James Baldwin as an American Intellectual:
Talking at the Gates Reviewed

by Ralph Dumain

“The final proof is Sartre’s prescription. This highly educated and gifted man proposes that the way out is for writers to embrace the working class, to express the aspirations of the proletariat, etc., etc.  That he should write such nonsense is evidence of the pitiable position literature is in. Great literature, great art, is not produced in that way, and Sartre more than anyone else must know that.”

“What must a critic do, today, in 1953, when he wishes to assess a classical, non-contemporary author? I say that he must get into his own head what were the social and political assumptions of the work he is studying. Not whom the artist voted for, not what parties he joined, or anything of the kind; but what his creative work showed to be the assumptions on which he wrote.”

                                —  C. L. R. James

It is amazing how one can read a 300-page book and yet feel as if one is reading an abstract or a summary.  I don’t necessarily blame the author, but one feels as if one were reading a bare bones account, though the story is told effectively without the usual dense scholarly encumbrances.  Part of the feeling of skimpiness comes from a lack of detailed analysis of Baldwin’s novels, and a lack of an in-depth detailed analysis of the dynamics of Baldwin and American intellectual life.  Nonetheless one can learn some important facts, and the author does manage to effectively lay out the central intellectual issues of Baldwin’s career.  For me, the interest in this story lies in the relation between the American intellectual and society, the individual and the environment, and the problems of the unification of art and life.

Accustomed as we are to looking at things in isolation, either as individual facts or as abstractions, we don’t think according to Hegel’s dictum that the truth is the whole.  The truth of what we are as a society is neither simply the truth of the alienated intellectual nor of the anonymous “masses” (funny how these masses are never real people, but an objective idealist abstraction); the truth is the totality that produces both.  The truth is neither the truth of the abstract individual nor of the abstract collective, but of the development of the individual and the development of the cultural resources of society as a whole.  You can be as isolated and marginalized as a hermit, but you are as much a legitimate part of the “people”—and as much a part of its truth—as the captain of the football team.  Especially when you are a product of Harlem.

James Baldwin’s origins evoke two rock bottom truths: (1) he was a product of Harlem and of hard origins; (2) his childhood—the way he made his way in the world—consisted not of playing basketball but of reading and writing.  Later in life Baldwin would be the most gregarious of people, while his fundamental un-ease would show in the perpetual unbearable jumpiness of being which attended the paradox of his social acceptance as an intellectual going hand in hand with his bitterest criticisms of American society and Western man. As a child there is the loneliness of the reader; then there is the loneliness of the writer. The loneliness is an objective one; it can’t be avoided, and is as strongly rooted in society as the conviviality of sandlot baseball. It comes from growing up in Harlem, finding one’s way through literature and finding one’s way out of the church and the frustrated hypocrisy that fuels its milieu, rejecting the limited world of the preacher-father, a second heartlessness in a heartless world. In adulthood in the 1940’s there was little room to maneuver (a situation that would carry over into the 1950’s), and so we have Paris and the life of the bohemian and artiste. Remember that the truth is the whole, and taking up such a place in society is as objective a social phenomenon as going to work in an auto plant.

A certain separation of art from the rest of life is not the result of the individual will or snobbery of the artist, but a consequence of social organization itself. So to survive the 1940s and ‘50s means to live in the world of “culture”. What a shock then, to the black intellectual above all, when the movement of the ‘60’s pulls the bohemian artist in to join the fray in society. Given the awful responsibility heaped upon the black intellectual, can we be surprised, as a general observation, that the move from universalism to ethnicism, from the artiste to the engagé, must inevitably be a shift from naiveté to naiveté?

This journey of the mind was undertaken by many in the 1960’s; Baldwin and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka are prime examples. Campbell describes very effectively the impact of the civil rights movement on Baldwin, not only on his celebrity status, but on his writing and intellectual behavior. His writing suffers, not to mention his public persona at times (aggressive racial posturing), not because he is politically engaged but because he feels he must be stylistically enraged in order to fulfill his obligations. The text and the production of Blues for Mr. Charlie are shown to suffer from an excess of anger and an insufficiency of technical skill.

Another feature of Baldwin’s immersion in the movement was his changed public attitude to culture. Suddenly Baldwin no longer saw himself as a member of the cosmopolitan literati which he surely was for the better part of two decades. He did not want to be known as an intellectual, but as the literary equivalent of a jazz musician or blues singer. T. S. Eliot was now deemed not a real poet, because he wrote from “culture”, not from personal experience. In 1964 Baldwin published an essay called “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.”

