November 2010

Richard Wirick


Notes and Native Sons: Revisiting James Baldwin

I was sitting in a New York City cab once, stopped at a red light on Upper Broadway near the Columbia campus. I looked over into the Checker next to me and saw James Baldwin slouched low in the back seat, smoking behind the slightly cracked window, wearing one of the bright ascots he sported on the talk shows (Cavett, mainly) wise and brave enough to take him on in those years. It was nighttime, and the hue of his neckwear fabric wasn't easy to discern. But it crinkled like a ring of embers around the famous, languid eyes, his narrow hatchet blade of brow and cheeks and chin.

It was the late '70s, and, as Randall Kenan says in the just-released Cross Of Redemption: Uncollected Writings of James Baldwin, the public had come to see the once proud, prophetic expat as increasingly dejected, forlorn, fruitlessly expending himself in cranky fracases. But this book, which includes early fiction sketches that grew into Go Tell It On The Mountain and Giovanni's Room, was vibrant to the last, and his final products were a fitting, natural end to the long trajectory of his joyful misanthropy. For all its wrongheadedness, humankind was too various and sweet and miraculous to warrant hatred. Like the blues he wrote so much about, the notes of greenest bud grew out of the darkest wood.

Baldwin's essays are among the best in English since Orwell's, and are freighted with the same weary skepticism, the same register of encomium and warning. If his friend and mentor Richard Wright (whom he followed to Paris) was the African American Moses, Baldwin was the African American Jeremiah. His critical arm did not have the widest sweep; rather, with a cocked sniper's finger and thumb, he zeroed in on the phonies and renegades who, unchecked, could bring down liberation's nimble, slow-chugging locomotive. It was an instrumentality constructed during its own forward movement, on the very tracks it was fated to occupy.

An artist to the core, his most incisive political observations were comments on other writers, not the rants he was goaded into at '60s rallies or the dampened afterthoughts of benefits and funerals. He speaks of Anglo-English poetry -- the pumping camerals of those nations' hearts -- as nearly perishing within "the chill embrace of T. S. Eliot." Thought had to be direct for him, and language, as thought's vestments, should be minimally allusive, maximally fresh and transparent. Wisdom didn't rest on sediments of influence, but was more of a hard-earned, higher level innocence: a place one climbed to on nave rungs but which retained -- in the final, loftier place -- the capacity of being ravished, the ability to be abashed.

For Baldwin, dreams themselves, particularly the dream of art, created facts in the world and changed the hearts of people with visibility and influence. As he says in "As Much Truth As One Can Bear":

We remake America into what we say we want it to be. Without this endeavor, we will perish. However immoral or subversive this may sound to some, it is the writer who must always remember that morality, if it is to remain or become morality, must be perpetually examined, cracked, changed, made new. [T]he artist must remember, however powerful the many who would rather forget, that life is only the touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.

Innocence, enlightened, Blakean innocence, lets us take in everything, to become that one (as his beloved Henry James described the novelist) "on whom nothing is lost." At the same time, its veins and directions allow the ordering of reality, its rigid correspondence with "our actual condition," and the insights of earlier artists with whose vision we must keep faith.

Baldwin thus saw all necessary aspects of the master-slave relationship (the "Paleface-Redskin Question," he preferred to call it) in at least the best, first-person perspectives of Faulkner's narrators. He saw the plucking of safety from danger in Hemingway's up-river camp breakings and canoe portages. To Baldwin, the life force, the soul's most vital and necessary engine, was best presented in the flirtations of James's coquettes and peripatetic wanderers.

