MORE than the literary traditions of other Western countries, the literature of the United States has relied on social and intellectual outsiders -- on madmen, crackpots, neurasthenics and dopeheads, on people who lived and died broke and often forgotten. Poe, the first great secular American writer, was an alcoholic and a newspaperman when the job offered neither prestige nor much pay, and since his time we can count few patricians and only a scattering of solidly bourgeois characters in our pantheon of lasting favorites. By the mid-20th century and the arrival of major postwar American writers like Norman Mailer, Flannery O'Connor, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs and the Beats, we had established a literary sensibility adamant about its status as opposition -- an opposition that, if it was not always political, was at least unmistakably spiritual.
Now, however, the time of the American writer straightforwardly in opposition is over or nearly so. At the simplest level, almost every published writer today goes to college, and we have made our colleges into a coast-to-coast network of finishing schools for the professional classes. The effect of this universally produced middle-class sensibility has been gradual but penetrating. Books are certainly written about the disfranchised -- indeed, a certain number of them are annually required -- but they tend to be cast in popular and heroic terms, with likable characters up against a set of difficulties that with cleverness and pluck they will overcome. There are very few writers who perceive their world and its organization and manners as intractably absurd, or lethal, or avaricious, or false -- few even who can perceive the organization as contingent rather than as immutable natural fact.
I knew Jim loved me when he gave me to Gloria and Paula, Wilmer and David Baldwin and all the rest of his siblings and when he took me to Mother Baldwin and said: ''Just what you don't need, another daughter, but here she is.'' I knew that he knew black women may find lovers on street corners or even in church pews, but brothers are hard to come by and are as necessary as air and as precious as love. James Baldwin knew that black women in this desolate world, black women in this cruel time which has no soundness in it, have a crying need for brothers. He knew that brother's love redeems a sister's pain. His love opened the unusual door for me and I am blessed that James Baldwin was my brother.
His historical importance is indisputable. In the 1950's, when the civil rights movement started to make headlines in the South, Baldwin repeatedly called to account the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. ''In exactly the same way that the South imagines that it 'knows' the Negro, the North imagines that it has set him free,'' he wrote. ''Both camps are deluded.'' Northerners ''seem to feel that because they fought on the right side during the Civil War, and won, they have earned the right merely to deplore what is going on in the South, without taking any responsibility for it.'' But, he declared, ''the South will not change -- cannot change -- until the North changes.''
The change Baldwin insisted on was one of the heart: ''Neither the Southerner nor the Northerner is able to look upon the Negro simply as a man.'' Baldwin's great appeal was to make politics personal; he told white readers that racial justice was vital to their own sense of self (''Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves''). More specifically, whether poignant or petulant (''It is galling indeed to have stood so long, hat in hand, waiting for Americans to grow up enough to realize that you do not threaten them''), his social commentary invariably was a disguised discussion of the problems of being James Baldwin.
Famously a confessional writer, Baldwin compulsively wrote of self-hatred and salvation, identity and community, tears and tenderness; his themes were overdetermined from a childhood his emotions never escaped. His stepfather died in an institution, ''eaten up by paranoia,'' Baldwin wrote, ''sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors.'' His madness, unrecognized until the end -- he died just before Baldwin's 19th birthday -- warped his family. Brooding, silent, tyrannical (he forced his wife to call him ''Mr. Baldwin'') and physically abusive, he was also a storefront preacher of morbid intensity: ''He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life.'' Young James was both illegitimate (his father forever unknown to him) and extremely odd-looking: small in stature, frog-eyed, oval-headed, he resembled an ebonite E.T. (''My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him.'') He grew up quite literally damned by his stepfather. ''This judgment,'' he said, ''was to have a decidedly terrifying effect on my life.''
The result was that Baldwin was trapped in suspension: ''I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles -- perpetually attempting to choose the better rather than the worse.'' This interior drama gave his essays their intense appeal of intimacy and urgency, but their insistent subjectivity sabotaged their effectiveness as social commentary. In Baldwin's ''focus on personal drama,'' Warren noted ''a tendency to pull away from the specific issue which might provoke analysis, toward one more general in which, in a shadowy depth, emotion coils.'' Baldwin's private demons were astoundingly congruent with the ghosts haunting American history. He projected his terrors onto his country, which, for a time, found a fearsome mirror in his torment....
Baldwin's solution? ''If love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.'' So common is the incantation for love in Baldwin's work that he even mocked himself in ''Another Country'': ''That love jive, sweetheart. Love, love, love!'' However risible as a guide for social action (''In politics, love is a stranger,'' Hannah Arendt told Baldwin in a letter, ''and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy''), the stark alternatives of love and perdition had overwhelming autobiographical meaning. ''What I am asking is impossible,'' Baldwin concludes in ''The Fire Next Time.'' ''But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.'' The impossible also was what he needed, caught as he was between the unacceptable and the unattainable, ''extended between these poles.'' What he desired was not so much love as redemption; he believed not in change but in cataclysm. (''Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.'') Baldwin's universe was static; despite living through a wrenching, altogether extraordinary social revolution, he forever was tormented -- cursed. (''There have been superficial changes,'' he wrote in 1984. ''Morally, there has been no change at all and a moral change is the only real one.'') Little wonder he lost his audience: America did what Baldwin could not -- it moved forward.
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