To me James Baldwin is more American than any American writer during his time. While he creates the conscience of his race in his works, he refuses to allow that destiny to be shaped by an obvious plot in which being black could only lead to mayhem and tragedy. His being gay further complicates his role. He once said he cannot handle both issues in the same novel.
In an essay in 1960 called ‘Notes for a Hypthetical Novel’ he had mused on the white people he met in downtown New York in his early twenties:
In the beginning, I thought that the white world was very different from the world I was moving out of and I turned out to be entirely wrong. It seemed different. I seemed safer, at least the white people seemed safer. It seemed cleaner, it seemed more polite, and, of course, it seemed much richer from the material point of view. But I didn’t meet anyone in that world who didn’t suffer from the same affliction that all the people I had fled from suffered from and that was that they didn’t know who they were. They wanted to be someone that they were not.
Thus is Baldwin: sharp, biting, and calm. In Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar, Colm Tóibín explores how the changing world impacted on the lives of people who kept their homosexuality hidden, and reveals how natural desire affected their works.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
My next read of Baldwin will be Go Tell It On the Mountain. “Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It On the Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.