Fifty Years Ago in February
Fifty years ago, F. W. Dupee reviewed The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and John Thompson reviewed Sissie by John A. Williams in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 1, No. 1, February 1, 1963. With Richard Wright being dead and Ralph Ellison playing possum, Baldwin and Williams were the leading black male writers of 1963, competing with Martin Luther King, Jr. for the ears of American Negroes. John Oliver Killens was doing what he did best; he was writing take-no-prisoners prose and fiction and waiting for retarded Americans to catch up with him. A young person named LeRoi Jones was swimming with genuine conviction toward fame.
One did hear of Gwendolyn Brooks, Ann Petry, Margaret Walker, and Lorraine Hansberry in 1963, but black women writers had to wait a full decade until the Phillis Wheatley Festival at Jackson State University, conceived by Margaret Walker, accorded them overdue attention and secular apotheosis.
Dupee, a founding editor of The Partisan Review, was a white male in extremis, and he struggled like a Hebrew slave to give an Egyptian a fair reading. Thompson was an English sociologist, and his three point tendentious statement on Williams’s novel was about as good as one could expect from a white male British sociologist who might have better spent his ink on a rigorous study of how swiftly the British Empire was dissolving in 1963.
Fifty years later, one finds it most bracing to read the comments of Dupee and Thompson and to have confirmed one’s suspicion that “white” white male writers are perpetually blessed by God to be wrongheaded.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. February 10, 2013
James Baldwin and the “Man”
The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin
The Dial Press, $3.50
by James Baldwin
The Dial Press, $3.50
As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question James Baldwin has no equals. He probably has, in fact, no real competitors. The literary role he has taken on so deliberately and played with so agile an intelligence is one that no white writer could possibly imitate and that few Negroes, I imagine, would wish to embrace in toto. Baldwin impresses me as being the Negro in extremis, a virtuoso of ethnic suffering, defiance, and aspiration. His role is that of the man whose complexion constitutes his fate, and not only in a society poisoned by prejudice but, it sometimes seems, in general. For he appears to have received a heavy dose of existentialism; he is at least half-inclined to see the Negro question in the light of the Human Condition. So he wears his color as Hester Prynne did her scarlet letter, proudly. And like her he converts this thing, in itself so absurdly material, into a form of consciousness, a condition of spirit. Believing himself to have been branded as different from and inferior to the white majority, he will make a virtue of his situation. He will be different and in his own way be better.
His major essays—for example, those collected in Notes of a Native Son—show the extent to which he is able to be different and in his own way better. Most of them were written, as other such pieces generally are, for the magazines, some obviously on assignment. And their subjects—a book, a person, a locale, an encounter—are the inevitable subjects of magazine essays. But Baldwin’s way with them is far from inevitable. To apply criticism “in depth” to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, for him, to illuminate not only a book, an author, an age, but a whole strain in a country’s culture. Similarly with those routine themes, the Paris expatriate and Life With Father, which he treats in “Equal In Paris” and the title piece of Notes of a Native Son, and which he wholly transfigures. Of course the transfiguring process in Baldwin’s essays owes something to the fact that the point of view is a Negro’s, an outsider’s, just as the satire of American manners in Lolita and Morte d’Urban depends on their being written from the angle of, respectively, a foreign-born creep and a Catholic priest. But Baldwin’s point of view in his essays is not merely that of the generic Negro. It is, as I have said, that of a highly stylized Negro, a role which he plays with an artful and zestful consistency and which he expresses in a language distinguished by clarity, brevity, and a certain formal elegance. He is in love, for example, with syntax, with sentences that mount through clearly articulated stages to a resounding and clarifying climax and then gracefully subside. For instance this one, from The Fire Next Time:
Girls, only slightly older than I was, who sang in the choir or taught Sunday school, the children of holy parents, underwent, before my eyes, their incredible metamorphosis, of which the most bewildering aspect was not their budding breasts or their rounding behinds but something deeper and more subtle, in their eyes, their heat, their odor, and the inflection of their voices.
Nobody else in democratic America writes sentences like this anymore. It suggests the ideal prose of an ideal literary community, some aristocratic France of one’s dreams. This former Harlem boy has undergone his own incredible metamorphosis.
