James Baldwin, one of the great American essayists, remarked in his youth, "I've got three strikes against me. I'm black, ugly and gay." True, perhaps, depending on your definition of ugly, but he had even more trouble than that to carry around.
Baldwin's 1930s Harlem boyhood sounds oppressive enough to make anyone a lifelong emotional cripple. He never knew his biological father but knew only too well the bitterly angry man his mother married when Jimmy was an infant. David and Berdis Baldwin had eight more children but David didn't like any of them. He was, Jimmy wrote, so mean that "I do not remember that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home."
He worked in a factory and preached the gospel in storefront churches but gave such fury-laced hellfire sermons that congregants were usually pretty scarce. Jimmy, at age 14, took up preaching because he wanted to do something better than David.
In his twenties, Baldwin sat down and worked his way out of this childhood prison through the familiar tunnel of autobiographical fiction. His first and best novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published by Alfred Knopf in 1953, describes a boy preacher like himself and an adult preacher like his stepfather. It presents fundamentalism as hypocritical, spurious and self-deceiving. It's an appalling and wonderful piece of writing.
Baldwin's escape began before that, when he entered De Witt Clinton, an ambitious public high school, where he met teenagers whose yearning for a broader culture resembled his own. One was Richard Avedon, who then planned to be a poet. Another was Sol Stein, who later wrote novels and ran a successful publishing house, Stein and Day.
In 1954, Stein, by then an editor for the Beacon Press, suggested that his old friend Jimmy collect the magazine pieces he had been writing, mostly on race issues. This led to the best book of Baldwin's career, Notes of a Native Son (1955). It established him as a first-rate essayist and the most eloquent American writer on race.
Baldwin produced many more essays and several novels and plays; he died in 1987. Now Stein salutes what would have been his friend's 80th birthday (Aug. 2) with a kind of souvenir scrapbook, Native Sons: A Friendship that Created One of the Greatest Works of the 20th Century (Random House). He pulls together notes and photos with a story and a TV play they wrote together.
Native Sons is slight and repetitive, more memorabilia than memoir, yet it's endearing. The young, scared, proud, wildly ambitious Baldwin comes across with intimate clarity. Among the book's charms is a selection of photographically reproduced letters, typewritten and hand-corrected in the pre-digital manner, documents now slowly falling into the same category as medieval manuscripts.
Stein, as he began discussing Notes of a Native Son with Baldwin, knew that a book of essays had only a slim chance of popularity. To make an impression it must put readers on a discernible path from first page to last. Since Baldwin had not written his magazine pieces with a book in mind, Stein set out to give them coherent shape. Which essay should come first, striking the opening chord? How could the material fall into sections? Which piece would leave the most powerful impression at the end? For that they chose what's now a much-anthologized classic, "Stranger in the Village," about Baldwin's stay in a region of Switzerland so remote that no one there had ever seen a black man -- or a typewriter. Baldwin decided that these ignorant villagers were, in some genetic but undeniable way, closer to Western civilization than he was.
Stein did his work so well that a reader who ignores the acknowledgements page might well assume the essays were written with a single purpose in mind. Still, none of that would have made the book permanently important if Baldwin hadn't developed a voice all his own, and a strategy to go with it. The King James Bible, which he learned so well as a boy preacher, provided the foundations of his style; a reader can hear its echoes, always suitably modernized.
Baldwin's literary strategy, his attitude, emerged from a complicated but powerful sense of identity as an American. He did not see himself as outsider, victim or racial separatist. He would not write as a black looking at whites, he would be an American examining America. "I shifted the point of view to 'we.' I'm talking about we, the American people." His comments on the American condition were often shrewd; America is "a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them."
In world politics he expressed an attitude that George W. Bush could endorse: "America is the last stronghold of the Western idea of personal liberty. And I certainly think this idea should dominate the world." He added, however, that he "very bitterly wished" that Americans "had more faith in our own ideals."
Baldwin's prose in those days was as powerful as any being written, but his emotional condition was shaky. A letter written to Stein in 1956 reports that he's "back in my skin and back at my desk." He had thought he was sick, and he was, but it was "only" a breakdown. "About breakdowns, baby, there is nothing to say, nothing one can say while it's happening, nothing to be said when it's over ... Still -- mine is over, it seems I want to live."
His decline began around this time, partly because his later novels never equalled his first, partly because a succession of racial tragedies (notably the assassination of Martin Luther King) ground down his always tentative sense of hope, and partly because his poise was shaken by the apocalypse rhetoric of Black Power, whose arguments he found himself unable to answer.
Better than anyone of his time, Baldwin articulated the principle that blacks should be allowed to live as individuals rather than members of a collectivity. But for all his talent, his race typed him. He was branded from the beginning as a writer on "the Negro problem," and his other ideas never got expressed. "I'd like to write about Mozart," he said to me once, when he was well established. "But somehow it never seems quite possible."