Book Reviews - Autumn 2010

James Baldwin's America

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Truths both hard and timeless

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

September 1, 2010


 

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, by James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, Pantheon, 304 pp., $26.95

“I’m sorry, but people have been fed on sweets too long and it has ruined their digestion,” wrote the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov in the preface to his short novel A Hero of Our Time. “Bitter medicines and harsh truths are needed now.” He was, of course, talking about 19th-century Russia. If we just change the word people to Americans, however, that sentence is as apt a description as any of the soaring and excoriating prose of James Baldwin, perhaps 20th-century America’s ablest literary apothecary. Now, with the publication of The Cross of Redemption, a new volume of previously uncollected writings, the 21st-century reader is invited to discover (or return to) Baldwin’s harsh truths. This is an invitation that shouldn’t be declined.

It won’t surprise anyone familiar with the author of The Fire Next Time that the guiding (though certainly not the sole) preoccupation of these occasional pieces—written between 1947 and 1985, and organized thematically—is America. Or more precisely, what Baldwin might call the myth of “America.” What is surprising, however—this collection provides valuable new glimpses into Baldwin’s sheer precocity—is the age at which he realized himself as a writer. The earliest pieces in the collection, book reviews spanning back to when he was just 23, in addition to being exquisitely crafted, already contain within them much of the unflinching insight into human nature, literature, art, and politics that we associate with the fully formed master.

This is because Baldwin, the improbable product of serious poverty, a very good New York City public school, and the black pulpit, instinctively gravitated to the Big Leagues. He writes with the urgency of a man who is fighting for his life—and for all of ours. Whether the topic of discussion is Maxim Gorky, Floyd Patterson, Sidney Poitier, or anti-Semitism, the stakes are invariably sky-high and his pen is devastating. In a skewering review of a collection of Gorky’s short stories (his first published review), he concludes with this line: “If literature is not to drop completely to the intellectual and moral level of the daily papers, we must recognize the need for further and honest exploration of those provinces, the human heart and mind, which have operated, historically and now, as the no-man’s-land between us and our salvation.”

In certain respects, James Baldwin seems as far removed from our time as Socrates. It is now all but impossible to imagine even an extremely talented American 23-year-old—or 33-year-old, for that matter—ever writing a sentence like that, the fashionable thing today being, sadly, to sound so young as almost to be childish and to look upon words like human, heart, and, most of all, salvation with heaping doses of suspicion, snark, and irony.

In other ways, though, he is as contemporary as Facebook. Consider this line from a late-1950s piece titled “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes”: “What the mass culture really reflects . . . is the American bewilderment in the face of the world we live in. We do not seem to want to know that we are in the world, that we are subject to the same catastrophes, vices, joys, and follies which have baffled and afflicted mankind for ages.” Half a century hence, we by and large remain a nation of ostriches, heads buried in the sand. As I write, many thousands of gallons of oil spew daily from a hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, yet the most spirited conversation in the country for a week has been whether a rich and talented 25-year-old basketball player will stay in Cleveland or go somewhere else. “We have begun to see what happens to a country when it is run according to the rules of a popularity contest,” Baldwin wrote in 1964. Strike the phrase have begun to, and that sentence could have been written yesterday.

In his excellent introduction to the book, Randall Kenan writes: “Whether or not America has actually undergone the total revision Baldwin outlines in his peroration, and throughout his works . . . remains an open question. Yet I’m certain he’d acknowledge that the nearly 50 years between then and now have brought us closer to that Braver Newer World.” On the racial front, yes, I think Baldwin would have to recognize the country’s tremendous if still very incomplete progress. On the ultimate question, however, the question of “that no-man’s land between us and our salvation,” I’m not convinced. From his 1964 essay, “The Uses of the Blues”:

How can I put it? Let us talk about a person who is no longer very young, who somehow managed to get to, let us say, the age of forty, and a great many of us do, without ever having been touched, broken, disturbed, frightened—40-year-old virgin, male or female. There is a sense of the grotesque about a person who has spent his or her life in a kind of cotton batting. There is something monstrous about never having been hurt, never having been made to bleed, never having lost anything, never having gained anything because life is beautiful, and in order to keep it beautiful you’re going to stay just the way you are and you’re not going to test your theory against all the possibilities outside. America is something like that.

For better or worse, paragraphs like the one above come with no expiration date in sight.


Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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