Multifaceted James Baldwin

Shortly before James Baldwin’s death in December 1987, Quincy Troupe travelled to his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, near Nice, to interview him. The result, first printed in James Baldwin: The legacy (1989) and now reissued as part of Melville House’s “Last Interview” series – together with previously published interviews with Baldwin by Julian Lester (from the New York Times Book Review, 1984), Richard Goldstein (the Village Voice, 1984), and the transcript of a 1961 radio conversation with Studs Terkel in Chicago – is characteristically wide-ranging. In spite of Baldwin’s deteriorating health, Troupe caught him at his articulate, acerbic, ardent best. The conversation touches on subjects as diverse as Norman Mailer’s decision “to be a celebrity” rather than a writer, Baldwin’s refusal “to wash myself clean for the American literary academy”, the need to do “great violence to the assumptions on which [American] vocabulary is based”, and the “certain distinctive juju” that Troupe felt Baldwin and Miles Davis shared (Troupe was at the time co-writing Miles: The autobiography, 1990).

In the course of the discussion, Baldwin remarks: “It’s difficult to be a legend. It’s hard for me to recognize me”. Few writers have so unequivocally resisted the terms under which they have been defined. “I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only”, Baldwin emphasized to Troupe, reiterating, in what were to be his final weeks, views held since his Harlem childhood, when he ensured that street thugs or cops who wanted to beat him up would have to do it “every single day”, confident that “one of us would get tired first . . . . I knew it wouldn’t be me”. Having learned, following his brief dalliance with the political Left in the 1940s and early 50s, that he was “impossible to indoctrinate”, Baldwin asserted to Terkel in 1961, “you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not its idea of you”. His reliance on his “own moral centre” and refusal to accept labels remained, with few exceptions, steadfast – although, as he acknowledged to Margaret Mead (A Rap on Race, 1971), “it’s a curious way to find your identity, labelling yourself by labelling all the things that you’re not”. Baldwin’s late acknowledgement of the blurred boundaries between his “legend” and himself indicates the precarious complexity of his “maverick” approach to life, and of his need to navigate between his role as writer and, in his words, as “public witness to the situation of black people”.

Douglas Field’s All Those Strangers, Matt Brim’s James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination, and Michele Elam’s Cambridge Companion all wrestle with this precariousness and complexity, following Baldwin’s lead in their fluidity of approach, as each attempts to come to terms with their subject’s ostensibly divided self. Elam views him as “a peerless man unmoored”, the security of his place within the canon hampered by “his inability to be comfortably housed in the traditional narrative tropes and aesthetic conventions”. The Companion therefore “seeks that fuller rendering . . . one that captures his many rich contradictions”, and addresses Baldwin’s work in relation to his social and political contexts, as well as examining lesser-studied aspects of his oeuvre, including his collaborations, his poetry, and – best of all – his humour. Brim, too, views Baldwin as “a site of multiple subjectivities”, and asks “which Baldwin are we reading?”, acknowledging that “the response that we should include all of them in our analysis raises new and thornier questions”. Field’s All Those Strangers, a compellingly unorthodox biography that sits somewhere between literary criticism and memoir, comes closest to answering Brim’s question. Field aims “to encourage an ongoing examination of [Baldwin’s] complexity”, choosing not “to celebrate or romanticize Baldwin’s paradoxes or inconsistencies but to argue that much of his seemingly contradictory work begins to cohere when read in the context of the material reality out of which he lived and wrote”.

This is an effective approach, primarily because it examines Baldwin’s view of himself as “witness”, “maverick” and “disturber of the peace”. Assessing his life and work in the context of the twentieth century’s turbulent political landscape, Field provides a persuasive, absorbing account of Baldwin’s life, examining his development from fiercely intelligent young reviewer into powerful essayist, before tracing the role played by FBI surveillance in his life and writing, his relationship with the Civil Rights, Black Power and religious movements, and the complex Africanist presence (or, indeed, absence) in his work. Like Brim, who qualifies rather than confirms Baldwin’s status as a central figure in black gay literary history, Field questions the holding up of Baldwin as an exemplar in the literary identity categories into which he has been variously, often arbitrarily, placed. Both Brim and Field show how Baldwin disrupts these categories, Brim focusing in this regard on “the way that Baldwin engages with and attempts to make use of black lesbians”, and Field on his attempts to reconcile his sexuality with the increasingly radical black politics of the late 1960s. He shows how Baldwin, following Eldridge Cleaver’s denunciation of his homosexuality as a “racial death wish”, embarked on a “rewriting of his first years in Paris” in an effort to emphasize his “revolutionary credentials”. Field in particular works to “unsettle more comfortable interpretations that sometimes stifle rather than stimulate insightful criticism”, arguing, for instance, that Baldwin’s use of gospel music, far from reaffirming his putative status as a religious writer, rather “encourages a breaking down of walls and barriers”, facilitating “otherwise prohibited relationships”. He carefully demonstrates that Baldwin’s work requires a critical approach that does not demand its segmentation: it is erroneous to view him either as a religious writer or as a critic of the Church, either as an African American writer or as a queer writer, when he was, demonstrably, all these things and more.

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