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.