New World Cacophony
JAMES BALDWIN IS ONE OF THE OF the brashest, brightest, most promising young writers in America. A New York Negro whose early novels won him a series of money grants to live and work in Europe away from race pressure, he discovered that despite everything, he had more in common with Americans—even white Southerners—than with Europeans. He came back five years ago to face again what it is to be a Negro in the U.S.
Since then, as a lecturer and essayist (Nobody Knows My Name), he has proved himself willing to step on anybody's toes—black or white—in order to get said what he feels must be said about his country. As social commentator, he insists that whites, in hiding behind public matters of housing and civil rights, have failed to face the real issue of racism—private human hate, which can be atoned for only by private human love. As literary critic, he has judged Negro and white writers with equal severity. Much was expected of Baldwin's new novel. Now out, it proves a failure—doubly disappointing not only because it does not live up to advance hopes, but also because it so clearly has tried to be an important book.
Chosen Identity. In one fictional fling, Baldwin has tried to unburden himself of all his feelings about racism and homosexuality, about the cacophony of despair and misunderstanding that he believes America to be. But in Another Country this is projected on a wholly inadequate fictional frame: six characters in search of love and self-knowledge in a Dostoevskian substratum of Greenwich Village. Each has been chosen as a representative of melting-pot America. Negro Rufus Scott, a jazz musician from Harlem, has never been able to learn his identity as a man because he could never forget his identity as a Negro. His sister Ida battles the white world too, but ends by yielding to the love of her brother's best friend, an Irish-Italian from Brooklyn named Vivaldo Moore. Blonde Clarissa Silenski, a Boston aristocrat (Puritan uprightness. Puritan guilt), is disappointed in the second-rate values of her husband Richard, a teacher and writer of Polish immigrant stock. Actor Eric Jones (the American South) has had to quit Alabama for Europe, less because he is a homosexual than because he is fond of Negroes. But like Author Baldwin he courageously comes home to live with the truth about himself.
It is James Baldwin's point that these people, hopelessly intertwined past all concern for sex or color, are interesting individuals out of whose actions the meaning of the novel must emerge. But Baldwin's writing skill, adequate in simpler novels, is not up to maneuvering so complex a collection of people. The dialogue, in which all women are referred to as "chicks," is sometimes sharply comic, often hopelessly wooden. The action, which is slight, drags. The characters' inner soul searchings too often lapse into a kind of interchangeable interior recollection that seems to be carried on not by individuals but by Baldwin himself.
Shocks & Bore. Part of the literary problem is Baldwin's problem subjects. Negroes and homosexuals are individual human beings. But knowing that this is true is not enough to surmount the difficulty of making them seem so in fiction. As a sociological example of what can happen to a Negro who partly accepts the white world's continual assumption that he is inferior, Rufus Scott is a masterful study. In his affair with a gentle white girl, in his relation with a white friend he becomes an unappeasable black paranoiac whom no white man can understand and no amount of love can redeem. But as an individual he does not exist.
Perhaps because he feels personally compelled to face homosexuality in print, Baldwin relates all sexual contact in sober clinical detail. So much sex, so described, between humdrum heterosexual couples would have been, at best, a bore—and Baldwin knows it. Between homosexuals, after the first shock, it is also a bore—but Baldwin apparently does not know it. What's worse his male lovers sometimes use the kind of saccharine language that Baldwin would sneer at if he ran across it from characters called Bob and Linda in some slick women's magazine.
In an earlier essay called Everybody's Protest Novel, Baldwin insisted that the novelist, black or white, whether he is dealing with raw-skinned minority groups or not, has no excuse for bad writing or the use of sociological stick figures. He must instead work in the mysterious "web of ambiguity, paradox, hunger, darkness" which is individual character. But Baldwin falls into the error that he deplores. In a modern world earnestly concerned with understanding abnormality, Baldwin will find many critics willing to judge him gently. The real question is whether, finally, he will be able to judge himself.