Art By Johanna Povirk-Znoy


James Baldwin: The Return of the Dead

Review: James Baldwin: Later Novels. Darryl Pinckney, Ed.
(New York: The Library of America, 2015).

  Lately, James Baldwin has been having a critical renaissance.1 The strongest sign of this phenomenon is that the Library of America has published a second volume of fiction collecting his novels of the 1960s and 1970s: Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), Just Above My Head (1979). With his first three, more famous novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1954), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and Another Country (1962), and his one collection of stories, Going to Meet the Man (1965), all gathered together in Early Novels and Stories (1998) edited by Toni Morrison in a Library of America volume, readers and critics now have available to them in two large volumes all the fiction Baldwin saw through book publication during his lifetime.2

  The seventeen-year gap between the first and second volumes of fiction indicates how long the critical renaissance has been in the works. Along with the famous essay collections contained in Collected Essays (also edited for the Library of America by Toni Morrison in 1998), such as Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and the celebrated Jeremiad The Fire Next Time, it is the earlier fiction that made Baldwin’s name. The vicissitudes of his partial induction into the academy as a suitable object of study as critical fashions changed quickly from liberal humanist and traditionally leftist, to radical Marxist and post-Marxist, to Black Power politics and feminist and gender studies, left the often too complex for his own good earlier Baldwin in the dust of the modern racist and heteronormative wasteland and thrust forward the often highly polemic narrators of the later novels into abject pleading for a new hearing for their author. Baldwin was damned as tongue-tied ironist of late modernism a la his chosen white expatriate master Henry James or shipped off to fellow-traveling with and trying succoring favor from Eldridge Cleaver and his soul-mates, whose nasty homophobic rhetoric hurt Baldwin deeply.

  The irony of this situation is that later Baldwin is as complex as ever, and early Baldwin is as polemical as he ever is to become (again). The key to recognizing such irony is not only to read closely what Baldwin’s text is saying and doing, a principle to follow for any author, but to understand when the vocabulary of the romantic visionary tradition appears in his texts, fictional or essayistic, whether in its original religious forms or displaced secular deviations, especially the vocabulary of apocalypse, sacred, political, sexual, or cosmic, the reader is being solicited to co-create with Baldwin the only albeit momentary apocalypse possible in modernity, that of a shared consciousness of visionary power, of pure possibility.

  Lest I (or my “Baldwin”) be seen as assimilating the fiction to white romanticism, here is a long passage from The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin’s three chapter-long personal essay about race in American movies, from Birth of a Nation (195) to Guess Who is Coming to Dinner? (1967). He is explaining how his black ancestors practiced revisionism upon the Christian mythos shoved down their throats, and since the romantic visionary tradition is a secular displacement of that apocalyptic portion of that mythos, Baldwin has trumped all such facile efforts at assimilation:

The blacks did not so much use Christian symbols as recognize them—recognize them for what they were before the Christians came along—and, thus, reinvested these symbols with their original energy. The proof of this, simply, is the continued existence and authority of the blacks: it is through the creation of the black church that an unwritten, dispersed, and violated inheritance has been handed down. The word “revelation” has very little meaning in the recognized languages: yet, it is the only word for the moment I am attempting to approach. This moment changes one forever. One is confronted with the agony and the nakedness and the beauty of a power which has no beginning and no end, which contains you, and which you contain, and which will be using you when your bones are dust. One thus confronts a self both limited and boundless, born to die and born to live. The creature is, also, the creation which is both the self and more than the self. One is set free, then, to live among one’s terrors, hour by hour and day by day, alone, and yet never alone. My soul is a witness!—so one’s ancestors proclaim, and in the deadliest of the midnight hours (CE, 566).

