James Baldwin Notes Of A Native Son Essay Analysis Advertisements

  • Carl Van Vechten
  • James Baldwin in 1955
"I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again."

So begins James Baldwin's autobiographical note to his essay collection Notes of a Native Son, published in 1955 when he was 31 years old. The essays had been written when Baldwin was just in his 20s; he had already published his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni's Room (1954) by the time Notes came out. Even so, he told a friend that he thought it was too early in his life for a "memoir."

Baldwin wrote elegantly and honestly and passionately about race relations in America, and he did so from a lofty perspective, both self-aware and world-wise. One of his challenges was to define what it meant to be a "native son":

I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to make them mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.

And Baldwin wrote in his preface to the 1984 edition:

I had to claim my birthright. I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

The conundrum of color is the inheritance of every American, be he/she legally or actually Black or White. It is a fearful inheritance, for which untold multitudes, long ago, sold their birthright. Multitudes are doing so, until today. . . . Something like this, anyway, has something to do with my beginnings. I was trying to locate myself within a specific inheritance and to use that inheritance, precisely, to claim the birthright from which that inheritance had so brutally and specifically excluded me.

Here's an excerpt from the title essay, with Baldwin reflecting on a single day in which his youngest sister was born, his father died, and riots broke out in Harlem; he was about to turn 19.

"My last night in New Jersey, a white friend from New York took me to the nearest big town, Trenton, to go to the movies and have a few drinks. As it turned out, he also saved me from, at the very least, a violent whipping. Almost every detail of that night stands out very clearly in my memory. I even remember the name of the movie we saw because its title impressed me as being so patly ironic. It was a movie about the German occupation of France, starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton and called This Land Is Mine. I remember the name of the diner we walked into when the movie ended: it was the 'American Diner.' When we walked in the counterman asked what we wanted and I remember answering with the casual sharpness which had become my habit: 'We want a hamburger and a cup of coffee, what do you think we want?' I do not know why, after a year of such rebuffs, I so completely failed to anticipate his answer, which was, of course, 'We don't serve Negroes here.' This reply failed to discompose me, at least for the moment. I made some sardonic comment about the name of the diner and we walked out into the streets."

And chaos followed.

Beacon Press has just released a new edition of Notes of a Native Son, with an introduction by novelist Edward P. Jones (The Known World). I'll let Jones eloquently sum up:

One of the wonders of coming back to Notes after such a long time is how "current" Baldwin is. That might sound like a cliche, but in so many instances in our lives we learn that some cliches are built on things solid and familiar and timeless. "Journey to Atlanta" is but one of a hundred examples in Notes. What also comes across, again, is how optimistic James Baldwin was about himself, his world, black people. Even when he describes the awfulness of being black in America, he presents us with an optimism that is sometimes like subtle background music, and sometimes like an insistent drumbeat. But through it all, with each word—perhaps as evidence of a man certain of his message—he never shouts.

But I'll let Baldwin himself eloquently close:

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

Tags: James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, Beacon Press, Edward P. Jones, Image

I received only one handwritten note from James Baldwin in the course of our acquaintance, which began in 1979 and came to an end with his death eight years later. It arrived in response to a letter I had sent, three months before, asking if he would consider writing a review of a new history of jazz for the quarterly magazine of which I was then editor, the New Edinburgh Review. Baldwin's reply was scrawled at the foot of my own neatly typed letter. It read, in part: "Would love to arrange to do a long piece: but cannot do it within the dead-line." This was a cue for celebration. I telephoned him at his home in St-Paul de Vence and we agreed a date and a very small fee, and he said, "I'd better get to work, baby."

Many more communications followed. These were sometimes by telegram - I remember the typically dramatic announcement, "I fear you have an essay I cannot do justice in the length proposed Have been trying to call you Please call me JAMES BALDWIN STPAULDEVENCE" - or, more commonly, by phone, often twice a week. Baldwin would growl wearily and seductively into the receiver, complaining about the heat in the hills over Nice where he had lived since the early 1970s, about the demands of a recent birthday party, about how he had lost the book (a replacement was quickly dispatched). Eventually, the piece arrived - without covering letter - and it went into the autumn 1979 issue of the magazine.

