The New Republic
February 13, 1995
THE FIRE LAST TIME
By David Van Leer
THE FIRE LAST TIME
By David Van Leer
James Baldwin: A Biography
by David Leeming
(Knopf, 442 pp., $25)
James Baldwin has come to seem a minor writer. Despite a promising beginning in the 1950s with Go Tell It on the Mountain, his novel of religion and family life in Harlem, and the autobiographical essays of Notes of a Native Son, his attempts to adapt his intimate style to the more public tone of the 1960s satisfied neither radicals nor conservatives. And when in the 1970s Americans moved on to other topics, Baldwin seemed stuck in the past, recasting earlier apocalyptic warnings as elegiac lamentations over lost opportunities. Since his memorial service in 1987, black and gay critics have celebrated his historical importance as minority spokesman without saying much about the writings themselves.
The new biography by David Leeming is not likely to revive interest in Baldwin as author or cultural critic. For the most part Leeming sympathetically retells the traditional story of a promising writer betrayed by success. As a child, Baldwin was oppressed by Harlem poverty and the anti-white rage of his stepfather, David. After an adolescent retreat into evangelical preaching, Baldwin sought more lasting refuge in art, with the help of white friends such as his female teacher "Bill" Miller and an anonymous "racketeer" lover, and of black gay mentors such as the poet Countee Cullen and the painter Beauford Delaney.
His growing sense of his artistic vocation and of his homosexuality led him in his teens to distance himself from his community and church. Following an episode of racial discrimination while working near Princeton, and the death of his stepfather soon after, Baldwin made the decisive break, moving out of Harlem first to the bohemian community "downtown" in Greenwich Village, and in 1948 to the even greater permissiveness of Paris. During this period he began to associate with Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Marlon Brando, Jean-Paul Sartre--and to make a name for himself with book reviews and essays. Winning with Wright's help a number of grants, Baldwin retreated farther--to the mountain village of his Swiss lover Lucien Happersberger, the American writers' colonies at MacDowell and Yaddo, and elsewhere--to complete three books in as many years.
These books are stylistic tours de force, employing evangelical hyperbole, Jamesian stream-of-consciousness and Hemingwayesque understatement to portray the different ways in which individuals react to cultural oppression. In the visionary ending to Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), the protagonist leaves behind his family's racial hatred and the false consolation of religion to seek self-respect in the world at large. In the claustrophobic conclusion to Giovanni's Room (1956), the internalized homophobia of the bisexual narrator leads him to withdraw into himself, rejecting his straight fiancee and becoming morally complicit in the murder of his gay lover. Most important, the essays in Notes of a Native Son (1955) repeatedly call for the "American Negro" to "make peace with himself"--"to accept the fact that this dark and dangerous and unloved stranger [of black rage] is part of himself forever."
These early works hold individuals responsible for their fates. Reflecting on his search for a personal identity after leaving Harlem, Baldwin concluded, "It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I removed myself from the social forces which menaced me.... The question of who I was had at last become a personal question, and the answer was to be found in me." While seeking a producer for The Amen Corner, his play about Harlem evangelicalism, however, Baldwin became increasingly involved in group activity, and especially the American civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He met with Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael, supported core and sncc, interviewed Elijah Mohammed, debated William Buckley and most famously coordinated in 1963 an unsuccessful meeting on race between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and various celebrities, including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and Lorraine Hansberry.
Whatever the political effects of such activism, Baldwin's writing became more concerned with the conflicts between his personal identity as an artist and his group identity as a black American. The highly integrated, multiracial, ambisexual characters of Another Country (1962), Baldwin's long-awaited return to fiction, continued to seek social reform through individual self- fulfillment. But the essays in Nobody Knows My Name (1961) tended to see cultural differences as absolute and unbridgeable. Individuals were constrained by their group identities--whether William Faulkner's as "squire of Oxford," Ingmar Bergman's as "northern Protestant," Andre Gide's as "male homosexual" or Norman Mailer's as "white boy." And showing surprising sympathy for the authoritarianism of the Black Muslims, the brief paired essays of The Fire Next Time (1963) predicted the inevitability and imminence of racial violence.
These new works betrayed a dogmatism at odds with Baldwin's previous individualism and elegance. The strain was evident in his next work, the play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). Not only was the first production, by Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, plagued by infighting, which culminated in Strasberg's public dismissal of Baldwin's text as "confused." The prose of Baldwin's cumbersome script, based on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, felt obvious and unnuanced. Pared down from an original running time of five hours, the play seemed an exercise in white-bashing agit-prop. According to Philip Roth's dismissive review, it was merely soap opera for the Black Muslim nation.