His latest book, The Fire Next Time, differs in important ways from his earlier work in the essay. Its subjects are less concrete, less clearly defined; to a considerable extent he has exchanged prophecy for criticism, exhortation for analysis, and the results for his mind and style are in part disturbing. The Fire Next Time gets its title from a slave song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign,/No more water the fire next time.” But this small book with the incendiary title consists of two independent essays, both in the form of letters. One is a brief affair entitled “My Dungeon Shook” and addressed to “My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” The ominous promise of this title is fulfilled in the text. Between the hundred-year-old anniversary and the fifteen-year-old nephew the disparity is too great even for a writer of Baldwin’s rhetorical powers. The essay reads like some specimen of “public speech” as practiced by MacLeish or Norman Corwin. It is not good Baldwin.
The other, much longer, much more significant essay appeared first in a pre-Christmas number of The New Yorker, where it made, understandably, a sensation. It is called “Down At the Cross; Letter From a Region of My Mind.” The subtitle should be noted. Evidently the essay is to be taken as only a partial or provisional declaration on Baldwin’s part, a single piece of his mind. Much of it, however, requires no such appeal for caution on the reader’s part. Much of it is unexceptionably first-rate. For example, the reminiscences of the writer’s boyhood, which form the lengthy introduction. Other of Baldwin’s writings have made us familiar with certain aspects of his Harlem past. Here he concentrates on quite different things: the boy’s increasing awareness of the abysmally narrow world of choice he inhabits as a Negro, his attempt to escape a criminal existence by undergoing a religious conversion and becoming at fifteen a revivalist preacher, his discovery that he must learn to “inspire fear” if he hopes to survive the fear inspired in him by “the man”—the white man.
In these pages we come close to understanding why he eventually assumed his rather specialized literary role. It seems to have grown naturally out of his experience of New York City. As distinct from a rural or small-town Negro boy, who is early and firmly taught his place, young Baldwin knew the treacherous fluidity and anonymity of the metropolis, where hidden taboos and unpredictable animosities lay in wait for him and a trip to the 42nd Street Library could be a grim adventure. All this part of the book is perfect; and when Baldwin finally gets to what is his ostensible subject, the Black Muslims or Nation of Islam movement, he is very good too. As good, that is, as possible considering that his relations with the movement seem to have been slight. He once shared a television program with Malcolm X, “the movement’s second-in-command,” and he paid a brief and inconclusive visit to the first-in-command, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and his entourage at the party’s headquarters in Chicago. (Muhammad ranks as a prophet; to him the Black Muslim doctrines were “revealed by Allah Himself.”) Baldwin reports the Chicago encounter in charming detail and with what looks like complete honesty. On his leaving the party’s rather grand quarters, the leader insisted on providing him with a car and driver to protect him “from the white devils until he gets wherever it is he is going.” Baldwin accepted, he tells us, adding wryly: “I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town.”
He offers some data on the Black Muslim movement, its aims and finances. But he did a minimum of homework here. Had he done more he might at least have provided a solid base for the speculative fireworks the book abounds in. To cope thoroughly with the fireworks in short space, or perhaps any space, seems impossible. Ideas shoot from the book’s pages as the sparks fly upward, in bewildering quantity and at random. I don’t mean that it is all dazzle. On the cruel paradoxes of the Negro’s life, the failures of Christianity, the relations of Negro and Jew, Baldwin is often superb. But a lot of damage is done to his argument by his indiscriminate raids on Freud, Lawrence, Sartre, Genet, and other psychologists, metaphysicians and melodramatists. Still more damage is done by his refusal to draw on anyone so humble as Martin Luther King and his fellow-practitioners of non-violent struggle.
For example: “White Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.” But suppose one or two white Americans are not intimidated. Suppose someone coolly asks what it means to “believe in death.” Again: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Since you have no other, yes; and the better-disposed firemen will welcome your assistance. Again: “A vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white.” You exaggerate the white man’s consciousness of the Negro. Again: “The real reason that non-violence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes…is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened.” Of course they don’t, especially their lives. Moreover, this imputing of “real reasons” for the behavior of entire populations is self-defeating, to put it mildly. One last quotation, this time a regular apocalypse:
In order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.
