Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Reading Baldwin, 1

James Baldwin: Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)
Library of America no. 97 (ed. Toni Morrison),  pp. 1-215
Giovanni’s Room (1956)
op. cit., pp. 217-360
ISBN: 978-1-88301151

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, and public intellectual particularly active from the 1950s until his death. Black, gay, and (much of the time) expatriate, his relationship to the Civil Rights Movement was complex. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI accumulated over 1800 pages of documents in his file; he met with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy; he appeared prominently at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963; but — this is my speculation — he saw observation of the social condition, let alone analysis and action, as complex and nuanced.

I come to that conclusion rashly, not having read Baldwin’s essays. Not having read Baldwin at all, in fact, though his first two novels had appeared, to considerable discussion, before I graduated with a degree in English Literature. Baldwin had not been assigned in any of my classes, and I didn’t know of his importance.

What with these times I’ve decided to read him, complete and chronologically, depending on the Library of America for my sources. After completing the primary sources I may turn to criticism and biography: his was clearly an interesting life as well as an important one.

Baldwin took ten years to write his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain. The result is powerful, clear, and expressive in content; fascinating, balanced, and intelligent in structure. It is a bildungsroman, nearly, but stops just short of the expected final intellectual awakening of John Grimes, the central character — Baldwin leaves it to the reader to extrapolate the catastrophe that will precipitate, a year or two after the narrative’s conclusion.

I won’t describe the plot: you’ve read the book, or if not you can find plenty of outlines on the internet. It involves a family: stern father, taken-for-granted mother, John (sired by a different father, though he may not know it), younger brother Roy, two younger sisters; and aunt Florence, the father’s older sister, who offers an outside, non-Christian view of the family’s failings.

The father is a Pentecostal preacher to his own storefront Harlem church, and the relentless, remorseless cruelty of the Old Testament permeates the novel. “Race,” in the usual sense, is rarely an issue; the preacher has no use for whites, and John has to keep his own childhood experiences with kind white adults — teacher, librarian — to himself, not seeing a way to share them.

The book’s narrative seems to take place in one long day, John’s fourteenth birthday, but the crushing events of the day are informed by other, similarly crushing events in the distant past — and by implications of catastrophes waiting in the future. I’m sure Baldwin must have sketched out the story chronologically, then worked on methods of incorporating flashbacks, and even flash-forwards within the flashbacks, to slow the pace, build the tension, and concentrate the power of his writing.

It is inconceivable that Baldwin could have written Go Tell It On the Mountain without knowing the novels of Henry James, without knowing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I see Gertrude Stein’s novella Melanctha behind Baldwin, too; and wonder about his view of Faulkner — I’ll find out when I get to Baldwin’s essays. I even wonder if I shouldn’t reread Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise soon, to see what it has to say to Go Tell It On the Mountain. I don’t mean by this that Baldwin’s novel is derivative: it is not. It is fully achieved. The ten years were well spent.

• • •

Giovanni’s Room is a completely different book. I think of Fitzgerald again, but this time of Gatsby; the book has that precision, clarity, and efficiency. And I think of Camus and L’Etranger: the book has that blinding moral force, that nearly physical impact.

We are in the south of France, apparently just after the end of World War II. The central character, who narrates the action, is a fair-haired American man, clearing out his house after his fiancee’s sudden departure, no clear future in store unless it’s a final descent into the transient rootless Paris scene whose revelation precipitated his girl’s decision.

For if Go Tell It On the Mountain is a novel centered on Pentecostalism, Giovanni’s Room centers on (male) homosexuality. If whites are nearly absent from Go Tell It On the Mountain, blacks are not to be found in Giovanni’s Room. Most of the action is in Paris, involving characters and settings Proust’s Baron de Charlus would recognize instantly, though regretting the fall of social graces between fin-de-siècle and Libération. Baldwin writes of a world of casual cruising, from which love appears to blossom.

And if Go Tell It On the Mountain suggests I reread Fitzgerald, Giovanni’s Room spurs me (!) to get back to the Proust project, lapsed a year ago midpoint — precisely in Charlus’ company.

Just as some critics have suggested that John’s religious crisis, in Go Tell It On the Mountain, is code for his growing awareness of his homosexuality, others see the narrator’s bisexuality in Giovanni’s Room as standing for the conflict between black and white (or mixed) society. (Both novels are clearly autobiographical to an extent.) 

Doesn’t matter to me if some readers see and pause over this possibility, or even if someone persuades me, in future reading, that Baldwin had this in mind. Such readings reveal the riches of nuance, fed by the experiences determining the postures of such readers. Let a hundred flowers bloom. I will never be able to read Baldwin as anyone but an old straight white man: but I am reading him, so far, with great appreciation and gratitude for his knowledge, his eloquence, his artistry, and his humanity.