sort of lunch. I had never read anything Baldwin had written. Go Tell It on the Mountain was published later, in 1953, when I was no longer in New York. I liked it, both the manner and the matter. After that, I read The Fire Next Time (1963) and was moved, maybe shaken a little by it. And, after that, I’m sorry to say, I read no more of Jimmy. The reason was simple: I was afraid to. From what I heard, I did not think I would like Giovanni’s Room, which was published in 1956, or some of the books that followed and I preferred to keep my sense of Jimmy’s gift pure and intact in my mind. (When we stop reading an author we like, that is usually why, I imagine: we do not want to change the idea we have of him.) Perhaps in this case I was overcautious. I might have liked Giovanni’s Room, contrary to…

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