Since whole cultures have never been known to “discard nearly all their assumptions” and yet remain intact, this amounts to saying that any essential improvement in Negro-white relations, and thus in the quality of American life, is unlikely.
So much for the fireworks. What damage, as I called it, do they do to the writer and his cause—which is also the concern of plenty of others? When Baldwin replaces criticism with prophecy, he manifestly weakens his grasp of his role, his style, and his great theme itself. And to what end? Who is likely to be moved by such arguments, unless it is the more literate Black Muslims, whose program Baldwin specifically rejects as both vindictive and unworkable. And with the situation as it is in Mississippi and elsewhere—dangerous, that is, to the Negro struggle and the whole social order—is not a writer of Baldwin’s standing obliged to submit his assertions to some kind of pragmatic test, some process whereby their truth or untruth will be gauged according to their social utility? He writes: “The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” I should think that the anti-Negro extremists were even better placed than the Negroes to precipitate chaos, or at least to cause a lot of trouble; and it is unclear to me how The Fire Next Time, in its madder moments, can do nothing except inflame the former and confuse the latter. Assuming that a book can do anything to either.
by Calder Willingham
by Calder Willingham
Occasion for Loving
by Nadine Gordimer
by Nadine Gordimer
by John A. Williams
Farrar, Straus, $4.50
by John A. Williams
Farrar, Straus, $4.50
Calder Willingham has always been a spellbinder, and in his sixth novel, Eternal Fire, he is absolutely shameless about it. He has always been a knowing sort of fellow, too. He knows how thing work, how people talk, he knows the insides and outsides and the undersides. You won’t catch him up anywhere.
But, if there is one thing he knows best of all, it is his reader. Oh, the shameless tricks he plays on that reader’s nerves! Such cliffs, believe me, have not for years been hung from. All the way between the first page and, literally, the last page of this long novel the story races on cheerfully, dreadfully, from foreboding to disaster to foreboding. And because of this knowing way about things that Calder Willingham has, the reader does not have to forgive, as we usually have to for the sake of excitement and surprise, quantities of false morality and real ignorance. The novel is melodrama, but we are not required to transform ourselves either into schoolgirls or sadists to enjoy it. The novel is something of a fairy tale, too, but once we have accepted that premise, we find, I believe, that to our most instructed consciousness the surprises are truly surprising, the depravities of the villain truly outrageous, the hearts of the innocent as we feel their beats here are as the hearts of little birds caught in rough hands.
In addition to being a fairy tale, Eternal Fire is all the Southern novels there are, done up in one master recipe—Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Light in August, and yes, even a little lick of that lollipop, To Kill a Mockingbird. The setting is that familiar Southern small town, the time, the nostalgic days of the thirties,. The heroine is the town Cinderella, Laurie Mae Lytle: young, poor, beautiful, sweet. The Prince is Randolph Sudderland Shepherdson III, young, rich, handsome, sweet. these two are about to marry, imagining that their only problems are a little opposition from the Prince’s guardian, and the stirrings of passion that trouble their old-fashioned innocence. But the wicked Judge is bringing into action against them all the forces of evil, in the person of Harry Diadem. This sublimely wicked young man, who was brought up in that mean Tennessee orphanage with Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, has the body of a Greek statue, the eyebrows of Mephistopeles, and the abilities as a seducer that would have made Don Juan, had he heard of them, ashamed to send off a valentine after that. To defend Cinderella and the Prince there are only their own two hearts and Cinderella’s pet dwarf, feeble-minded but in a pinch as strong as King Kong. Theft, blackmail, incest, suicide, and murder ensue, complete with a classic double-double-crossing trial scene.
It is all very grand, struggle upon struggle; good and evil become powerfully entangled with one another. Shameless as Calder Willingham may be, though, I do not like to think that he has not somewhere drawn the line. I believe he calls it quits just on the safe side of allegory. He seems much too good-humored and sensible to go over that edge. Furthermore, although the plot turns on questions of color, and there are Negroes and racists here embroiled, the theme of black man and white man is not of much real moment in Eternal Fire. One could make a moral from it if he wished, a version of the current much-moralized involvement of the black man, sex, and the white man’s failed instinct. But, again, basically Calder Willingham is too good-humored to do more than let this be there in the book as one more of the things he knows so well and brings so gleefully to life in his story.