This new attitude seems rather contrived to me, but in any case it should be documented and analyzed more thoroughly. I see three things going on in it at once: (1) The opportunity at long last to unify art and life means one can cast off the artificial appurtenances of “culture” and reach for something more organic, however much artificiality there may yet be in the pose of being “natural”. (2) The opportunity finally to be able to publicly assert one’s black cultural persona and wave away the oppressive burden of Europe is understandable, given that the ‘60’s made this massively possible for the first time in history, and given the decades of frustration and discrimination endured by Baldwin. All the bottled up aggression now had the chance to let loose. (3) Though I think the first two factors are more or less organic, the third factor has to do with social pressure, the need to be relevant, to be engaged, to prove that one is not going to take any crap from whitey anymore, to go from one excess to another in order to show oneself worthy in the struggle. Given the circumstances, and given Baldwin’s inherent existential discomfort, such phenomena are understandable, and unavoidable, but their net effect is to put a damper on the long-term effectiveness of literary efforts based upon such unsophisticated considerations.

Campbell is astute to the problems involved in Baldwin’s new stance. Throughout the balance of the book he states a number of times that Baldwin’s declarations are belied by his failure to follow through on elaborating a blues literary style. Not only is there a lack of stylistic evolution, but Baldwin’s style deteriorates over time, especially in his use of the vernacular. Even in his early writings, Baldwin was oft judged to be writing badly but nonetheless emotionally powerful. Throughout the balance of his lifetime, the emotional and moral power of his writing does not always compensate for the oft-met banality of his literary technique.

Paradoxically, Baldwin’s high political profile did not always endear him to political types. For example, Jones/Baraka, the bohemian-who-came-in-from-the-cold poseur of all time, gave Baldwin hell. We know of course of Eldridge Cleaver’s eventual condemnation of Baldwin. Another important example is the going-over Baldwin got in Freedomways magazine.  In 1963 Julian Mayfield denounced Baldwin as an arty avant-garde phony. Earlier, in 1962, Sylvester Leaks accused Baldwin of not knowing real Negroes and of hating his own people. We should be grateful that Campbell cites these gems from the pages of Freedomways, but it is maddening that he does not place these outpourings in any kind of context. Those who know anything of the history of literary Stalinism and the analogous character assassinations suffered by Wright, Ellison, and others, will immediately recognize where these attacks are coming from and what they represent philosophically, but the average reader may not know. It is also not surprising that Leaks should attack the novel Another Country, given that its milieu is not the virtuous “masses” of folk or factory workers engaging in those typical worker and farmer things, but the milieu of marginalized bohemians doing their non-wholesome and non-respectable things.

In contrast to his own lifestyle and universalistic deep value system (race is ultimately an illusion), Baldwin’s racial rhetoric deteriorates during the 60’s and never recovers: black becomes the symbol of nobility, white of baseness.

It was noticed early on that Baldwin was essentially a moralist and not a political person, and that the first functioning as the second would inevitably entail some dangerous blundering. For a time in the ‘60s, Baldwin did indeed succeed in capturing the “Negro mood” and thus attained a great deal of influence and even the ears of the powerful, though he was later to exaggerate his own role in the movement. He did indeed show a loyalty even to people from which has temperamentally distant—the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, etc. Like many other entertainers who supported the movement, he seems to have maintained loyalty to what was there, and there was no political theory in his mind with which to evaluate policy and direction of the movement.

The strain on his persona from functioning in an activist capacity led Baldwin to retreat abroad again after 1964 and to gather his wits as a writer again.Though he continued to intervene politically wherever he was, it would seem that he never found his footing again. It seems that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., was a blow from which he never recovered. His novels suffered too, starting with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.

There are some other nuggets of information relating to the dynamic of American intellectual life: Baldwin’s critique of religion, his range of literary interests, his relation to the New York Intellectuals, his distrust of white hipsters, his agonistic relationship with Norman Mailer. One does get a picture of the contours of the intellectual territory in which Baldwin moved, though the more scholarly reader aches for more detail, and for more in-depth analysis of Baldwin’s achievements in fiction.

