(Note: We’ve just published Ed Pavlić’s review of The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings of James Baldwin in The Quarterly Conversation. This is his rebuttal to James Campbell’s review in The New York Times.
This rebuttal will be serialized in three parts on The Constant Conversation this week.)
It is only in music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.
–James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” 1951
Anyone who has encountered the ambivalent (by turns caring/perceptive and judgmental/ dismissive) score of James Campbell’s 1991 Talking at the Gates, his biography of James Baldwin, could have anticipated much of his review (The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2010) of The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Is this the high-profile review we need of the first major release of James Baldwin’s work in over a decade? Since it’s the one we have, it warrants close attention. Such scrutiny, turns out, is instructive because Campbell’s review, as was the case with his biography, bears key symptoms that hamper a more useful reckoning with the work of James Baldwin, possibly America’s most under-valued major writer.
At least two of Campbell’s three explicit disagreements with Baldwin’s work (now almost twenty years old themselves) guide his review of The Cross of Redemption: 1) Campbell resents Baldwin’s departure from the elaborate, Henry James-influenced style of his early prose, in Gates, he writes, “And it was done on purpose”; 2) he is deeply suspicious of the presence of emotional intensity in intellectual work, in the review he calls it “hyperbole,” in Gates, he writes, “Baldwin’s approach . . .was emotional, not theoretical”; 3) he misunderstands and / or is deaf to the importance of music to all of James Baldwin’s work and blames the forfeiture of the Jamesian style on Baldwin’s embrace of black music, in Gates he characterizes it as a conversion narrative, “Nineteen sixty-three was the year his voice broke.” Campbell’s thought in each of these regards is rather more preemptive and dismissive than analytical and reflects, in all respects, cultural assumptions Baldwin addresses explicitly and discards in his work. When their subjects turn away from their assumptions, colonialists punish and liberals turn away. Baldwin knew this and this, in fact, is a large part of why he did what he did, some of it certainly on purpose.
As his biography makes somewhat clearer than his review, Campbell’s specious (and narcissistic) construction of a “pre-and post-eloquent” Baldwin pivots on his reading of Baldwin’s adoption of a blues aesthetic of the beat ca. 1963-64. In fact, Baldwin discusses the importance of precisely this musical sense of language (among other places, with Studs Terkel in July of 1961) to the writing of Nobody Knows My Name and Another Country which he finished in 1961 and had worked on for several years. His regard for black music’s foundational–though unexcavated–importance to American aesthetics is unmistakably clear as early as the essay “Many Thousands Gone” (first published in 1951 and again in Notes of a Native Son, 1955). In a 1979 speech in Berkeley which he opens by saying “I’m going to improvise like a writer,” Baldwin ties his encounter with “the beat. . . of the language of the people who had produced me” to his early days in Paris, “where I could not speak to anybody because I spoke no French and when nobody wanted to speak to me,” and to the origin of his mature writing (in whatever style). All this leaves to the side the crucial questions: eloquence on whose terms?; eloquence to what end? In 1959, Miles Davis played what many considered the most perfectly measured solo in modern jazz in the introduction to “So What.” He never played it like that again. The title of the song, indeed, suggests much about Baldwin and Davis’s regard for such a fly in amber conception of perfection, or of anything else.
Based on the conclusions established in his biography, Campbell’s review of The Cross of Redemption doesn’t fare well under vigorous scrutiny. Is Baldwin’s supposedly empty 1962 insistence, “we are the generation that must . . .remake America. . . without this endeavor, we will perish,” (that Campbell sees as an instance of Baldwin’s fall from eloquence) any different in substance from the oft-quoted, “If we do not now dare everything. . .” passage that closes The Fire Next Time which Campbell holds up (in Gates) as, “a visionary sermon,” the last stand of Baldwin’s treasured, high-English mastery? Mistaking Baldwin’s intense and contested place in history for a tabula rasa of rational equivocation, Campbell manages to ask, is this duty different from any other generation? Well, no, actually; and yes, of course it is. And, in the quote Campbell cites, strictly speaking, Baldwin doesn’t say it is or isn’t. It’s simply not the point.
Campbell follows this mishap with what sounds like a glib homage to William F. Buckley’s pretentious rationality: “Since this generation evidently did not perish, should we conclude that it succeeded?” Buckley himself tried that with Baldwin’s living eloquence (Cambridge, 1965). It didn’t go well. Of course, part of Baldwin’s generation (and the next) didn’t perish, not at all. Baldwin’s generation of politically active peers was beaten, imprisoned, and assassinated while Baldwin and his family watched, up close, wondering if he was next while he worried to what extent his work, in turn, endangered his family. This is not hyperbole nor is it paranoia. And, as to the point, as an average college sophomore who has read Another Country, for instance, knows, from Baldwin’s point of view, people are fully capable of “perishing” when they are thirty only to succeed in staggering on through a life of martini lunches to draw social security benefits until they’re 90. That is the point : torpor mistaken for freedom and Baldwin’s call to avoid that mistake. Several of the pieces included in The Cross of Redemption make this idea of “death” by torpor and delusion explicitly clear. In the same essay from which Campbell quotes above, Baldwin writes, “We are slowly discovering that there are many ways to die.” So, we’d assume that Campbell knows this, too. But most of the readers of the review don’t and that’s the way he wants it. Likely, he won’t go there because his task is to guard his position on Baldwin rather than pursue and engage the point of what Baldwin’s work was after.
[Ed Pavlić's response is continued on The Constant Conversation here.]