When I was a teenager, back in the 80s, and starting to become mildly attentive to the literary climate, my impression, such as it was, of James Baldwin was that he was considered somewhat passe. I determined, in my youthful understanding, that the main reason for this was that he was no longer menacing enough to white people, which seemed to me to be an important consideration at the time. It was not that he wasn't angry, or even angry enough, or that he held back unpleasant truths out of timidity or deference. By the 80s, however, the typical white male intellectual was accustomed to absorbing without too much discomfort such rebukes as Baldwin would be likely to dish out to him, whereas the likes of Playthell Benjamin or Amiri Baraka, either in person or through one of their champions, not only threatened him with a humiliating verbal smackdown in the presence of all the white female English majors, but intimated that a too egregious hint of a smirk or a roll of the eye could lead to a swift literal kicking of one's pasty ass, or (more likely), the forcing of a beggarly public apology to avert this consequence. Baldwin, a gay man who weighed about 120 pounds and whose preference in lovers trended towards arty Europeans, did not carry this same intimidation factor. In addition, perhaps characteristic of his generation, he always self-identified strongly as an American, and acknowledged the influences of white American and European culture, some of which he was obviously drawn to, in his formation, which was not fully in keeping with the more militant elements of the post-6os literary culture either.I have only read two Baldwin books, his first two, this one and Go Tell It On the Mountain, but as they are two of his most famous ones I assume they are representative of his whole oeuvre. He was not a great stylist and one sees him coming up against limits both in his language capacity and general education much more frequently than one does with suaver authors (I have similar problems myself). His strengths were his wittiness, his material obviously, and his sensitivity to beauty, or least the illusion of beauty, though this was often employed when an especial expression of anger was intended. This last effect may have been unintentional--being inclined to think, for example, of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s in a mostly positive way, both with regard to its overall appearance and the functioning of its institutions, the excitement and energy of the streets, etc, compared to most of life, I imagine him feeling something of this same attraction but from the standpoint of an excluded outsider--indeed, a hated one. Perhaps he saw, or intended his reader to see, only the hatred, the oppressiveness, the hopelessness that devoured so many in the great city. However I don't think so; he seems like a pretty soulful man, not a nihilist, a vengeful spirit of darkness from the Jacobean theater. He wanted his anguish to be intelligible to that world which attracted him, and excluded him, even if his conscience would have resisted it. This is of course one of the central veins in American literature, and is at least as frequently maligned as it is admired. It never dies, however.
Notes of a Native Son is a collection of autobiographical pieces, magazine articles, reviews--the title piece is the central essay of the collection and I may have been just supposed to read that according to the dictates of my list, but, the whole collection being short and my having such an interest in and attraction to the time period in which the book was written, I read all of it. I will save my observations and snippets chosen for commentary for some further posts, as there is a lot of material for me to rhapsodize on here.