After the mid-1960s, Baldwin was a figure in retreat. Established in the popular imagination as America's leading "authority" on the race question, he was eagerly quoted by journalists and sought out by undergraduates. But his writing had lost its focus and direction. His final novels suffered from the formlessness already detectable in Another Country, while his essay collections felt shrill and repetitive. Unable to finance his film script on Malcolm x or publish his final play, he lived in seclusion in Istanbul and later in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, preoccupied by a series of brief relations with younger men, and by the time-consuming attentions of fans and flatterers.
Leeming's cautious biography deviates little from this traditional account of Baldwin's career. Leeming was Baldwin's secretary during the Istanbul years, the dedicatee of one of the late novels, and with Baldwin in his final days. His closeness has afforded him new anecdotes, but no special insight into the pain of those declining years. Although more concerned with literary analysis than Baldwin's previous biographers have been, Leeming offers surprisingly bland readings of Baldwin's writing.
The most sensational aspect of this biography--Leeming's candor about Baldwin's sex life--is equally unilluminating. Leeming's meticulous enumeration of Baldwin's affairs with indistinguishable Arnolds, Roberts, Jeans and Joes quickly turns tedious, for he does not interpret this sexual material any more deeply than he reads the literary texts. Leeming doesn't try to understand what Baldwin saw in a string of sexual partners who, while not homosexual, were "sometimes willing to act homosexually"; he does not even explain what he thinks to be the difference between acting homosexual and being so. As a result Baldwin's sexuality seems even less important than it does in those accounts that repress it altogether. Faceless male lovers come and go, but Baldwin's significant ties are to those friends with whom he was not sexually intimate, a group in which Leeming conspicuously places himself.
There are three things wrong with Leeming's biography--apart from the fact that we've pretty much heard it all before. For the early years, about which Baldwin wrote most fully, Leeming accepts Baldwin's autobiographical accounts at face value. There is little attempt to distinguish between historical events and Baldwin's subsequent reshaping of them. For the later years, in which Baldwin's life may have gotten in the way of his writing, Leeming spends so much time establishing the facts that he never gets around to considering the literature. By offering no extended textual analysis, for example, Leeming makes it seem as if Blues for Mister Charlie failed as a work of art because Baldwin had a crush on his leading actor. And on the bigger question of whether art and politics are inevitably at odds, Leeming takes no position one way or the other.
Leeming's work disappoints as literary biography because it subordinates the literature to the biography. In so doing, however, Leeming only reflects popular opinion. After the 1970s, one did not so much read Baldwin as know "Jimmy"--the senior statesman, raconteur and celebrity to be tracked down in not-so-remote corners of Europe and Massachusetts. This personalization has increased with time. Since his death eight years ago, no fewer than three full-length biographies have appeared, along with numerous shorter reminiscences. During the same period there have been no new editions of his work (although Vintage is in the process of issuing one), his collected essays have never become available in paperback, and considerable work remains unpublished. At this point we have to ask why we are so interested in Jimmy's personality and so indifferent to Baldwin's works.
Part of the problem is shortsightedness. When Baldwin first appeared, he was hailed as one of the best contemporary black writers. Critics have not subsequently revised that pigeonholing to see him as one of his generation's finest writers, regardless of color. Yet our problem with Baldwin involves less what we mean by calling him a "black writer" than what he meant by calling himself one. In accepting his role as a "minority" writer, Baldwin seemed to contradict his own racial politics. For the most part Baldwin was critical of any attempt to divide black from white. As he said in an early critical essay on Uncle Tom's Cabin, "it must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality."
In his belief that the races were bound together, he dismissed as ahistorical any project to unite blacks across cultures. Responding negatively to the characterization of racial experience merely as victimization, he rejected the pan-Africanism of Aime Cesaire. He had not raised the central tremendous question, which was, simply: What had this colonial experience made of [blacks] and what were they now to do with it?... Cesaire's speech left out of account one of the great effects of the colonial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself.
Sometimes Baldwin could be upbeat about the effects of colonialism; he concluded in Notes of a Native Son that "the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement." But even in his less sanguine moments he insisted that blacks "were all, now, whether they liked it or not, related to Europe, stained by European visions and standards, and their relation to themselves, and to each other, and to their past had changed."
Baldwin's skepticism about racial dichotomies (and Afrocentricity) appealed to the liberal imagination. It seemed to promote assimilation and respect the good intentions of individuals. Such appearances were misleading. Baldwin was willing to talk broadly about an integrated society and imply that we were all in the boat of culture together. But such togetherness did not imply that different groups had the same problems or even the same goals. For Baldwin, assimilation reinforced white America's racist sense of possessing an intrinsic value that minorities need and want. His insistence that blacks save themselves did not exonerate white society of racism.
True integration, far from offering blacks access to a culture they do not admire, revises the standards of both cultures. Such transformation is harder for whites to accept than blacks. If at first Baldwin acted as a "native" informant about black culture, he later became more concerned with exposing white self-ignorance. As he says in The Fire Next Time, "Whatever white people do not know about black people reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves." Such ignorance made white culture both unassimilable and unappealing: "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?" Baldwin did not condone racial hatred, but neither would he deny its existence.