By that date, Baldwin had practically ceased communicating by mail. He had once been a great letter writer. After his death at 63, I was commissioned to write a biography - or a "portrait", as I thought of it then, since Baldwin had authorised a close friend to be his biographer. By the time I submitted the manuscript to the publishers - it came out as Talking at the Gates in 1991- I had amassed nearly 300 pages of his letters, in photocopies, dating from 1943 to that minimal note from St-Paul in 1979, in addition to a large quantity of unpublished or uncollected articles, plays, film scripts, speeches, assorted juvenilia and more. Some of it came from collections in libraries in the US, but other material derived from individuals who responded to my requests for information in the TLS and the New York Review of Books. One kind supplier was William Rossa Cole, who had worked in the publicity department at Knopf when Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953, and who became his trusted confidant there. When I visited Cole for the first time in his cramped midtown Manhattan apartment, he offered me 70 typed pages of letters addressed to him throughout the 1950s, in which Baldwin, then living in Paris, raked over his projects and his problems. They are a goldmine of Baldwin biography, a print record of his voice, the closest we get to the "hungry black cat", as he described himself then, "tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent".

Others were also generous, such as William Phillips, the late editor of Partisan Review, where Baldwin's early essays and stories appeared. He sent me a clutch of letters, with the simplest of conditions: "If you use anything, credit the magazine." In a letter to Phillips, written in the spring of 1949, shortly after his flight to Europe, Baldwin had outlined his predicament: "One of the reasons I came flying over here was that at home I'd worked myself into such a state that I didn't know where I was going or what I wanted ... The best I can say is that what with race, sex, calvinism, housing, the kind of violent, anarchic, hostility-breeding pattern of all my life - a pattern which, immediately one discovers that it has turned inward and become uncontrollable, then seems invested with the power to kill - I did not know who I was ..."

When I sat down to evoke the atmosphere of Baldwin's nine years in Paris, and the complex reasons for his being there, I naturally intended to quote from this letter. No paraphrase that I could offer in my version of the story - a story as full of incident as any biographer might wish for - could convey the mix of claustrophobia and alienation packed into those lines. I quoted passages from a letter to Cole in which Baldwin spoke candidly about his relationship with the man who had been his mentor but whom he now regarded as an adversary, Richard Wright, author of Native Son; from others about his continual shortage of money and his worries about his family; about grand plans for books that would scarcely get beyond the title, a habit he kept until the end of his life.

Another associate from the Paris days was the actor Gordon Heath, who in 1955 starred in a BBC production of Othello directed by Tony Richardson. After half-an-hour of talk by his fireplace, Heath reached for a file and handed me a sheaf of letters, asking me to return them whenever I was ready. In these letters, Baldwin spoke about England and compared its "Negro problem" with that of the United States: "They have fewer misapprehensions concerning Negroes, and the holding onto those misapprehensions is not for them, as it is for us, a matter of life or death." It was for Heath that Baldwin wrote the lead part in his play The Amen Corner (he never did perform it) and the letters discuss the making of this first work for the stage. Heath's and Baldwin's friend Leslie Schenk had received letters from Corsica, where Baldwin had taken refuge after the publication of Giovanni's Room in 1956, sick to the point of breakdown following the failure of his relationship with the dedicatee of that novel, by then a married man with a family in Switzerland. (He still lives there, and we correspond regularly.)

Baldwin's letters of the late 1940s and 50s have the same fire-and-ice eloquence as his essays of the time, which comprise his greatest work. In earlier letters, written from Harlem in 1943-44, he describes the circumstances of his father's death and funeral, which coincided with riots in the uptown streets, and the violent incident in New Jersey which could have resulted in his own death - events later folded into one of his best essays, "Notes of a Native Son". It was thrilling to come upon the material in the raw. The Harlem letters are deposited at the Schomburg Center, a branch of the New York Public Library, where copies could be obtained for 25 cents a page. In the 1960s, Baldwin wrote about his part in the civil-rights struggle and his reactions to the assassinations, one after the other, of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In Istanbul, where Baldwin had lived during those years, a Turkish friend refused to let me handle his letters, but after a few days' prevarication read them out loud while I took notes. "I'm the last witness - everybody else is dead," Baldwin had written to him, exhibiting the self-dramatising tendency that was becoming more evident.

The Baldwin letters would be the flesh and blood of my book. Its main purpose, after all, was to give the ghost another gasp at life.

While I was researching Talking at the Gates , Ian Hamilton published his "portrait", In Search of JD Salinger . As I was to do slightly later, Hamilton began his task by approaching libraries in the US and requesting letters written by Salinger, from which he quoted liberally. On completion of the manuscript, he made the fateful error of sending a copy to his subject for approval. Salinger contacted his lawyers and took Hamilton to court.

