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Baldwin and “the American Confusion”

From Brick 89

Brick 89

In December 1962, the New York Times asked some of the year’s bestselling authors to write a piece describing “what they believe there is about their book or the climate of the times that has made [their book] so popular.” In reply, Vance Packard, for example, explained that his book The Pyramid Climbers had been successful because, he believed, “there is a growing uneasiness among Americans about the terms of their existence, and many tell me that I often articulate their own apprehensions.” Patrick Dennis, author of Genius, wrote: “I can’t imagine what it is that makes my books sell and any author who claims to know is a fool or a liar or both.” This did not deter Allen Drury, whose book A Shade of Difference was on the list. “I hope,” he wrote, “those readers who like what I have to say like it because it is honest, well-expressed and pertinent to the world in which we live.”

James Baldwin’s Another Country had also been a bestseller, and Baldwin used the occasion to position himself ambiguously in two of the central pantheons of American beauty. “I don’t mean to compare myself to a couple of artists I unreservedly admire,” he wrote,


Miles Davis and Ray Charles—but I would like to think that some of the people who liked my book responded to it in a way similar to the way they respond when Miles and Ray are blowing. These artists in their very different ways, sing a kind of universal blues. . . . they are telling us something of what it is like to be alive. It is not self-pity which one hears in them, but compassion. . . . I think I really helplessly model myself on jazz musicians and try to write the way they sound. . . . I am aiming at what Henry James called “perception at the pitch of passion.”


Baldwin was claiming for his prose style and the structure of his novels something of the heightened, melancholy beauty of Davis and Charles; he was suggesting that the rhythms of his own diction took their bearings from the solitary pain, the uncompromising glamour that these two American musicians offered the world. But just in case anyone reading him wanted thus to place him as a primitive, a writer who did not plan his work but merely let it soar, a writer not steeped in a writerly tradition, Baldwin needed to invoke as well the high priest of American refinement, an author known not for his passion, however pitched, but for the rigor of his controlling imagination.

Baldwin the bestseller in 1962 wanted to have it both ways. This need was first of all a way of unloosening him from any easy categories, but it was also central to his procedures as an artist that he carried in his temperament a sense of James’s interest in consciousness as something glittering and also as something hidden and secretive, a concern with language as both mask and pure revelation. But Baldwin also had a fascination with eloquence itself, the soaring phrase, the rhythm pushed hard, the sharp and glorious ring of a sentence. The list of what had made him such an interesting stylist would be long. Over the years he would vary its ingredients. Sometimes, he would do so to distract the reader from his own artistry and sophistication; other times, he would do so because he liked the list for its sound and variation, as in the list he provided in Notes of a Native Son: “The King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech—and something of Dickens’s love for bravura.” But the style itself did not come simply; it could not be easily defined because it varied and shifted. It had real bravura moments, like a set of famous riffs, or an encore, such as this passage in part one of Another Country when Rufus and Vivaldo arrive at Benno’s Bar in the Village:


The bar was terribly crowded. Advertising men were there, drinking double shots of bourbon or vodka, on the rocks; college boys were there, their wet fingers slippery on the beer bottles; lone men stood near the doors or in the corners, watching the drifting women. The college boys, gleaming with ignorance and mad with chastity, made terrified efforts to attract the feminine attention, but succeeded only in attracting each other. Some of the men were buying drinks for some of the women—who wandered incessantly from the juke box to the bar—and they faced each other over smiles which were pitched, with an eerie precision, between longing and contempt. Black-and-white couples were together here—closer together now than they would be later, when they got home. These several histories were camouflaged in the jargon which, wave upon wave, rolled through the bar; were locked in a silence like the silence of glaciers. Only the juke box spoke, grinding out each evening, all evening long, syncopated synthetic laments for love.


It is easy to sense in this passage the rhythms of jazz, but also of the prose writers of an earlier generation, the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises. Baldwin was not afraid of repetition (“some of the men were buying drinks for some of the women”), or setting up patterns of beat and sound (note the constant use of “were”), or using punctuation with care and control (note the comma before “when they got home”; note the semicolon after “rolled through the bar”), and then striking home with a phrase or an observation utterly surprising, and full of delight (note “gleaming with ignorance and mad with chastity” or “pitched with an eerie precision, between longing and contempt”).

