Watered Whiskey: James Baldwin's Uncollected Writings
When the maverick literary agent Andrew Wylie divulged last July that he intended to sell to Amazon the exclusive e-book rights to twenty titles by authors he represents, executives at Random House declared war. As the owner of print rights to thirteen of the books on Wylie’s Amazon wish list, the world’s largest trade publisher refused to conduct new business with Wylie or any of his clients. At stake was control of classics like Lolita and Invisible Man, each of which sell more than half a million copies annually, and while the two parties have since reached an accord (Amazon emerged the loser), the standoff was a reminder of the economic value of backlist titles. Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison are among the industry’s blue-chip authors, a marketplace reality that surely informed the recent publication of their unfinished final novels, respectively The Original of Laura and Three Days Before the Shooting.
Because such books are bound to receive national coverage and post modest sales figures owing to brand recognition alone, the question of their literary merit is often brushed aside. So too with another division of the posthumous book business—the publication of uncollected works. Aesthetics and business may keep little company nowadays, but one might hope that essays, poems or stories excluded from previous collections amount to something more than the last marketable relics plundered from the tomb of the known writer. If so, what does the collection of these antiquities accomplish beyond shoring up a writer’s reputation or satisfying the completist? Just as an unfinished manuscript may, at best, contain clues about a writer’s working method and the finished product, a well-curated selection of uncollected works offers the possibility of a backward glance at the path the writer took, which is rarely direct and often rough. In the course of retracing his steps and missteps, we may also find more than a few items—juvenilia, ephemera, hack work—that the writer might have preferred to remain undiscovered or hadn’t the chance to burn.
If great writing transcends its time, then lesser writing often only embodies it. Such is the case with a good deal of James Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by novelist Randall Kenan. Though many of the pieces in the volume were used as plot points in James Campbell’s fine biography of Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, published in 1991, as works of writing they are not among Baldwin’s most enduring. Baldwin omitted them from his three original volumes of essays as well as his mammoth collection of nonfiction, The Price of the Ticket, published in 1985, two years before his death. Toni Morrison also passed them over while assembling the Library of America edition of Baldwin’s Collected Essays (1998), which includes fifty-one pieces from Ticket plus ten previously uncollected ones.
The Cross of Redemption includes a smattering of essays, speeches, open letters, forewords, afterwords and book reviews, and one short story. Other than his correspondence, which sadly has not yet been published, this batch of writings is the last of the wine, Baldwin’s dregs. Along with presenting a handful of forgotten gems, the collection promises to tell the story of a working writer: it contains Baldwin’s first review, published in this magazine [see “Maxim Gorki as Artist,” April 12, 1947], and his last article, published in Playboy in 1987. Over the course of those four decades, Baldwin became a master of the personal essay, a bestselling novelist and an international celebrity; he also became, with mixed feelings, a spokesperson for his race during the civil rights movement, and then watched that role diminish as the quality of his novels waned and his ideas hardened. The Cross of Redemption presents a necessary side of Baldwin, one that Notes of a Native Son cannot. In these pages Baldwin is often casual, less rigorous, more preachy, but also arguably funnier, more honest, angrier and, at times, simply brilliant.
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James Baldwin was 22 in 1947. By then he had quit the church, worked as a manual laborer at a defense plant, moved from Harlem to Greenwich Village and come out about his homosexuality to friends and acquaintances. He had also received the blessings of America’s leading black writer, Richard Wright, who helped Baldwin obtain a $500 grant to work on the manuscript that eventually became his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). In his Nation review of Gorky’s Best Short Stories, Baldwin outlined a position that would become his central conviction as a book critic: literature is meant for the examination of head and heart, not for the dissemination of politics or the scolding of society. Gorky is guilty of the latter, Baldwin writes, because he “is concerned, not with the human as such, but with the human being as a symbol…. His failure was that he did not speak as a criminal but spoke for them; and operated, consciously or not, not as an artist and a prophet but as a reporter and a judge.” Baldwin refined and elaborated these distinctions two years later in his most famous work of literary criticism, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949), an essay in which he levels a similar accusation against Wright for Native Son. Presenting the literary offenses of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as evidence that “literature and sociology are not one and the same,” he closes his argument with the suggestion that Native Son is Uncle Tom’s unwitting accomplice. Bigger Thomas may be the opposite of Uncle Tom, but both characters are deployed in service of a cause, and so each lacks humanity and lives in an implausible world.