I have already set up a dialectic of individual and community, intellectual and society, the artiste and the engagé, alienation of both the rootless and the “rooted”, and have shown I hope that the problems involved are more than one individual can solve whatever choices he makes in a given situation. Hopefully, you will see that my framework here is not one either of simple detachment nor of the manipulative politicization of intellectual and cultural work. My perspective on the relation between the intellectual and society is profoundly indebted to the work of C. L .R. James, particularly his writings on culture and intellectuals during his stay in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Most importantly, I want to set up the overall dynamic in which Baldwin’s failures are to be judged. Dismissing the obvious nationalist and Stalinist slurs against Baldwin, I am more deeply distressed by the facile dismissal of Baldwin—meaning his struggle to achieve something developing in time—from the Olympian retrospective heights of such writers as Ishmael Reed and Stanley Crouch. It is an easy thing looking back from the end of one historical process (that which the civil rights movement achieved) to mock a person floundering about whose very floundering put you where you are today so that you can look back to diagnose his inadequacies. Baldwin’s episodic inauthenticity, his whining and racial tantrums are not pretty, but they ultimately are much less ugly in retrospect than the embarrassingly infantile posturing of the out-and-out nationalists. Reed’s own record is less than exemplary. The scorn heaped on Baldwin for his weakness is congruent with the masterpiece mentality that judges everything in art as Platonic objects set in the heavens, as product only and not as process. Though I do ultimately believe in product too, in getting results (as opposed to the Daniel Berrigan philosophy of social activism glorying in process only, i.e. perpetual crucifixion), I think we need to be serious about the process involved in struggling to put new content into literature. And so I would like to see more analysis of the conceptual universe of Baldwin’s fiction.

The twin ravages of the aging process and the furious rhythm of profound social-cultural change tend to have a congealing effect on those who experience and innovate and end up living long enough to tell the tale. There comes a point in our lives when we cease to live anything new—our symbolic universe becomes complete and then we live retrospectively through its parameters. James Joyce wrote about Ireland as he experienced it in a given range of time, and not the contemporary environments of other countries in which he wrote. Richard Wright, though he did write about the world of expatriates in Paris, was nonetheless tied to America has he knew it before 1940, until he died in 1960. It seems that James Baldwin’s real life ends with the civil rights movement and thus his symbolic universe as well.

And what of the symbolic landscape of such novels as Another Country and Just Above My Head? Unfortunately, my memories of these works have evaporated over the past decade and a half to two decades. I retain some vague impressions of Just Above My Head, which deeply impressed me when it first came out. The title itself is ghostly: the infinite, the potential, the completion, the attainment, the consciousness of what we are hovers like a guardian spirit above our dumb actuality and finite particularity. I recall the novel’s poignant retrospectiveness, the intense nostalgia of being and feeling, the depictions of states of mind caught up in circumstances (singing in the choir, falling in love, the shock of disappearance of a loved one presumably kidnapped, lynched, and disposed of). I thought then that if anyone could capture all the nuances of finely individualized American experience (a concern of mine then and now), Baldwin could do it.

Unfortunately, I cannot remember any more of what he actually did. I would recommend to future readers and writers to take a look at what consciousness was actually achieved, by himself and by his characters. Baldwin was a man of religious temperament who left religion behind. He still uses the symbolism of religion and the language of redemption: to what extent does he understand religion as either a manifestation of consciousness or an obstacle to it? To what extent are the suppressed dimensions of self-awareness finally achieved? To what degree is the truth of experience, obscured by the conventions of social life (obscured not just by white misunderstanding but by black collective self-deception as well), revealed?

James Baldwin’s language of redemption, his prophetic warnings of the cost of care and self-awareness—“the price of the ticket”—will continue to haunt us as his eyes haunt us. Baldwin was so desperate to drill down to the soul root of human existence in a painfully divided world that his passional dynamo blinds us—and himself too—with the excessive sparks of sentimentality. He wants terribly for us to feel what he feels: that is why his writing aches so. Sadly, in the realm of literary performance, emotion can only sustain itself when elevated to the level of concept. If we seek out those moments wherein Baldwin attains this level, therein we will find the traces of his enduring greatness.

June 22, 1994


Campbell, James.Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991.

James, C. L. R. The C. L. R. James Reader; edited and introduced by Anna Grimshaw. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992. Letter to Bell (June 1953), p. 231 & Letter to Jay Leyda (7 March 1953), p. 236.

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