Life never bribed him to look at anything but the soul, Henry James said of Emerson, and one could say the same of James Baldwin, with a similar suggestion that the price for his purity was blindness about some other things in life. Baldwin possessed to an extraordinary degree what James called Emerson’s “special capacity for moral experience.” He, too, is persuasive in his antimaterialism. Baldwin, like Emerson, renounced the pulpit—he had been a fiery boy preacher in Harlem—and readers have found in the writings of each the atmosphere of church.
It’s not that Emerson and Baldwin have much in common as writers. Harlem was not Concord. Except for his visits to England, Emerson stayed put for fifty years and Baldwin spent his adult life in search of a home. He left Harlem for Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, left Greenwich Village for Paris in 1948, and spent much time in Paris, Turkey, and the South of France between the 1950s and the 1980s. Yet Baldwin and Emerson both can speak directly to another person’s soul, as James would have it, in a way that “seems to go back to the roots of our feelings, to where conduct and manhood begin.”
Baldwin, as much as Emerson, is a legatee of certain Nonconformist beliefs—that every person is a carrier of the divine spark, for instance, an idea that became secular in the time of the American Revolution through arguments regarding the authority of the individual in a political democracy. If this is one of the founding traditions of American radicalism, then it links the abolitionism of Emerson’s day with the civil rights movement of Baldwin’s. Many intellectuals in the 1960s were aware that the freedom movement was a taking up of what had been left brutally undone since Emancipation. The antislavery cause of a century earlier offered to civil rights activists examples of individual conscience as judge of unjust government and its laws. When the protests of the late 1950s and 1960s that Baldwin wrote about brought the Paris expatriate back to the US, the connection between racial justice and democracy in America was once again at the center of the nation’s politics, asking every citizen to realize that his or her liberty was not freedom so long as other Americans were being denied their rights.
The political goals of the civil rights movement that Baldwin made himself a witness for, as an essayist, novelist, and activist, were partially realized with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even the angry black nationalists of the 1960s who attacked Baldwin as a queer and a darling of white liberals accomplished something in the long run. They transformed the public psychology of race, combating on an unprecedented scale the dogma of racial inferiority.…
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