It’s invigorating to encounter Baldwin’s hostility to what he deems mediocre—which is nearly everything he reviews—not only because he’s trying to make a name for himself but also because he believes it is life, not just art or entertainment, that is at risk in a work of fiction. Reviewing The Moth, Baldwin writes that James M. Cain “shyly confesses a hankering to tell tales of a ‘wider implication than those that deal exclusively with one man’s relation to one woman’—an ambition which, since I have yet to meet either a man or a woman in Mr. Cain’s pages, seems rather premature.” Commenting on other writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Baldwin is less severe and more nuanced, but he worries over the same question: why read novels if you can’t meet a man or a woman in their pages? For Baldwin, good books are not dead things; he believed they should embody “perception at the pitch of passion.” The phrase is Henry James’s, and Baldwin used it to end brief remarks published in The New York Times Book Review in 1962 about his aspirations as a novelist (the piece is included in this volume). It’s a testament to Baldwin’s talent and intellect that as a young critic he advocated this vision and then, in his personal essays and fiction, realized it.
Baldwin hit and held his most perceptive and passionate pitch from 1949 to 1959, when he published his best essays, among them “Many Thousands Gone” (1951), “Stranger in the Village” (1953), “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), “Princes and Powers” (1957) and “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” (1959), as well as two powerful and radically different novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room (1956), and one of the finest American short stories from the second half of the twentieth century, “Sonny’s Blues” (1957). It’s understandable, then, that only four artifacts from this period remain for exhibition in The Cross of Redemption: one from 1949 and three from 1959. Because Baldwin wrote so well during this decade, the story people like to tell about him—and their interest in reading his work—usually tapers off shortly after his most celebrated achievement: the publication of his New Yorker essay of 1962, “Down at the Cross,” a grand meditation on race and reconciliation, as The Fire Next Time the following year. It’s a high note to end on. So is Blood on the Tracks.
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There has been much speculation about the Fall of James Baldwin, with critics flagging different dates for when the young man who had been so keen to avoid being merely “a Negro writer” became just that, when he seems to have forgotten, in Langston Hughes’s words, that “RACE and ART/Are far apart.” The irony is very neat, befitting the conventions of classical tragedy, and that’s one reason we should be suspicious. The neatness forces one to presuppose a belief in Baldwin’s original sin of becoming too racial or too political, which led to his banishment from the kingdom of art. This tale of transgression has been too often applied to the careers of black writers, Hughes among them. (Hughes’s alleged offense was to give up writing about race for writing about socialist politics.) It’s not that there is no tension between art and politics, as the author of “Everybody’s Protest Novel” clearly understood; but without carefully examining it anew in every circumstance, one might end up asking, even with good intentions, why Baldwin didn’t see fit to stay in his place.
It is indisputable that his 1949–59 writings are very different from those from the following decade. In 1948 he boarded a plane to France because he doubted his “ability to survive the fury of the color problem” in the United States; he “hated and feared white people” at the same time that he “despised” blacks, “possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt.” Paris gave Baldwin the physical and emotional distance from his country necessary for him to write with precision about both. When he returned nine years later, an established and respected author, he discovered those Rembrandt-less people—his people—living through the most important time in their history since 1863. The native son now had “a role to play” and lines to deliver to receptive audiences; Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire and the glossies were more than happy to have him act the part in their pages. By 1962 his collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and his novel Another Country had become bestsellers. When commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, Time placed Abraham Lincoln on the cover; the next week, it was James Baldwin. That year was the first in which more interviews with Baldwin were published than essays written by him, and it is this movement of a great writer from his typewriter to our televisions that The Cross of Redemption is uniquely suited to chart.