Baldwin, as if a black secular prophet, is pointing to the existence of a tradition orally, via especially hymns and songs making up the musical roots of the black church, as well as whatever other sources enter into this visionary inheritance, this moment of “revelation.” He reverses the belated status of himself and his people vis a vis the orthodox, written Torah, as it were, the recognized languages of white culture, popular and academic, and positions the blacks, his ancestors, and their diasporic oral culture of story, legend, song, and virtue, at the origins, the still living origins, of whatever continues to live in Christianity and its modern secular displacements, romantic or otherwise. His soul is a witness to revelation, again and again, in his work, fictional and essayistic, throughout his career. In this role, Baldwin is like what he calls his people as a whole: “the custodian of an inheritance . . . Western culture . . . [we] must hand down the line” (CE, 566). Not unchanged, but as herein, revised apocalyptically.

  Two passages from Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone exemplify Baldwin’s point about revisionary “revelation.” The first one divines the moment of visionary harmony from its origins down through Wordsworth, Emerson, and Woolf, I would argue, right into the eyes of Pete, the long-time African-American dresser for the protagonist of the novel, Leo Proudhammer, the famous Barbadian-American actor recovering from a heart-attack, surrounded in his hospital room by his friends and fellow theater actors and people:

Some moments in a life, and they needn’t be very long or seem very important, can make up for so much in that life; can redeem, justify, that pain, that bewilderment, with which one lives, and invest one with the courage not only to endure it, but to profit from it; some moments teach one the price of human connection: if one can live with one’s own pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain. Something like this message I seemed to read in Pete’s eyes as he raised his glass and looked at me. His eyes held my journey, and his own. His eyes held the years of terror, trembling, hatred, scorn, inhuman isolation; the YMCA, the Mills Hotel, the winter streets, the subways, the rooftops, the public baths, the public toilets, the filthy socks, the nights one wept alone on some vermin-infested bed; the faithless loves, the lost loves, the hope of love; the many deaths, and the fear of death; in all of this, some style evolving, some music endlessly played, ringing inexorable changes on the meaning of the blues. His look was shrewd, ironic, loving. He knew how frightened I had been. He knew how frightened he had been (LN, 237).

    The Wordsworthian variation comes from The Prelude. Bk. II, ll 1-17:

    Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
    Like harmony in music; there is a dark
    Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
    Discordant elements, makes them cling together
    In one society. How strange that all
    The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
    Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
    Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
    And that a needful part, in making up
    The calm existence that is mine when I
    Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
    Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
    Whether her fearless visitings, or those
    That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
    Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
    Severer interventions, ministry
    More palpable, as best might suit her aim.3

Who is to say for certain whether Wordsworth or Baldwin got beyond Milton and his biblical antecedents to the oral origins of all mythopoeia, as Baldwin argues the black graft upon Western culture energetically, transcendentally, supplies? Jazz, blues, soul, r and b, hip-hop—pledges the blood of those redeemed by vision, thereby redeeming in turn each of the generations.

  If the Wordsworthian variation is too gentle or harmonious a momentary apocalypse, Train provides another, more Blakean or Shelleyan vision, from the youth counter-culture in San Francisco’s Fillmore West:

We entered a dark and noisy barn. All of the seats had been removed from the orchestra of this theater, and hundreds of and hundreds of boys and girls filled this space. Some were standing, some were lounging against the walls, some where sitting on the floor, some were embracing, some were dancing. The stage held four or five of the loudest musicians in the world’s history. It was impossible to tell whether they were any good or not, their sounds was too high. But it did not really matter whether their sound was any good or not, this sound was, literally, not meant for my ears, and it existed entirely outside my capacity for judgment. It was a rite that I was witnessing—witnessing, not sharing. It made me think of rites I had seen in Caleb’s church, in many churches; of black feet stomping in the mud of the levee; of rites older than that, in forests irrecoverable. The music drove and drove, into the past—into the future. It sounded like an attempt to make a great hole in the world, and bring up what was buried. And the dancers seemed, nearly, in the flickering, violent light, with their beads flashing, their long hair flying, their robes whirling—or their tight skirts, tight pants, signifying—and with the music assaulting them like the last, last trumpet, to be dancing in their grave-clothes, raised from the dead (LN, 360)

To make sure we get his position in all this, Baldwin’s narrator protagonist, Leo Proudhammer, actor representative of the artist per se of the older generation, adds tellingly:

On the wall were four screens, and on these screens, ectoplasmic figures and faces endlessly writhed, moving in and out of each other, in a tremendous sexual rhythm which made me think of nameless creatures blindly coupling in all the slime of the world, and at the bottom of the sea, and in the air we breathed, and in one’s very body. From time to time, on this recognized a face. I saw . . . for a moment, I thought I saw my own (LN, 360).