While Baldwin was in full possession of this bravura tone, he was also able to write quiet and effective and emotionally charged sentences. The sixty-one words in the opening paragraph of Go Tell It on the Mountain have only one word—the first—with more than three syllables and forty-one words with only one syllable.


Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.


This style seems closer to Hemingway than to jazz or James; it suggests that Baldwin was as comfortable with the tradition he inherited from a generation of writers most of whom were at the height of their fame as he was starting to write. No young writers ever wish to give too much credit to the writers who could have been their father. They prefer to pay homage to grandfathers or to painters or musicians or ballet dancers or acrobats. It is one way of killing your father, to pretend that he made no difference to you while watching his cadences like a hawk.

So, too, in Baldwin’s short stories this plain opening style had not an ounce of James or of jazz. “The Rockpile” opens: “Across the street from their house, in an empty lot between two houses, stood the rockpile.” “The Outing” opens: “Each summer the church gave an outing.” “Sonny’s Blues” opens: “I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work.”

Between the publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953 and the volume of stories, Going to Meet the Man in 1965, Baldwin wrote a piece for the New York Times that set about openly killing some of his literary fathers. In January 1962, he wrote:


Since World War II, certain names in recent American literature—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Faulkner—have acquired such weight and become so sacrosanct that they have been used as touchstones to reveal the understandable, but lamentable, inadequacy of the younger literary artists. . . . Let one of us the younger attempt to create a restless, unhappy, free-wheeling heroine and we are immediately informed that Hemingway or Fitzgerald did the same thing better—infinitely better.


Having made clear, in grudging tone, his immense respect for these writers, Baldwin proceeded to demolish them.


It is useful . . . to remember in the case of Hemingway that his reputation began to be unassailable at the very instant that his work began that decline from which it never recovered—at about the time of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hindsight allows us to say that this boyish and romantic and inflated book marks Hemingway’s abdication from the effort to understand the many-sided evil that is in the world. This is exactly the same thing as saying that he somehow gave up the effort to become a great novelist.


Having also demolished Faulkner (“such indefensibly muddy work as ‘Intruder in the Dust’ or ‘Requiem for a Nun’”) and “the later development” of Dos Passos (“if one can call it that”) and Fitzgerald (“there is no longer anything to say about Fitzgerald”), Baldwin considered the matter of America itself as a realm of failed imaginations.


[T]he previously mentioned giants have at least one thing in common: their simplicity. . . . It is the American way of looking on the world, as a place to be corrected, and in which innocence is inexplicably lost. It is this almost inexpressible pain which lends such force to some of the early Hemingway stories—including “The Killers” and to the marvelous fishing sequence in The Sun Also Rises; and it is also the reason that Hemingway’s heroines seem so peculiarly sexless and manufactured.


Baldwin, in his attempt to establish a context for his own work, now invoked the spirit of Henry James by taking the unusual step of claiming James as a novelist who dealt with the matter of failed masculinity in America. In The Ambassadors, Baldwin wrote,


What is the moral dilemma of Lambert Strether if not that, at the midnight hour, he realizes that he has, somehow, inexplicably, failed his manhood: that the “masculine sensibility,” as James puts it, has failed in him? . . . Strether’s triumph is that he is able to realize this, even though he knows it is too late for him to act on it. And it is James’s perception of this peculiar impossibility which makes him, until today, the greatest of our novelists. For the question which he raised, ricocheting it, so to speak, off the backs of his heroines, is the question which so torments us now. The question is this: How is an American to become a man? And this is precisely the same thing as asking: How is America to become a nation? By contrast with him, the giants who came to the fore between the two world wars merely lamented the necessity.


Baldwin understood the singular importance of the novel in America because he saw the dilemma his country faced as essentially an interior one, a poison which began in the individual spirit and only made its way then into politics. His political writing remains as raw and vivid as his fiction because he believed that social reform could not occur through legislation alone but through a reimagining of the private realm. Thus, for Baldwin, an examination of the individual soul as dramatized in fiction had immense power. It was, in the end, he saw, a matter of love, and he was not afraid to use the word. In his 1962 New York Times article he wrote:


The loneliness of those cities described in Dos Passos is greater now than it has ever been before; and these cities are more dangerous now than they were before, and their citizens are yet more unloved. And those panaceas and formulas which have so spectacularly failed Dos Passos have also failed this country, and the world. The trouble is deeper than we wished to think: the trouble is in us. And we will never remake those cities, or conquer our cruel and unbearable human isolation—we will never establish human communities—until we stare our ghastly failure in the face.


