The 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.
In the late 1960s Baldwin the panelist was roughly treated in some black militant quarters, which blotted out the occasions when he had been sharply interrogated by white commentators. Baldwin repudiated the status he worried he’d been given as the “Great Black Hope of the Great White Father,” and found a way to keep on going. Seven of his twenty-two books were published between 1971 and 1976.
Baldwin minded the drama of apostolic succession others tended to cast him in. He did not consider himself written-out or irrelevant, in much the same way that Langston Hughes and then Richard Wright had felt that no one was going to sideline them before their time. However, his later essays and his last, very pro-family novels failed to convince a large part of his audience that his work still held the revelatory subtleties so long associated with his name. Because of the Pauline obstinacy with which he stuck to his subjects, these later works were unfavorably compared to the earlier ones that had made him a star.1
Three years ago the Modern Library brought out a new hardcover edition of The Fire Next Time and this bold essay which first riveted the public mind more than thirty years ago has returned, properly enshrined with much else in two Library of America editions. One volume gathers together his essays, the other his early novels and stories.
The Lord may not be there when you want Him, but when He gets there He’s right on time, church people used to say. A sense of timely intervention surrounds the publication of Baldwin’s work in such a distinguished series, because so many hundreds of his pages coming all at once urge us to concentrate our attention on what he actually wrote. Though Baldwin’s books have long been in circulation, cultural memory has not been fair to his toughness. The image has grown of this improbable duckling with a swan’s sensibilities persecuted by fortune’s magpies. Perhaps we like our dead black heroes a little on the fabulous victim side.
Perhaps also the sheer elegance of his prose style has upstaged the fierceness of…
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