The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985.
by James Baldwin.
St. Martin's. 704 pp. $29.95.
“The failure of the protest novel,” James Baldwin wrote in 1949, “lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” It was around this time that American critics first began to speak of Baldwin as a writer with the sensibility and detachment of a potentially first-rate artist; with the 1953 publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain, a beautifully written first novel about Harlem life, he proved them correct.
That book, together with the best of his early essays for COMMENTARY and Partisan Review, quickly gave James Baldwin a well-deserved reputation as an outstandingly gifted writer—and the only black writer in America capable of staying out of what Lionel Trilling called in another connection “the bloody crossroads” between literary art and politics. Soon his name began to appear regularly in middlebrow magazines like Harper's and the New Yorker.
But Baldwin's qualifications for playing the “Great Black Hope,” as he later characterized his role, began to look a little more problematic with each passing year. He had, after all, abandoned Harlem for Paris with what looked suspiciously like enthusiasm. His ornate prose style reminded readers more of Henry James than of Richard Wright. And he was, though he did not advertise it at first, a homosexual. None of this seemed to have much to do with the kinds of things people like Martin Luther King, on the one hand, or Malcolm X, on the other hand, were saying in public. Younger and more militant blacks took elaborate pains to distance themselves from Baldwin; Eldridge Cleaver, in Soul on Ice, went so far as to accuse Baldwin of harboring a “shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites.”
Eventually, perhaps in response to such criticism, the tone of Baldwin's work began to take on a raw, politicized stridency which had not previously been a part of his literary equipment. This stridency fatally compromised his standing as a writer of fiction; Another Country was the last of his novels to be taken at all seriously by the critics (and by no means all of them). But Baldwin's essays, early and late, have somehow remained impervious to revaluation—which makes it all the more useful to have this new volume of his “collected nonfiction.”
The Price of the Ticket contains, complete and unabridged, Notes of a Native Son; Nobody Knows My Name; The Fire Next Time; Nothing Personal; The Devil Finds Work; No Name in the Street; and a couple of dozen previously uncollected articles of largely exiguous interest. The only important omissions are the autobiographical preface to Notes of a Native Son and Baldwin's latest book, an essay on the Atlanta child murders called The Evidence of Things Not Seen.1 It is a fat omnibus, clearly a gesture to posterity, and an attempt to consolidate Baldwin's shaky literary reputation. Times and tastes have changed profoundly since Baldwin published his first important essay in COMMENTARY forty-odd years ago, and so one inevitably wonders: does he still sound like a major writer? Is the literary value of his work compromised by his consuming obsession with race? Is his message as compelling as ever—or simply irrelevant?
Baldwin's first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955), was received with more or less uncritical admiration (in a typical comment Alfred Kazin wrote: “Notes of a Native Son . . . is the work of an original literary talent who operates with as much power in the essay form as I've ever seen”). But Notes of a Native Son is likely to strike today's reader as uneven in a way that Baldwin's first novel, for all its flaws, is not. Baldwin spends the whole first part of the book searching for the right things to write about and the right tone in which to write about them. Though he is reasonably competent at it, straight reportage obviously does not become him; as for his initial attempts at literary criticism, these come out sounding hopelessly stilted.
What finally pulled Baldwin's nonfiction writing up to the level of the best parts of Go Tell It on the Mountain was his discovery, in a 1953 essay (also collected in Notes of a Native Son), “Stranger in the Village,” of the great good pronoun of his literary destiny: the concrete, liberating “I” which, as with Proust's “Marcel,” would bring his idiosyncratic style into the sharpest focus. In this piece Baldwin finally learned to do in his writing what, as a budding young preacher in Harlem, he must have heard about in the cradle: to begin with anecdote and end in generalization:
From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came. I was told before arriving that I would probably be a “sight” for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland, and also that city people are always something of a “sight” outside the city. It did not occur to me—possibly because I am an American—that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro.
With the simple but pregnant discovery of autobiography as a vehicle for social criticism, Baldwin had at last struck a workable balance between the two most characteristic aspects of his artistic personality, the fiery Harlem preacher and the urbane Parisian memoirist. In the 1955 essays “Equal in Paris” and “Notes of a Native Son,” both written in the first person, it is the latter aspect which dominates; these two pieces, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, are devoid of an overtly political content, and the author's angry message emerges through stylish dramatized narrative rather than vague sermonizing:
My friend stayed outside the restaurant long enough to misdirect my pursuers and the police, who arrived, he told me, at once. I do not know what I said to him when he came to my room that night. I could not have said much. I felt, in the oddest, most awful way, that I had somehow betrayed him. . . . I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for one imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.
“Equal in Paris” and “Notes of a Native Son” come close to justifying every word of praise ever uttered about Notes of a Native Son. On the other hand, Baldwin's second collection, Nobody Knows My Name, which also received high praise, contains nothing that comes anywhere near matching the remarkable quality of those two essays. Baldwin largely restricts himself here to reportage about the desperate condition of Southern blacks; while these articles are, as reportage, far more professional than their earlier counterparts in Notes of a Native Son, their literary value is strictly that of good celebrity journalism. And when Baldwin does use explicitly autobiographical material, the results, particularly in “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” are diminished by a distressing new quality: an extreme, even mannered, self-consciousness.
Yet whatever may have been wrong with Nobody Knows My Name, readers of the November 17, 1962 New Yorker who opened their copies in order to read a report by James Baldwin on the Black Muslims called “Letter from a Region in My Mind” suddenly found in their hands the literary equivalent of a pinless grenade. The opening paragraph of this extraordinary essay, which quickly found its way between hard covers as The Fire Next Time, was riveting:
I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis. I use the word “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell. And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one. I supposed Him to exist only within the walls of a church—in fact, of our church—and I also supposed that God and safety were synonymous. . . .