The black man in the white man’s society is of very much moment in Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving. This, her sixth book of fiction, takes place like most of her work in her country of South Africa. The story concerns two couples of the Johannesburg intellectual class and a black South African artist. Jessie and Tom Stilwell supplement his university pay by boarding in their big old house the young newly-married Boaz Davis and his Ann. Boaz has lost interest in composing and is trying to collect the ancient tribal music of Africa before it disappears. Ann is an adventurous young lady who has to try everything once. After the fashion of their kind in Johannesburg, these four are much in the company of Africans.
The African in the story is Gideon Shibalo. He has been awarded a fellowship to study painting in Rome, his government has denied him a passport, he is in a slump over it. Ann tries a love affair with him. They all accept this, even the husband, on high sexual and racial principles. The affair gets serious and the lovers plan to run off together. That is the story.
In the telling, the story is all quiet intelligence and art. It is seen chiefly through the eyes of Jessie Stilwell, a good-willed, middle-class intelligent woman. She lives the familiar life of the more-or-less successful and more-or-less worthily occupied middle class, the life which seems somehow to have gone hollow the world over today. Jessie’s life is hollow until she gets some curious fulfillment from her relation to the love of Ann and Gideon.
The story itself moves rather dully until the black man appears, although everything is well told and beautifully understood. Author and narrator are absolutely full of observations and reflective generalizations, good ones, too. (Some little thing one day reassures Jessie when she has been upset: “It had the same effect on her as the sight of one’s feet in familiar shoes may have when one sits down rather drunk, among the press at a party.”) Nadine Gordimer is very intelligent. These wise statements connect her characters—and they aren’t really very vivid, these people—with humanity. But they also convey a certain weariness as of foregone actions and feelings.
Without the drama of Johannesburg white-and-black behind it, this could be only another chronicle of the suburbs. As the story itself needs Gideon, the people in the story need him. The Stilwells and Davises, emancipated and intelligent, are dead on their feet. Family love is not enough. Jessie Stilwell, who knows too much about sexual love to believe in it very much—as do all the people in this story—yet gets caught up in it. And for its sake the whole show must go on, applecart and all. The whole show doesn’t go, of course, and the system destroys the love of Ann and Gideon.
Is this the final worst thing about it, worse than the black children starving so the white masters may dine well? Yet did not the system create this occasion for loving, did it not, this system, at the same time make Mrs. Stilwell’s heart empty? We know that for the most intense kinds of love, the occasion must be something like that which Johannesburg affords. Where love is most utterly forbidden it is most, at every moment, a possibility. In its quiet and thoughtful way, Occasion for Loving moves among the troubling depths of these questions. If it has a conclusion, it is the author’s own statement that one day her heroine will be out blowing up power stations. No more questions, then, when the blood bath comes.
John A. William’s Sissie is a good novel about an American Negro family. This is a tendentious statement in several ways. First, I think one of the reasons the novel is good is that it is about Negroes: in novels, subject matter counts. We read novels partly to confirm or to extend our own experience. And all of us need desperately to extend our knowledge of the life of American Negroes. Naturally, I do not exclude Negroes when I say “us.”
Second, I assume that this knowledge can be extended by a novel like Sissie. There are those who would contend that competent documents in the conventional forms of modern fiction cannot serve to discover or to convey this experience. They say this experience is unique and demands unique forms, developed like jazz, from Negro culture itself. Perhaps these forms may indeed be developed. But I would hope that the experience, though extreme, is human and can be made available to other human beings in the form that has, for modern Western society, worked best.
The experience recorded in Sissie is archetypal, that of the Negro family in the North cruelly hurt by American society. This society condemns most Negroes to the worst consequences of its reckless refusal to share among its members the fantastic riches they produce. For many of them this means, simply, death. Children die of this deprivation. The survivors are scarred, by the brutal struggle to live, by the guilt of survival, by the lunatic sadism of the American racial system. Sissie shows this directly and clearly. It is not sentimental and it is not apocalyptic. It records the facts with honesty, modesty, and craft. This novel will remain as one of the permanent records of the deadly shame of the America we live in. No solution. The power stations here, as in the Union of South Africa, remain intact.