From Ezekiel to The Waste Land, with revisionary moments in Blake, Lawrence, Stevens, and many more, in which the dead arise and, for better or worse, usher in the apocalyptic destruction of the old city and the final materialization of the visionary New Jerusalem, with their frenzied dancing and sublime music—Baldwin places black Americans at the source of the redeemed spirit.

  The Stevenian variation on such a vision may bring out most of its modernist lineaments:

    Supple and turbulent, a ring of men

    Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn

    Their boisterous devotion to the sun,

    Not as a god, but as a god might be,

    Naked among them, like a savage source.

    Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,

    Out of their blood, returning to the sky;

    And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,

    The windy lake wherein their lord delights,

    The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,

    That choir among themselves long afterward.

    They shall know well the heavenly fellowship

    Of men that perish and of summer morn.

    And whence they came and whither they shall go

    The dew upon their feet shall manifest.4

Transparently revealed here are compatible visions, a la D. H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman, as well as the dancing spirits of Shelley’s romantic apocalyptic drama, Prometheus Unbound, or even the philosophical figures of the subject from the Beautiful Soul and Stoic through the unhappy consciousness and the Sage, among others, in Hegel’s phenomenological history of the human spirit. The return of the dead is a deeply ambivalent vision. It often entails as its basis a scene of youth fulfilling its Dionysian potentiality as the carrier of the wish for a person’s or a people’s renewed youth, that return of failed or forsaken possibility of the dead selves adults have become, and so bad faith, self-deception, and wish-fulfillment abound.10 Train makes this troubling aspect of the vision plain when Barbara, Leo’s long-time white actress friend and occasional mistress, points out to him, how the twenty-something radical activist and hustler, Black Christopher, Leo’s current lover who has run off after trying to have sick with her, “was you before our choices had been made” (354). Of course, now that he made this choice, Leo ends his novel as if “standing in the wings” of life, awaiting his “cue.” (362). Yet for all its tragic dimension, its risk of a zombie apocalypse, the return of the dead is the ultimate revisionary desire, because it places the present-day visionary at the origins of his or her animating vision, and likewise, puts the ancestor (whether of a person or a people), as emerging into the present from the future, as if singing the present-day visionary’s anthem. By owing up to this role as custodian of the West, Baldwin earns the right to give his account of it, thereby making possible its reformation, from its beginnings to the emergent futures.

  The price of such revisionary power, however, is that the stories one tells, in fiction or in essays, the characters one creates, and even the personal relations one has, become grist for the mill of a life of allegory. If Beale Could Talk, in which Baldwin’s first-person narrator-protagonist is a woman, Tish, who is pregnant by her boyfriend, Alonzo, who is framed by a vindictive for a rape of a Puerto Rican woman who has left for her homeland, leaving him to languish in the New York City Tombs, while he awaits a trial that keeps getting postponed. The reader never believes that Tish is Tish, but neither does she sound like the moments when other protagonists suddenly have access to the power of imagination that Baldwin himself has as we know from his essays. Instead, we read lame allegories in the making, as when after Tish tells her father she is pregnant, she observes:

It’s funny about people. Just before something happens, you almost know what it is. You do know what it is, I believe. You just haven’t had the time—and now you won’t have the time—to say it to yourself. Daddy’s face changed in a way I can’t describe. His face became as definite as stone, every line and angle suddenly seemed chiseled, and his eyes turned a blacker black. He was waiting—suddenly, helplessly—for what was already known to be translated, to enter reality, to be born (LN, 398).