Baldwin changed as surely as the country did, and as all of the work in this collection—apart from the early book reviews—dates from 1959 and after, it would not be unreasonable to expect the editor to devote generous attention to these intersecting histories. Kenan, however, is a minimalist curator, offering only brief contextual remarks before pieces. In his introduction, where he could have strengthened the narrative arc the writings form, he balks, devoting the bulk of the space to an unnecessary biographical sketch of Baldwin, some of which is strangely written in the second person. He has forgotten that the book he has edited is a compilation of rare B-sides, not greatest hits. Grouping the writings by type—“Letters,” “Profiles” and so on—he opens with the sexiest, “Essays and Speeches,” burying the homely but earlier “Book Reviews” in the penultimate section. Either Kenan or the Pantheon publicity team, it seems, wanted so badly for the book to be displayed and sold as a general interest title that one or both deemed chronology and adequate footnoting too academic. The Cross of Redemption is not as strong a book as it should be: as the 23-year-old Baldwin wrote of another anthology, this one of Russian literature, the collection is like “watered whiskey; but, of course, even watered whiskey is better than none.”
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Baldwin thought of himself first and foremost as a novelist, but his finest accomplishment is his body of autobiographical essays, literary sleights of hand where a social truth is drawn effortlessly from personal narrative. Such mastery requires solitude, patience and time, three things Baldwin increasingly found in short supply. In the pieces from the early and mid-’60s in The Cross of Redemption, though the collection’s strongest, he has abandoned his signature style, and would never return to it with the same vigor. In “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” “Letters From a Journey,” “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” “The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston” and “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin holds forth on subjects such as history, nationalism, language, movies, theater and the artist. Analyzing the American personality in “The Uses of the Blues,” he shrewdly observes that a significant part of the country’s neuroses originates from the fact that slaves in the United States, unlike those in other Western countries, lived and labored on the mainland. Such close quarters required that Americans go further in convincing themselves that slaves weren’t human, which led to a “hidden, festering, and entirely unadmitted guilt” as well as the perpetual necessity for self-delusion. In “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin criticizes F. Scott Fitzgerald for the lyrical sentimentality of Jay Gatsby, who “searches for the green light, which continually recedes before him; and he never understands that the green light is there precisely in order to recede.” We allow ourselves to be borne back ceaselessly into the past if we forget the realities of slavery and despoilment. Such a blithe disregard of American history was an illusion that Baldwin increasingly felt a duty to shatter. Unfortunately, his vehemence began to undermine his craft, resulting in generalization, hyperbole and needless repetition. Baldwin was still perceptive, but his passion was at times pitched too high.
The tragedy is that almost as soon as Baldwin was in a unique position to be heard by everyone, many of those he felt he was speaking for no longer wanted to listen. With his relationship to the black community already strained—what kind of black American would write a novel about a couple of gay white men in Paris?—his mainstream success alienated it further. Martin Luther King Jr. questioned his role, saying in a conversation recorded by an FBI wiretap in 1963 that the press mistook Baldwin for “a spokesperson of the Negro people,” when in fact he was “better qualified to lead a homosexual movement than a civil rights movement.” Baldwin insisted that the lives of blacks and whites were intertwined: he defended The Confessions of Nat Turner because rather than ignoring race issues or clinging to stereotypes, William Styron had “begun the common history—ours.” Even before the assassinations of King and Malcolm X, young radicals had grown weary of old Baldwin, who held, in Eldridge Cleaver’s words, an “antipathy towards the black race”; his open homosexuality was a “racial death-wish.” Having reportedly yelled, “The sons must slay their fathers” at Richard Wright during a fight over “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin was now the father whom the vanguard needed to slay. The point was not lost on him, and the writings from the late 1960s and ’70s are a fascinating record of his efforts to understand his new position.