Like Chekhov, Baldwin's final artistic migrations (at least as an observer) were toward the stage. He writes beautifully of his friend Sidney Poitier, and of seeing him for the first time in Hansberry's A Raisin In The Sun:

It says a great deal about Sidney, and it also, negatively, says a great deal about the fact it certainly never would have been done if Sidney had not agreed to appear in it. He had a fantastic presence on the stage, a dangerous electricity that is rare indeed and lights up everything for miles around. It was a tremendous thing to watch and be made part of. And one of the things that made it so tremendous was the audience. Not since I was a kid in Harlem, in the days of the Lafayette Theater, had I seen so many Black people in the theater. And they were there because the life on that stage said something to them about their own lives. The communion between the actors and audience was the real thing; they nourished and re-created each other. This hardly ever happens in the American theater. And this is a much more sinister fact than we would like to think. For one thing, the reaction of that audience to Sidney and the play says a great deal about the continuing and accumulating despair of black people in this country, who find nowhere any faint reflection of the lives they actually lead. And it is for this reason that every Negro celebrity is regarded with some distrust by black people, who have every reason in the world to see themselves abandoned.

How well Baldwin captures both the entrapments and invigorations of race, all in the performance of a single stage actor. When Poitier later fell into disfavor over Guess Who's Coming To Dinner -- the notion he was jocularly exploited, a joke against his own people that he wasn't picking up on -- Baldwin stuck with his longtime friend, pointing back to the way he walked the pineboards that night as the true test of artistic mettle, the actual crucible. An evening in the theater brought in all the hard scrabble of the streets, and was at the same time the "door into eternity" for which Chekhov hailed it.

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And where did Baldwin end up with his notion of art as freedom's marker, its unassailable, reliable plumb-line? With the Russians, a people whose love-hate fascination with despotism he never saw in African Americans, but whose insights into that authority and servitude were magisterial.

Baldwin's Russian problem was that he often chose the wrong ones. While admitting Gorky had immense -- but not quite profound -- perceptual antennae, he goes on to forgive almost anything in admiring the man's concern for his people's wretchedness.(One wonders if he remembers what a Stalinist stooge this writer eventually became.) Baldwin is correct that the lover of character, the sympathetic but not sentimental writer, is able sometimes to reduce his flaws to virtual unimportance. Gorky's hyper-aware, ironic penetration and great, corresponding tenderness -- something Baldwin was waiting for a titanic African American writer to present -- was something that gave a moral sheen to the storyteller's otherwise mud-colored, Chekhovian adumbrations. Much of Russian writing pre- and post-Revolution (Turgenev and Nabokov come to mind, respectively) dabbled too much in "pastel irrelevance," the long tedium of drawing room soap operas. Baldwin, so full of righteous indignation himself, reveled in Gorky's rage, his celebration of heroism and struggle against isotropic, objective enemies. The characterization of Nilovna in Mother sounds despair's low, long, broken bell, swinging in the woods of the West Urals, and echoes Baldwin's own cynical vision, as earned and earnestly conveyed as something out of Seneca.

When Baldwin moves to Guerney's Portable Russian Reader, he ranges over the entire Slavic pantheon, showing amazing ability to weave quite foreign historical scholarship into the struggles of present day (the review was written in 1948!) African Americans. He warned against angry masses biting at "grim revolutionary simplicities," and stood back, early and alert, to the Stalinist apologists who swam in his fellow-traveler waters. His skepticism of socialism's historical algebra, its reduction of the human to material ardor and succor, was prescient at a time when the American Communist Party seemed the only shepherd to his race's scattered flocks. And all this took place before the advent of Martin Luther King, before even the rise of the Nation of Islam. In the end, Baldwin loved his people and their struggle enough to rally for them as best he could (with the typewriter and not the gun), but seemed possessed of something worthy of a much older man, someone who had lived the multiple lifetimes of Solomonic biblical figures. He looked down on the world as his preacher father once told him God looked upon his "botched but fascinating" creations: enraged but never despairing, devising new adjustments, loving the greatly flawed as well as the merely great. Reading these Russia essays, warmed by their panache and utter wisdom, I remember the way the smoke braided his face that night in the taxi. It was like clouds parting under the vision of any god, any artificer, any hobbled but heart-driven creator.