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.