Baldwin's resistance to white assimilation was most central where it was least apparent--in his elegant prose. Baldwin's style was regularly criticized. Mailer's complaint that Baldwin was too accommodating--that he never would say "you" to the reader--probably says more about Mailer than about Baldwin. As Baldwin politely reminded Mailer, it marked middle-class anxiety about a "black boy's" immediate access to a poetic street language that the "white negro" could only imitate. More revealing were Langston Hughes's objections that Baldwin's prose was both too white and too black. Hughes dismissed Go Tell It on the Mountain as "a low-down book in a velvet bag" but later complained: "Hey Jimmy:/Ain't you heard?/race and art/Are far apart."
Resenting Baldwin's claim that his poetry was insufficiently political, Hughes countered that Baldwin's polemics were aesthetically crude. In so doing Hughes at least recognized that Baldwin aspired to a uniquely black style. Race and art might be far apart, but Baldwin's prose, like Hughes's, sought to link them. Unlike Ralph Ellison, whose literary models include Emerson, Melville and other writers of the high American canon, Baldwin drew primarily on black idioms--of the spiritual, evangelical preaching and jazz. His linguistic imitations of sermons and music were comparable to those of his white contemporaries, most notably Mailer and the Beats. But he was more successful at reproducing those rhythms. And his political goal was different from theirs. White writers wished to dissociate themselves from a mainstream tradition they felt had become depleted. Baldwin wished his tradition to stand on its own as another mainstream.
It is in terms of his resistance to assimilation that we must understand the other striking characteristic of his work, his use of homosexuality. Baldwin did not consider sexuality the same kind of problem as race. Although he actively campaigned for civil rights, he was less involved in gay liberation. Homophobia was real, but it was not for him so central to the American character as racism. One was not homosexual to the same degree that one was black. As he often said, "homosexual" might be a verb--something one did--but it was not a noun--something one was at every moment of one's life.
Baldwin's sense that homosexuality was not "like" ethnicity kept him from wholeheartedly supporting gay politics. Yet he did use his sexual difference more generally to prevent the mainstream from too easily coopting him. Giovanni's Room, his second novel, most shocked readers for being uninterested in shocking them. Refusing the ghetto setting expected of the African American writer, Baldwin told instead the quintessentially Hemingwayesque story of white expatriates in Paris. The book has puzzled both gay readers, who find its depiction of the homosexual subculture too judgmental, and mainstream critics, who find it not judgmental enough. But in fact the book exists precisely to deny that minority fiction pleads a case or indeed that it fits any predetermined mold. Although the book does reflect one aspect of Baldwin's identity, it is the last kind of story we'd expect from the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Such a redefinition of his authorial identity was not so much a lesson for the black community. It was directed more immediately at his white readers, who, having settled that Baldwin was a "Negro writer," needed a certain kind of book from him. Attacking traditional dichotomies, Baldwin asked his readers to think about the ways in which the opposite of white might not be "black" but "gay." After the all-white Giovanni's Room, readers have to consider carefully what they mean by "black fiction." Baldwin understood his audience well: his white American sponsors, "as a favor to me," refused at first to publish the novel.
Baldwin is undeniably a minor writer, but not through any lack of talent: he stands among the very best of his generation. He is "minor" because he chose to write as a minority--to make his audiences constantly aware of the differences between them and him. Not a spokesperson for any of his many identities, Baldwin told difficult truths to the black, gay and white American communities to teach them of their interdependence. In Just Above My Head, Baldwin's last novel and one of the few that depicts sexual relations between black men, the straight black narrator speaks to his son about his brother's homosexuality. "You want the truth, I'm trying to tell you the truth--anyway, let me tell you, baby, I'm proud of my brother, your uncle, and I'll be proud of him until the day I die. You should be, too. Whatever the
your uncle was, and he was a whole lot of things, he was nobody's faggot."
This final phrase has proved particularly resonant, and not only for gay African Americans seeking to end the silence surrounding their existence. It marks more generally Baldwin's belief that minority identity can only be harmful when one internalizes as self-hatred other peoples' fears of difference. In "nobody knows my name," Baldwin sought merely to register his cultural invisibility. In "nobody's faggot," he implied more powerfully that all labels work to hold in intellectual bondage groups that no longer can be dominated physically. Like his final hero, Baldwin is nobody's faggot because he is nobody's. Biography attempts to repossess Baldwin--to reduce him to the sociable "Jimmy," everyone's favorite host and prophet. But, in the diversity of his writing and the truculence of his prose, he resists all attempts to make him "ours."
David Van Leer is professor of English at University of California, Davis, and the author of The Queening of America, forthcoming from Routledge.