Odd though it sounds now, Hamilton had been unaware that he was in breach of copyright. He reasoned that the letters he had used, though unpublished in printed form, were in the public domain to the extent that they were available to anyone for inspection, even duplication, in the libraries. He supposed they were subject to the provision for "fair use" (or fair dealing, as it is sometimes called) in copyright law, which permits a reasonable amount of citation from copyright material. Before this test case in New York, which Hamilton first won, then lost on appeal, the question of what could be quoted and what was restricted under the law was vague. Biographers felt free to exploit documents of every sort relevant to their subjects - unpublished articles, incomplete poems or novels, notebooks and diaries, as well as letters. Among my favourite biographies is Francis Steegmuller's book on Guillaume Apollinaire, published in 1963, 45 years after Apollinaire's death, when his work was still under copyright. Steegmuller draws on a wide range of written material, including entire poems and facsimiles of handwritten notes, all in the interests of creating a lifelike portrait. Little in Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters, in which the biographer himself plays a graceful, self-effacing role, suggests that he was troubled by questions of intellectual property. The same may be said of many biographies of the time.

The Salinger case put an end to all that. The situation, for anyone still in doubt, is that if JD Salinger or James Baldwin writes you a letter, then you own the paper and the ink, but ownership of the contents - the intellectual property - resides with the author and then, for 70 years after the author's death, his or her estate (minor variations apply from country to country). The judge in the Salinger case allowed practically no application of fair use to unpublished correspondence. As Hamilton wrote in his book, "Fair use had taken a bad knock ... Copyright law might never be the same again." (Subsequent cases have eased restrictions; of particular interest is the ruling by the US Court of Appeals in 1991, involving Margaret Walker, a biographer of Richard Wright, and Wright's widow who acted to prevent quotation from letters etc; the Wright estate lost.)

Needless to say, authors' writings deserve legal protection, and copyright is the way it is done. It now seems ridiculous that Hamilton assumed he could quote lavishly from the private correspondence of a living person, even if that privacy had been sold for a few hundred dollars by the people to whom Salinger had confided his joys and woes. For biography, however, it was a painful blow.

In the eyes of a biographer, particularly of a writer, letters have unique validity. Here is the writer doing what he or she is noted for doing in public - only doing it in private. Letters written to the subject are also evocative, and even whimsical notes passed between friends can be beguiling. "We expect Jimmy momentarily," one of Baldwin's companions wrote to another from the Côte d'Azur, "don't leave the house without posting notes for him, put hash-hish on the table beside his bed, buy extra veal chops for supper, etc etc. And still he doesn't come. If he's still [in Paris] by the time this gets to you - cut him dead for me!" From these few lines, we learn that Baldwin intended to go to the south of France in 1949, that he was by nature unreliable but was liked by his friends nevertheless, that he smoked hashish, and was not a vegetarian. They spark the reader's imagination in a way that written or spoken recollections, 40 or 50 years on, seldom do.

A decade or two ago there was a fad for oral biographies - Peter Manso's Mailer: His life and times is among the better examples - but the responsible biographer treats oral testimony with caution. Old friends decorate, exaggerate - and forget. They leave out the bad bits, or else play them up. Perhaps they were close at the time - in 1949, let's say, when planning a jaunt to the Côte d'Azur - but fell out later, as Baldwin did with the woman whose letter is quoted above (when I met her in 1989, she had hardly a decent word to say about him). Baldwin was a charismatic and gregarious man, but he was also egotistical and apt to be unmindful of obligations. There was a general weariness among people who had known him in his Paris days that had been suppressed at the time, out of comradeship or condescension. They saw Baldwin on television in the 60s, all blazing rhetoric and right eousness, and thought, "Jimmy still owes me a hundred bucks." Certain friends, including Heath, had come to regard him as a phoney, which shocked me. I had spent time with Baldwin since our collaboration on his jazz article, and to me he was a man of wondrous intelligence and steadfast integrity. To counter what I took to be false impressions, I had his published writings. But I wanted to get in the sound of his private voice as well.

My request to the Baldwin estate for permission to quote from the letters I had collected, which by then lit up my manuscript page by page, was refused. The final verdict in the Salinger case had come down only two years before, and was being brandished across the publishing world like an offensive weapon. I was forced to extract the quotations from the text and liquefy them, so that they blended with my own prose. Baldwin's aphoristic sayings, his frantic and often funny accounts of his quarrels and complexes, his money worries and lovelorn complaints, all had to be told in my words, not his. "I disliked having to throw out Salinger's best lines," Hamilton had written. "In almost every instance, I was deadening his language; I was making him seem duller than he was. Whose interest did this serve?"

Literary estates make decisions for their own reasons, and biographers have to accept that they are made in good faith. The executor of the Baldwin estate, the writer's sister Gloria, allowed me to quote from certain other unpublished or little-known writings, such as a precocious adolescent poem, "Black Girl Shouting", and his unproduced screenplay of Giovanni's Room . Anything that Baldwin intended for public consumption was available, she explained, whether or not it had reached the public arena. Whatever was meant to be private - down to a skittish note to Cole - was to remain so. Put like that, it sounds reasonable, even to me; but when Baldwin's official biographer and old friend David Leeming squared up to his task, bearing his subject's signed note of authorisation (I've seen a copy), he too was refused permission to quote from letters, including those written to him.