The most interesting of the collection’s later essays—and not coincidentally also the most personal—is a profile of Sidney Poitier, published in Look magazine in 1968. While only very loosely outlining Poitier’s career, Baldwin delivers a veiled apologia and eulogy—not only for his friend but also for himself. Poitier and Baldwin had achieved unmatched celebrity as black men in their respective professions, and then were censured by the people they had inevitably been cast to represent. The stars came to be seen by many in the new generation as Uncle Toms, having spent too much time in the white world. This backlash was bound to happen, Baldwin reflects, because black celebrities are always distrusted by the majority of black people, who have a right to feel abandoned. “It can become very difficult to remain in touch with all that nourishes you when you have arrived at Sidney’s eminence and are in the interesting, delicate, and terrifying position of being part of a system that you know you have to change.” To the critics complaining that Baldwin’s public engagement with racial politics damned his art, he writes in his own defense: “It’s only the black artists in this country—and it’s only beginning to change now—who have been called upon to fulfill their responsibilities as artists and, at the same time, insist on their responsibilities as citizens.”
The Poitier piece bristles with resentment, as does much work from the period, but it is also written with cool candor, as if Baldwin were a dying man dictating his life into a tape recorder. There are also tender memories of Poitier, which, to my knowledge, Baldwin mentions nowhere else in print. Regarding the first time he watched Cry, the Beloved Country (1952), he writes, “That was the young Sidney, and I sensed I was going to miss him, in exactly the same way I will always miss the young Marlon of Truckline Cafe and Streetcar Named Desire. But then, I miss the young Jimmy Baldwin, too.” Poitier, Brando and Baldwin had stood shoulder to shoulder at the March on Washington in 1963. The profile ends with an anecdote to illustrate “how black artists particularly need each other”; it is also a beautiful expression of friendship, of how its greatest gestures are often small, and are recognized only after they’ve occurred. In 1962 Baldwin was terrified about the reception of his new novel Another Country; Poitier had read an advance copy and liked it. The night of the novel’s release party in Harlem, Poitier turned up early to find Baldwin all nerves, and he walked his friend around the block, preparing him to meet the crowds and faces. By the time the two returned, the party was in full swing. Baldwin calmly began his rounds; when he looked up Poitier was gone, and the truth dawned on him: Poitier hadn’t come for the party at all.
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Despite the temperamental gulf that separated Poitier and Baldwin from the likes of Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed, Baldwin continued to write and fight, defending the militants who had judged him unfit to lead while holding his ground: he published a response to Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power in 1968; composed “An Open Letter to My Sister Angela Y. Davis” in 1970; and delivered a speech on behalf of the Soledad Brothers the following year. Later, in 1978, he wrote the foreword to Bobby Seale’s A Lonely Rage. Baldwin reflects with lucid sadness on the distinct problems that America posed to these two generations of blacks. He notes that Angela Davis isn’t her father’s daughter “in the same way that I am my father’s son…. He was just a nigger—a nigger laborer preacher, and so was I.” A slogan like “Black is beautiful” could have been coined only with the civil rights movement, during that glow of promise in the 1960s. Baldwin knew that as much as the members of the black power movement needed to break from the past, they owed their right to rebel to the rank and file who had marched down a road in Selma and refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery. “I have suggested that Bobby’s time was more hopeful than my own,” Baldwin cautions, “but I do not wish to be misunderstood concerning the nature, the meaning, and the cruelty of that hope.” He was speaking of the bitterness and cynicism that could not but emerge when that hope had soured. He had good reason to be worried.
Much of the disorder and anger in Baldwin’s writing life evident in the uncollected works stems from a lacerating contradiction. There came a time when he was so famous that he could say that in New York, “I can’t go where I like to drink, to see people I like, to hang out,” yet white landlords on West End Avenue still refused to sell him a house. If this was the case for him, what did it mean for “the local cat on the corner?” That the answer was obvious, and that the question needed to be asked at all never ceased to enrage Baldwin. We may think times have changed, but Baldwin’s frank discussions of race and racism are still pertinent, and his ideas about the redemptive power of literature remain poignant. Minority writers who write about being minorities generally aren’t treated very well in America: too often they are offered up in high school and college courses merely as ritual sacrifices to the gods of multiculturalism. Yet the reason to read James Baldwin, and any good writer regardless of color or creed, is that he can teach us how to be more human. “Pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain,” Baldwin observed in 1963, “and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.” That is a theory of art and of salvation.