Baldwin, describing the religion of his youth with incomparable vividness, concludes in The Fire Next Time that it is no longer sufficient. In light of the long history of racism, “whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being . . . must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church.” He interprets the rise of the Black Muslims, who preach that Allah is black and the white man the devil, as the predictable outcome of the moral decadence of Christianity, though he rejects the simple-minded demonology and racial separatism of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, he finds in it rough justice for the sins of the white man. The situation, however, is not altogether hopeless:
If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the Fire next time!”
The Fire Next Time is not without its stylistic miscalculations, the worst of which is “My Dungeon Shook,” a four-page preface bearing the subtitle “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and through whose resolute platitudes one slogs with dismay. But Baldwin's writing in the rest of The Fire Next Time is generally quite marvelous. It is, in fact, so good that something like an act of will is needed to ask the key question: what is being said here? What is being recommended?
“I was always exasperated by his notions of society, politics, and history,” James Baldwin once said of Richard Wright, “for they seemed to me to be utterly fanciful.” These harsh words are even more readily applicable to Baldwin himself, who is in a very real sense a man with neither politics nor philosophy. The political impact of his best work was previously achieved through implication alone; The Fire Next Time reveals that his specific responses to the condition of blacks in America are wholly emotional. F.W. Dupee was one of the few critics who attempted to find the substance in Baldwin's gorgeously inflammatory prose, and his essay on The Fire Next Time clearly demonstrates the extent to which the book's “message” can be reduced to a string of meaningless generalzations:
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: “The real reason that nonviolence 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.
Despite its still formidable reputation as a central document in the struggle for equality, The Fire Next Time turns out to have little of interest to say about the question of racial politics. Its impact comes solely from the fact that it is so exquisitely written. And Baldwin's timing was immaculate. His passionate prophecies of impending doom scorched the collective consciousness of middle-class Americans in a way that no amount of sober analysis could have rivaled.
But The Fire Next Time was the last point at which the curve of James Baldwin's career intersected with the Zeitgeist of the Great Society. Public black rhetoric came to be dominated, just as Baldwin had predicted it would, by loveless images of violence. And Baldwin's response to this change was, to say the least, disheartening.
Though The Fire Next Time was full of the language of extremism, its message was not yet one of racial hate. That was still to come. In No Name in the Street, his 1972 sequel to The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's striking prose style, that arresting amalgam of Henry James and the Old Testament, remained largely intact. But the ends to which he now directed this style were another matter altogether. For even the most casual reading of No Name in the Street revealed that the literary control manifested in The Fire Next Time had now been coarsened by aimless, free-floating political hysteria.
The best and worst of this disturbing book can be found in a single brilliantly staged scene which is just fantastic enough to be true. Baldwin, shortly after Martin Luther King's assassination, tells the columnist Leonard Lyons that he will never again be able to wear the suit he wore to the King funeral; Lyons duly publishes the item. A few weeks later, Baldwin receives a call from the man who was his best friend in junior high school and whom he has not seen since. “He could not afford to have suits in his closet which he didn't wear,” Baldwin explains, “he couldn't afford my elegant despair. Martin was dead, but he was living, he needed a suit, and—I was just his size.” An exchange is proposed: one used suit for one home-cooked dinner in Harlem. With cold and terrifying detachment Baldwin describes an evening in the “small, dark, unspeakably respectable, incredibly hard-won rooms” of his old friend, meticulously recording every agonizing detail of the mutual discomfort of old friends who have grown apart. And then the conversation turns to the war in Vietnam:
I told him that Americans had no business at all in Vietnam; and that black people certainly had no business there, aiding the slave master to enslave yet more millions of dark people, and also identifying themselves with the white American crimes. . . . It wasn't, I said, hard to understand why a black boy, standing, futureless, on the corner, would decide to join the Army, nor was it hard to decipher the slave master's reasons for hoping that he wouldn't live to come home, with a gun; but it wasn't necessary, after all, to defend it: to defend, that is, one's murder and one's murderers. “Wait a minute,” he said, “let me stand up and tell you what I think we're trying to do there.” “We?” I cried, “what motherfucking we? You stand up, motherfucker, and I'll kick you in the ass!”
After a career spent dancing in and out of “the bloody crossroads,” Baldwin had at last faltered. The lapse was to be permanent. Aside from The Devil Finds Work, an erratic and frequently embarrassing volume of autobiography masquerading as film criticism, he published only a handful of political essays after No Name in the Street. They are shocking in their abandonment of all pretense to literary detachment; in them Baldwin luxuriates in the foul rhetoric of zealotry that for more than a decade poisoned this country's political discourse:
Therefore, in a couple of days, blacks may be using the vote to outwit the Final Solution. Yes. The Final Solution. No black person can afford to forget that the history of this country is genocidal from where the buffalo once roamed to where our ancestors were slaughtered (from New Orleans to New York, from Birmingham to Boston) and to the Caribbean to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Saigon. Oh, yes, let freedom ring.
One hates to see such mindless fatuities (published originally in the Nation) under the byline of the man who wrote “Equal in Paris” and “Notes of a Native Son.”
It is impossible to read the second half of The Price of the Ticket without feeling an intense sadness at the literary tragedy it embodies. And it is equally difficult to read the rest of the book without coming to feel that of its seven hundred pages one would willingly, even gratefully, part with all but The Fire Next Time and a handful of shorter essays. To revisit James Baldwin's nonfiction is to understand the full extent to which the trivializing claims of radical politics undermined the artistic career of the man about whom Edmund Wilson once said: “He is not only one of the best Negro writers that we have ever had in this country, he is one of the best writers that we have.”
1 Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 125 pp., $11.95.