The experience of feeling like a trespasser is familiar to many biographers. A volume of Wright's correspondence prepared by Michel Fabre, Wright's first authorised biographer, was scrapped at the last minute and has never been revived. Readers of Fabre's otherwise thorough book, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973), remain in the dark about the writer's tangled love life, and would not know that the Wrights were separated at the time of Richard's death in 1960. (Ellen Wright has in recent years sanctioned a fuller biography, by Hazel Rowley.) "A certain kind of diplomatic relationship is necessary, because there are areas where you have to consider the feelings of others," says John Sutherland, whose biography of Stephen Spender was published last year. When writing his book, Sutherland was obliged to be delicate in his handling of Spender's early sex life, before his happy marriage to Natasha Litvin, who survives him and controls the estate. "Families generally don't want full biographies written of the subject," Sutherland says. "Spender himself stated very firmly, 'My life is my own'. There were certain things he didn't want looked into. I think one has to respect that. Generally speaking, the way to get nothing out is to be a bull at the gate." There were some documents to which even Sutherland, working with the blessing of the estate, was not given access. As for the TS Eliot estate, and its well-publicised reluctance to sanction a biography or release a further volume of correspondence, as discussed in a recent article in Review ("Dear Mrs Eliot ..." January 29), Sutherland believes that "we'll never get a decent life of Eliot now, because all the trails are cold. People are dead."

Michael Holroyd, the biographer of Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, is conscious of the difficulties both sides face in the eternal tussle. "I met the executor, James Strachey, Lytton's younger brother, and we struck a deal," Holroyd says of his experience with the Strachey estate, "whereby he showed me the material he had collected over many years, which I was allowed to use, and then he was able to read my manuscript before publication. If there was something we disagreed about, we would fight it out and could usually reach a compromise. Where we were unable to do so, he reserved the right to place a footnote under my text, giving his own view - which he sometimes did quite forcibly. I thought that was a humane way of dealing with a delicate problem."

An edition of Strachey's letters is due to be published in March, but Holroyd, who had access to a large amount of correspondence while writing his biography (1967; revised 1994), feels that readers of authors' letters will continue to depend on the biographer. "There is a great deal of stuff not in the letters. If I write you a letter, I might be writing a note in my diary on the same day, in which I say things I do not say in the letter, or in which I contradict myself. Or you might reply and say something that the reader would not know, without the biographer's guidance."

Holroyd admits he likes the idea of a biography that makes abundant use of letters and other documents, such as Steegmuller's book on Apollinaire, "but only if your subject helps you by writing enough of this sort of thing".

Baldwin, who lived an extraordinarily public life and whose talent was blunted in the course of it, is one such writer. At a celebration in New York a few years ago, the drama critic of the New Yorker, Hilton Als, drew attention to "one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published, and that is a volume of his letters". Does this "masterpiece" belong to Baldwin's family, or to his readership (a readership forever in danger of shrinking)? Few writers have come out so publicly in favour of full disclosure, in both public and private affairs, as Baldwin. "There is no refuge from confession," he had scribbled on a piece of paper pinned to the noticeboard in his study. Confession, bearing all its soul-cleansing overtones, was practically his artistic criterion. The refusal of the estate to permit an edition of the correspondence might be judged to go against the writer's wishes, given his own appointment of a biographer in the person of Leeming.

Yet there is hope. Last year, a small book was published in the US, Native Sons , with two names on the title page: James Baldwin and Sol Stein. A writer himself, Stein was the editor of Baldwin's first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son , in 1955. In the early 1940s, the pair were schoolfellows at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx where, together with the late Richard Avedon, they edited the school magazine. A few years ago, while sorting out his papers, Stein unearthed a collection of early photographs of himself and Baldwin, with a play they had co-authored, based on Baldwin's essay "Equal in Paris".

He also found a sheaf of letters from Baldwin relating to those projects, written in the mid-1950s from Washington, Corsica and other places. The estate granted Stein permission to shape the materials into a book. A dozen letters are printed in facsimile in Native Sons , the first time such a number has seen the light of day. It could be the herald of a proper edition.

If I could approach my task as biographer, or "portraitist", all over again, with everything at my fingertips and freedom to use whatever I wished, I would cut back my own part severely and give the story over to letters from, to and about Baldwin, to passages from diaries, synopses for unwritten books, production notes from his work in the theatre, critical comments and so on, all in addition to the established essays and fiction. The challenge would be to set down something that moves to the rhythm of the subject's life, which follows the beat of his actions, his humour, his flaws and failures.

"Be careful of inventions," Baldwin wrote with a typical gnomic flourish in his New Edinburgh Review article on jazz; "the invention describes you, and will certainly betray you."

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