The very transparent perfection of this passage as an allegory of all the dimensions of the novel—the character-driven plot, the author-narrator relationship, the work-reader relationship, etc.--testifies to the lameness of the effort. Giving birth to a child in this fraught context and winning over Daddy so that the return to pure possibility envisioned at the end of Train can be “translated . . . to enter reality, to born in Tish as played by Baldwin.”

  The advantage of reading Baldwin in this way is that it allows us to follow the career and the works that punctuate its phases as one romantic quest for the preservation and enhancement of the creative imagination working through the author to enliven the characters and readers, with the hope of apocalyptic transformation. Just Above My Head realigns the narrator-protagonist with Baldwin, as Hall Montana, middle-class African-American husband, father, and brother, tells the story of Arthur Montana, the “soul-emperor,” blues singer who crosses over to become, for a while, a big popular hit, who dies early, alone, self-hating (he is guiltily gay), and whose life also becomes the source for all the many musical allusions and citations that stitch together this enormous final novel, clearly a summa of Baldwin’s career. As such, the following long passage serves complexly as a tragic commentary upon the ironic dialectic of personality and power that the American writer confronts especially in a global context:

But everyone must be born somewhere, and everyone is born in a context: this context is his inheritance. If he were a Muslim, or a Jew, or an Irish, Spanish, Greek, or Italian Catholic, if he were a Hindu, or a Haitian or a Brazilian, an Indian or an African chief, his life might be simpler in some ways and more complex in others; more open in one way, more closed in another. An inheritance is a given: in struggling with this given, one discovers oneself in it—and one could not have been found in any other place!—and, with this discovery, and not before, the possibility of freedom begins. . . . [However,) like Arthur, like you and me, in fact, [we Americans] would rather spend . . . life without wrestling with history . . . . [For] [t]o overhaul a history, or to attempt to redeem it—which effort may or may not justify it—is not at all the same thing as the descent one must make in order to excavate a history. To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness. And yet, the attempt, more, the necessity, to excavate a history, to find out the truth about oneself! is motivated by the need to have the power to force others to recognize your presence, your right to be here. The disputed passage will remain disputed so long as you do not have the authority of the right-of-way—so long, that is, as your passage can be disputed: the document promising safe passage can always be revoked. Power clears the passage, swiftly: but the paradox, here, is that power, rooted in history, is also, the mockery and the repudiation of history. The power to define the other seals one’s definition of oneself . . . . Perhaps, then, after all, we have no idea of what history is: or are in flight from the demon we have summoned. Perhaps, history is not to be found in our mirrors, but in our repudiations: perhaps, the other is ourselves. History may be a great deal more than the quicksand which swallows others, and which has not yet swallowed us: history may be attempting to vomit us up, and spew us out: history may be tired. Death, itself, which swallows everyone, is beginning to be weary—of history, in fact, for death has no history (LN, 938; 964).

This “demon” of history, whether summoned or excavated, in this context of multiple allusions, and musical sounds, reminds us of Satan’s confrontation with Sin and Death at the gates of hell on his way to reconnoiter the terrestrial Paradise in search of Adam and Eve, to precipitate their felix culpa, a fortunate fall from pure innocence, blank possibility, into the vision of the renewable human innocence of tragic experience.5

End Notes

1 See, for example, Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin and the Fear of a Nation,” New York Review of Books, May 12, 2016, Vol. 63, No. 8. http://www.nybooks.com/ Online.

2 James Baldwin: Collected Essays, Ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998); James Baldwin, Early Novels and Stories, Ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998); Later Novels, Ed. Darryl Pinckney (New York: Library of America, 2015).

3 William Wordsworth, The Prelude, http://www.bartleby.com/337/895.html. Online.

4 Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning,” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/sunday-morning. Online.

5 The emphasis of this review has been on what earlier Baldwin commentators have not generally discussed, his incorporation and revision of the Western, largely white tradition, the canon. The same principle or ritual of incorporation and revision or reformation of an inheritance applies to other traditions and counter-traditions, which in this instance have been generally discussed, as Nathaniel Rich’s essay review points out.