Wednesday, April 02, 2008

James Baldwin--Notes of a Native Son (1955) Part 1

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.


Anonymous said...

We feel your opinions of Baldwin are childish and extremely uninformed.
You seem to have been reading a lot about Baldwin, but not actually reading Baldwin. You repeat the words of his many critics, many of whom were jealous of his success and international literary fame. This high school graduate from the "Harlem ghetto".
Martin Luther King, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, James Farmer, Louis Farakhan, Toni Morrison, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou and many more would disagree with your ill conceived assessment of Baldwin the man and Baldwin the writer.
Sometimes during the 1960s it was the lone voice of this little man that spoke out boldly against the racist terror directed against black people, it was Baldwin who denounced the terror in Birmingham Alabama when 4 little girls were murdered by white racist while they were at Sunday school in the church basement.
Take the time to really study the life and work of James Baldwin for yourself. The first principle of any decent scholar is to study the sources and primary evidence for yourself.
we will end with this quotation from Baldwin:
“Every white person in this country-and I do not care what he or she says-knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, "what I want",but they know they would not like to be black here.
If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.”

Anonymous said...

We would strongly urge you to study the more works and more of the life of James Baldwin . Your opinions are extremely superficial and child-like.
Baldwin was not perfect.
But here was a man who spoke out against American racist terror as early as the late 1940s. Here was a man who was deeply influenced by the great activist singer Paul Robeson. He was a friend of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin helped take our struggle to the world stage. Towards the end of his life he became "passe" because many elements of the Jewish community did not like his stand on Israel. Baldwin felt that the Jews stole the land from the Palestinians, and he spoke and wrote about it. Don't forget Baldwin was never widely loved by white people in the 1960s. He was popular with certain progressive and liberal elements, but most whites hated him as much as they hated King and Malcolm X!
You need to stop reading other peoples' opinion of Baldwin and take the time to carefully read Baldwin for yourself-that is one of the first principles of any the sources yourself!
You owe Baldwin an apology.