James Baldwin (dredged from the SocioBlog archives)

August 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Reading that yesterday, August 2, was the birthday of James Baldwin, sent me back to a post I did six years ago. The point I was trying to make in that post was that Baldwin was a better sociologist than he was a novelist. Baldwin, Black and gay, had left the US for Europe in 1948, returning periodically to the US.  I excerpted a quote from Baldwin commenting on the differences in social structure and mobility between Europe and the US and how these affect the task of a novelist.

I added that where Baldwin uses the word writer, we could easily 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.
That last paragraph sounds like it might have been written by C. Wright Mills.

And here is my concluding sentence in that blog post of May 2007:
Being an outsider, doubly so, does not guarantee that you’ll be a great novelist [or sociologist], but it does make you aware of the “laws and assumptions” that others take for granted and often do not notice.

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