Before he began to publish fiction, Baldwin was a reviewer with attitude, a writer with a high sense of aesthetic grandeur, an Edmund Wilson with real poison in his pen. In the New Leader in December 1947, for example, the twenty-three-year-old Baldwin employed a triple negative to take a swipe at Erskine Caldwell’s The Sure Hand of God: “Certainly there is nothing in the book which would not justify the suspicion that Mr. Caldwell was concerned with nothing more momentous than getting rid of some of the paper he had lying about the house, resurrecting several of the tired types on which he first made his reputation, and (incidentally) making a few dollars on the deal.” Earlier that same year, he took on Maxim Gorky: “Gorky, not in the habit of describing intermediate colors, even when he suspected their existence, has in Mother written a Russian battle hymn which history has so summarily dated that we are almost unwilling to credit it with any reality.” Gorky, he went on, “was the foremost exponent of the maxim that ‘art is the weapon of the working class.’ He is also, probably, the major example of the invalidity of such a doctrine. (It is rather like saying that art is the weapon of the American housewife.)”

Moving from Russia with careful, youthful deliberation and delight, Baldwin in August 1948, did something close to many serious novelists’ hearts. He took on a popular writer much praised for his terse style and pace, in this case poor James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Baldwin considered Cain’s body of work: “Not only did he have nothing to say,” he wrote,


but he drooled, so to speak, as he said it. . . . He writes with the stolid, humorless assurance of the American self-made man. Rather a great deal has been written concerning his breathless staccato “pace,” his terse, corner-of-the-mouth “style,” his significance as a recorder of the seamier side of American life. This is nonsense: Mr. Cain writes fantasies, and fantasies of the most unendurably mawkish and sentimental sort . . .


In January 1949 in an essay in Commentary, Baldwin formulated what would become his characteristic battle cry, which would so puzzle and irritate white liberals and reformers in the 1960s when they found they had reason to listen to him—the problem in America, he believed, lay in each individual American soul, black as much as white; and the black population was not seeking equality with a white world that had so significantly failed to understand itself, let alone those whom it had oppressed. “In a very real sense,” he wrote in that essay,


the Negro problem has become anachronistic; we ourselves are the only problem, it is our hearts only that we must search. It is neither a politic nor a popular thing to say, but a black man facing a white man becomes at once contemptuous and resentful when he finds himself looked upon as a moral problem for that white man’s conscience.


In March 1950 Baldwin published a short story in Commentary called “Death of a Prophet,” which he did not collect in Going to Meet the Man. It was, as far as I can make out, his second piece of published fiction. The first—also published in Commentary, in October 1948—called “Previous Condition,” was included in Going to Meet the Man and contained a few of the elements that went into Another Country. It is easy to see why Baldwin did not want to publish “Death of a Prophet” in a collection, as it too obviously contained the seeds of Go Tell It on the Mountain, being the story of a boy in Harlem whose father was a preacher. The subject of a father and his son, Baldwin knew, was an interesting one. In 1967, in a review in the New York Review of Books, he wrote: “The father-son relationship is one of the most crucial and dangerous on earth, and to pretend that it can be otherwise really amounts to an exceedingly dangerous heresy.”

Although the story of the father and son told in “Death of a Prophet” and Go Tell It on the Mountain was, to a large extent, his own story, recounted also in some autobiographical essays, Baldwin understood that the tension between the generations of men was a quintessential American story. It was, he believed, not only what set America apart, but what disfigured his country—the shame, the lack of pride sons in a society moving onwards, and upwards, felt at their fathers.

Thus his work in his fiction, and even in a novel like Another Country, notable for the absence of fathers, dealt with a most public and pressing matter in the most private and personal way. In an essay in 1964 Baldwin formulated the theory of this:


And what happens to a person, however odd this may sound, also happens to a nation. . . . The Italian immigrant arriving from Italy, for example, or the son of parents who were born in Sicily, makes a great point of not speaking Italian, because he’s going to become an American. And he can’t bear his parents, because they are backward. This may seem a trivial matter. But it is of the utmost importance when a father is despised by his son, and this is one of the facts of American life, and this is what we are really referring to, in oblique and terrible fashion, when we talk about upward mobility.


The writing in “Death of a Prophet” is high-toned, almost overwrought at times, but pitched with zeal and serious ambition and great tenderness. The story is what Baldwin himself called in a review in the New Leader in September 1947 “a study of human helplessness”; it sees the character of Johnnie, whose father is dying, and who has become a stranger in his father’s eyes, not “in relation to oppression,” as Baldwin put it in another piece on Gorky in 1947, but in relation to the character’s own fear and inadequacy. Baldwin, even as he began, and despite his deep awareness of the relationship between the political and the personal, was determined that his characters should not be confined by a narrow political agenda; he sought to ensure that the behaviour and the failure of his characters should be seen first as particular and private and then only as part of some general malaise that took its bearings from the Fall of Man as much as the creation of slavery, and emphatically not from a predetermined role as black men oppressed by bad laws. He also wanted to follow the example of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose novels and stories he reviewed in January 1948; he wanted to write, as Baldwin put it, “superbly well” and know that this would be, as with Stevenson, “the most enduring delight.” Baldwin wished to create and live as an American and as a man, and had much to say about the state of his nation and about its masculinity. (In April 1966 he wrote: “Much of the American confusion, if not most of it, is a direct result of the American effort to avoid dealing with the Negro as a man.”) He was helped by his insistence that he did not belong to anyone’s margin and his ability in the same moment to take full possession of the margin when it suited his purpose. He relished the ambiguity of his position and was skilled at covering his tracks.

When it came to the matter of boxing, for example, a subject that would thrill many of his heterosexual colleagues, he claimed to know nothing. Instead, using the full force of his homosexuality, he wrote beautifully about Floyd Patterson and his fight with Sonny Liston in 1963, studying the state of the two men’s souls and the intricacies of their aura with an erotic intensity. Of Patterson, he wrote:


And I think part of the resentment he arouses is due to the fact that he brings to what is thought of—quite erroneously—as a simple activity a terrible note of complexity. This is his personal style, a style which strongly suggests that most un-American of attributes, privacy, the will to privacy; and my own guess is that he is still relentlessly, painfully shy—he lives gallantly with his scars, but not all of them have healed—and while he has found a way to master this, he has found no way to hide it; as, for example, another miraculously tough and tender man, Miles Davis, has managed to do.


Of Liston, Baldwin wrote:


He reminded me of big, black men I have known who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren’t hard. . . . Anyway, I liked him, liked him very much. He sat opposite me at the table, sideways, head down, waiting for the blow: for Liston knows, as only the inarticulately suffering can, just how inarticulate he is. But let me clarify that: I say suffering because it seems to me that he has suffered a great deal. It is in his face, in the silence of that face, and in the curiously distant light in his eyes—a light which rarely signals because there have been so few answering signals. . . . I said, “I can’t ask you any questions because everything’s been asked. Perhaps I’m only here, really, to say that I wish you well.” . . . I’m glad I said it because he looked at me then, really for the first time, and he talked to me for a little while.


But in those same years he also spoke and wrote as though he were a founding father, in an unassailable position in his country, one of its central voices. In the New York Times in 1959 he wrote:


I think that there is something suspicious about the way we cling to the concept of race, on both sides of the obsolescent racial fence. White men, when they have not entirely succumbed to their panic, wallow in their guilt, and call themselves, usually “liberals.” Black men, when they have not drowned in their bitterness, wallow in their rage, and call themselves, usually “militant.” Both camps have managed to evade the really hideous complexity of our situation on the social and personal level.


In the same year, in reply to a question about whether the 1950s as a decade “makes special demands on you as a writer,” he adopted one of his best tones, lofty and idealistic and filled with candour, while remaining sharp and direct and challenging: “But finally for me the difficulty is to remain in touch with the private life. The private life, his own and that of others, is the writer’s subject—his key and ours to his achievement.” Henry James would have been proud of him.

(The pride worked both ways. In Playboy in 1964 Baldwin managed to commandeer James as a member of his tribe, as someone who did not, as the vast majority of Americans did, spend his life “in flight from death.” He compared a passage from a letter James wrote to a friend who had lost her husband—”Sorrow wears and uses us but we wear and use it too, and it is blind. Whereas we, after a manner, see”—with these lines from Bessie Smith:


Good mornin’, blues,

Blues, how do you do?

I’m doin’ all right.

Good mornin’,

How are you?


Once more James would have been proud, although it should be added that in his lifetime or in the years after his death he and his followers were not ever fully aware that what he was really doing was singing the blues.)

Colm Toíbín’s latest collection of essays is New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. His novel Nora Webster is published by Emblem Editions.

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