Rereading James Baldwin

May 1, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

My son’s high school English teacher assigned James Baldwin’s Another Country. I had read this novel long ago but could remember absolutely nothing about it. Of course, that didn’t stop me from saying authoritatively that as a novelist Baldwin was second-tier at best and that his greater contribution to literature was an an essayist.

The teacher should have assigned Nobody Knows My Name, I told my son, who didn’t seem to be much interested in my literary opinions. Still, for my own satisfaction, I went back to that book, and in the first essay I found this bit of sociology: Baldwin has returned from several years living in Europe, mostly in Paris; in comparing the US and Europe, he discovers
a rather serious paradox: though American society is more mobile than Europe’s it is easier to cut across social and occupational lines there than it is here. This has something to do, I think, with the problem of status in American life. Where everyone has status it is also perfectly possible that no one has. It seems inevitable, in any case, that a man may become uneasy as to just what his status is.

But Europeans have lived with the idea of status for a long time. A man can be as proud of being a good waiter as being a good actor, and, in neither case, feel threatened.

Baldwin wrote that in about 1960. I think deTocqueville said something similar 125 years earlier. Plus ça change.
Baldwin is particularly concerned for the way that the fluidity and uncertainty of American society affects the novelist.
The charge has often been made against American writers that they do not describe society, and have no interest in it. They only describe individuals in opposition to it, or isolated from it. . . . But what is Anna Karenina describing if not the tragic fate of the isolated individual, at odds with her time and place?

The real difference is that Tolstoy was describing an old and dense society in which everything seemed . . . to be fixed forever. And the book is a masterpiece because Tolstoy was able to fathom, and to make us see, the hidden laws which really governed this society and made Anna’s doom inevitable.

What Baldwin says about writers might just as easily apply to sociologists, both as researchers and especially as teachers of undergraduates. In fact, where Baldwin uses the word writer, meaning novelist, we might equally substitute sociologist.
American writers do not have a fixed society to describe. The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity. . .
The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.

Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are.
Baldwin is best known as a black writer and for his writings on race, which are worth rereading. He was also a homosexual. He was born in 1924 and came of age in America of the 1940s and 50s, when being black and gay were even heavier burdens than they are today. Being an outsider, doubly so, does not guarantee that you’ll be a great novelist, but it does make you aware of the “laws and assumptions” that others take for granted and often do not notice

1 comment:

maxliving said...

You know, that picture shows Baldwin smoking a cigarette. Perhaps this blog should be flagged as inappropriate (see: