Dissent, Autumn 1963, pp. 353-68
Black Boys and Native Sons
By Irving Howe
James Baldwin first came to the notice of the American literary public not through
his own fiction but as author of an impassioned criticism of the conventional Negro
novel. In 1949 he published in Partisan Review an essay called "Everybody's
Protest Novel," attacking the kind of fiction, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to
Native Son, that had been written about the ordeal of the American Negroes;
and two years later he printed in the same magazine "Many Thousands Gone," a tougher
and more explicit polemic against Richard Wright and the school of naturalistic
"protest" fiction that Wright represented. The protest novel, wrote Baldwin, is
undertaken out of sympathy for the Negro, but through its need to present him merely
as a social victim or a mythic agent of sexual prowess, it hastens to confine the
Negro to the very tones of violence he has known all his life. Compulsively reenacting
and magnifying his trauma, the protest novel proves unable to transcend it. So choked
with rage has this kind of writing become, it cannot show the Negro as a unique
person or locate him as a member of a community with its own traditions and values,
its own "unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life."
The failure of the protest novel "lies in its insistence that it is [man's] categorization
alone which is real and which cannot be transcended."
Like all attacks launched by young writers against their famous elders, Baldwin's
essays were also a kind of announcement of his own intentions. He wrote admiringly
about Wright's courage ("his work was an immense liberation and revelation for me"),
but now, precisely because Wright had prepared the way for all the Negro writers
to come, he, Baldwin, would go further, transcending the sterile categories of "Negro-ness,"
whether those enforced by the white world or those defensively erected by the Negroes
themselves. No longer mere victim or rebel, the Negro would stand free in a self-achieved
humanity. As Baldwin put it some years later, he hoped "to prevent myself from becoming
merely a Negro; or even, merely a Negro writer." The world "tends to trap and immobilize
you in the role you play," and for the Negro writer, if he is to be a writer at
all, it hardly matters whether the trap is sprung from motives of hatred or condescension.
Baldwin's rebellion against the older Negro novelist who had served him as a model
and had helped launch his career, was not of course an unprecedented event. The
history of literature is full of such painful ruptures, and the issue Baldwin raised
is one that keeps recurring, usually as an aftermath to a period of "socially engaged"
writing. The novel is an inherently ambiguous genre: it strains toward formal autonomy
and can seldom avoid being a public gesture. If it is true, as Baldwin said in "Everybody's
Protest Novel," that "literature and sociology are not one and the same," it is
equally true that such statements hardly begin to cope with the problem of how a
writer's own experience affects his desire to represent human affairs in a work
of fiction. Baldwin's formula evades, through rhetorical sweep, the genuinely difficult
issue of the relationship between social experience and literature.
Yet in Notes of a Native Son, the book in which his remark appears, Baldwin
could also say: "One writes out of one thing only -- one's own experience." What,
then, was the experience of a man with a black skin, what could it be in this country?
How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without
some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or
buried? The "sociology" of his existence formed a constant pressure on his literary
work, and not merely in the way this might be true for any writer, but with a pain
and ferocity that nothing could remove.
James Baldwin's early essays are superbly eloquent, displaying virtually in full
the gifts that would enable him to become one of the great American rhetoricians.
But these essays, like some of the later ones, are marred by rifts in logic, so
little noticed when one gets swept away by the brilliance of the language that it
takes a special effort to attend their argument.
Later Baldwin would see the problems of the Negro writer with a greater charity
and more mature doubt. Reviewing in 1959 a book of poems by Langston Hughes, he
wrote: "Hughes is an American Negro poet and has no choice but to be acutely aware
of it. He is not the first American Negro to find the war between his social and
artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable." All but irreconcilable: the phrase
strikes a note sharply different from Baldwin's attack upon Wright in the early
fifties. And it is not hard to surmise the reasons for this change. In the intervening
years Baldwin had been living through some of the experiences that had goaded Richard
Wright into rage and driven him into exile; he too, like Wright, had been to hell
and back, many times over.
The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter
how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of
the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama and claustrophobia of vision, Richard
Wright's novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred,
fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture. A blow at
the white man, the novel forced him to recognize himself as an oppressor. A blow
at the black man, the novel forced him to recognize the cost of his submission.
Native Son assaulted the most cherished of American vanities: the hope
that the accumulated injustice of the past would bring with it no lasting penalties,
the fantasy that in his humiliation the Negro somehow retained a sexual potency
-- or was it a childlike good-nature? -- that made it necessary to envy and still
more to suppress him. Speaking from the black wrath of retribution, Wright insisted
that history can be a punishment. He told us the one thing even the most liberal
whites preferred not to hear: that Negroes were far from patient or forgiving, that
they were scarred by fear, that they hated every moment of their suppression even
when seeming most acquiescent, and that often enough they hated us, the decent and
cultivated white men who from complicity or neglect shared in the responsibility
for their plight. If such younger novelists as Baldwin and Ralph Ellison were to
move beyond Wright's harsh naturalism and toward more supple modes of fiction, that
was possible only because Wright had been there first, courageous enough to release
the full weight of his anger.
In Black Boy, the autobiographical narrative he published several years
later, Wright would tell of an experience he had while working as a bellboy in the
South. Many times he had come into a hotel room carrying luggage or food and seen
naked white women lounging about, unmoved by shame at his presence, for "blacks
were not considered human being anyway.... I was a non-man.... I felt doubly cast
out." With the publication of Native Son, however, Wright forced his readers
to acknowledge his anger, and in that way, if none other, he wrested for himself
a sense of dignity as a man. He forced his readers to confront the disease of our
culture, and to one of its most terrifying symptoms he gave the name of Bigger Thomas.
Brutal and brutalized, lost forever to his unexpended hatred and his fear of the
world, a numbed and illiterate black boy stumbling into a murder and never, not
even at the edge of the electric chair, breaking through to an understanding of
either his plight or himself, Bigger Thomas was a part of Richard Wright, a part
even of the James Baldwin who stared with horror at Wright's Bigger, unable either
to absorb him into his consciousness or eject him from it. Enormous courage, a discipline
of self-conquest, was required to conceive Bigger Thomas, for this was no eloquent
Negro spokesman, no admirable intellectual or formidable proletarian. Bigger was
drawn -- one would surmise, deliberately -- from white fantasy and white contempt.
Bigger was the worst of Negro life accepted, then rendered a trifle conscious and
thrown back at those who had made him what he was. "No American Negro exists," Baldwin
would later write, "who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in the skull."
Wright drove his narrative to the very core of American phobia: sexual fright, sexual
violation. He understood that the fantasy of rape is a consequence of guilt, what
the whites suppose themselves to deserve. He understood that the white man's notion
of uncontaminated Negro vitality, little as it had to do with the bitter realities
of Negro life, reflected some ill-formed and buried feeling that our culture has
run down, lost its blood, become febrile. And he grasped the way in which the sexual
issue has been intertwined with social relationships, for even as the white people
who hire Bigger as their chauffeur are decent and charitable, even as the girl he
accidentally kills is a liberal of sorts, theirs is the power and the privilege.
"We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't."
The novel barely stops to provision a recognizable social world, often contenting
itself with cartoon simplicities and yielding almost entirely to the nightmare incomprehension
of Bigger Thomas. The mood is apocalyptic, the tone superbly aggressive. Wright
was an existentialist long before he heard the name, for he was committed to the
literature of extreme situations both through the pressures of his rage and the
gasping hope of an ultimate catharsis.
Wright confronts both the violence and the crippling limitations of Bigger Thomas.
For Bigger white people are not people at all, but something more, "a sort of great
natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead." And only through violence does
he gather a little meaning in life, pitifully little: "he had murdered and created
a new life for himself." Beyond that Bigger cannot go.
At first Native Son seems still another naturalistic novel: a novel of
exposure and accumulation, charting the waste of the undersides of the American
city. Behind the book one senses the molding influence of Theodore Dreiser, especially
the Dreiser of an American Tragedy who knows there are situations so oppressive
that only violence can provide their victims with the hope of dignity. Like Dreiser,
Wright wished to pummel his readers into awareness; like Dreiser, to over-power
them with the sense of society as an enclosing force. Yet the comparison is finally
of limited value, and for the disconcerting reason that Dreiser had a white skin
and Wright a black one.
The usual naturalistic novel is written with detachment, as if by a scientist surveying
a field of operations; it is a novel in which the writer withdraws from a detested
world and coldly piles up the evidence for detesting it. Native Son, though
preserving some of the devices of the naturalistic novel, deviates sharply from
its characteristic tone: a tone Wright could not possibly have maintained and which,
it may be, no Negro novelist can really hold for long. Native Son is a
work of assault rather than withdrawal; the author yields himself in part to a vision
of nightmare. Bigger's cowering perception of the world becomes the most vivid and
authentic component of the book. Naturalism pushed to an extreme turns here into
something other than itself, a kind of expressionist outburst, no longer a replica
of the familiar social world but a self-contained realm of grotesque emblems.
That Native Son has grave faults anyone can see. The language is often
coarse, flat in rhythm, syntactically overburdened, heavy with journalistic slag.
Apart from Bigger, who seems more a brute energy than a particularized figure, the
characters have little reality, the Negroes being mere stock accessories and the
whites either "agit-prop villains or heroic Communists" whom Wright finds it easier
to admire from a distance than establish from within. The long speech by Bigger's
radical lawyer Max (again a device apparently borrowed from Dreiser) is ill-related
to the book itself: Wright had not achieved Dreiser's capacity for absorbing everything,
even the most recalcitrant philosophical passages, into a unified vision of things.
Between Wright's feelings as a Negro and his beliefs as a Communist there is hardly
a genuine fusion, and it is through this gap that a good part of the novel's unreality
Yet it should be said that the endlessly repeated criticism that Wright caps his
melodrama with a party-line oration tends to oversimplify the novel, for Wright
is too honest simply to allow the propagandistic message to constitute the last
word. Indeed, the last word is given not to Max but to Bigger. For at the end Bigger
remains at the mercy of his hatred and fear, the lawyer retreats helplessly, the
projected union between political consciousness and raw revolt has not been achieved
-- as if Wright were persuaded that, all ideology apart, there is for each Negro
an ultimate trial that he can bear only by himself.
Black Boy, which appeared five years after Native Son, is a slighter
but more skillful piece of writing. Richard Wright came from a broken home, and
as he moved from his helpless mother to a grandmother whose religious fanaticism
(she was a Seventh-Day Adventist) proved utterly suffocating, he soon picked up
a precocious knowledge of vice and a realistic awareness of social power. This autobiographical
memoir, a small classic in the literature of self-discovery, is packed with harsh
evocations of Negro adolescence in the South. The young Wright learns how wounding
it is to wear the mask of a grinning niggerboy in order to keep a job. He examines
the life of the Negroes and judges it without charity or idyllic compensations --
for he already knows, in his heart and bones, that to be oppressed means to lose
out on human possibilities. By the time he is seventeen, preparing to leave for
Chicago, where he will work on a WPA project, become a member of the Communist party,
and publish his first book of stories called Uncle Tom's Children, Wright
has managed to achieve the beginnings of consciousness, through a slow and painful
growth from the very bottom of deprivation to the threshold of artistic achievement
and a glimpsed idea of freedom.
Baldwin's attack upon Wright had partly been anticipated by the more sophisticated
American critics. Alfred Kazin, for example, had found in Wright a troubling obsession
If he chose to write the story of Bigger Thomas as a grotesque crime story, it is
because his own indignation and the sickness of the age combined to make him dependent
on violence and shock, to astonish the reader by torrential scenes of cruelty, hunger,
rape, murder and flight, and then enlighten him by crude Stalinist homilies.
The last phrase apart, something quite similar could be said about the author of
Crime and Punishment; it is disconcerting to reflect that few novelists,
even the very greatest, could pass this kind of moral inspection. For the novel
as a genre seems to have an inherent bias toward extreme effects, such as violence,
cruelty and the like. More important, Kazin's judgment rests on the assumption that
a critic can readily distinguish between the genuine need of a writer to cope with
ugly realities and the damaging effect these realities may have upon his moral and
psychic life. But in regard to contemporary writers one finds it very hard to distinguish
between a valid portrayal of violence and an obsessive involvement with it. A certain
amount of obsession may be necessary for the valid portrayal -- writers devoted
to themes of desperation cannot keep themselves morally intact. And when we come
to a writer like Richard Wright, who deals with the most degraded and inarticulate
sector of the Negro world, the distinction between objective rendering and subjective
immersion becomes still more difficult, perhaps even impossible. For a novelist
who has lived through the searing experiences that Wright has there cannot be much
possibility of approaching his subject with the "mature" poise recommended by highminded
critics. What is more, the very act of writing his novel, the effort to confront
what a Bigger Thomas means to him, is for such a writer a way of dredging up and
then perhaps shedding the violence that society has pounded into him. Is Bigger
an authentic projection of a social reality, or is he a symptom of Wright's "dependence
on violence and shock?" Obviously both; and it could not be otherwise.
For the reality pressing upon all of Wright's work was a nightmare of remembrance,
everything from which he had pulled himself out, with an effort and at a cost that
is almost unimaginable. Without the terror of that nightmare it would have been
impossible for Wright to summon the truth of the reality -- not the only truth about
American Negroes, perhaps not even the deepest one, but a primary and inescapable
truth. Both truth and terror rested on a gross fact which Wright alone dared to
confront: that violence is central to the life of the American Negro, defining and
crippling him with a harshness few other Americans need suffer. "No American Negro
exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in the skull."
Now I think it would be well not to judge in the abstract, or with much haste, the
violence that gathers in the Negro's heart as a response to the violence he encounters
in society. It would be well to see this violence as part of an historical experience
that is open to more scrutiny but ought to be shielded from presumptuous moralizing.
Bigger Thomas may be enslaved to a hunger for violence, but anyone reading Native
Son with mere courtesy must observe the way in which Wright, even while yielding
emotionally to Bigger's deprivation, also struggles to transcend it. That he did
not fully succeed seems obvious; one may doubt that any Negro writer could.
More subtle and human than Baldwin's criticism is a remark made some years ago by
Isaac Rosenfeld while reviewing Black Boy: "As with all Negroes and all
men who are born to suffer social injustice, part of [Wright's] humanity found itself
only in acquaintance with violence, and in hatred of the oppressor." Surely Rosenfeld
was not here inviting an easy acquiescence in violence; he was trying to suggest
the historical context, the psychological dynamics, which condition the attitudes
all Negro writers take, or must take, toward violence. To say this is not to propose
the condescension of exempting Negro writers from moral judgment, but to suggest
the terms of understanding, and still more, the terms of hesitation for making a
There were times when Baldwin grasped this point better than anyone else. If he
could speak of the "unrewarding rage" of Native Son, he also spoke of the
book as "an immense liberation." Is it impudent to suggest that one reason he felt
the book to be a liberation was precisely its rage, precisely the relief and pleasure
that he, like so many other Negroes, must have felt upon seeing those long-suppressed
emotions finally breaking through?
The kind of criticism Baldwin wrote was very fashionable in America during the post-war
years. Mimicking the Freudian corrosion of motives and bristling with dialectical
agility, this criticism approached all ideal claims, especially those made by radical
and naturalist writers, with a weary skepticism and proceeded to transfer the values
such writers were attacking to the perspective from which they attacked. If Dreiser
wrote about the power hunger and dream of success corrupting American society, that
was because he was really infatuated with them. If Farrell showed the meanness of
life in the Chicago slums, that was because he could not really escape it. If Wright
portrayed the violence gripping Negro life, that was because he was really obsessed
with it. The word "really" or more sophisticated equivalents could do endless service
in behalf of a generation of intellectuals soured on the tradition of protest but
suspecting they might be pygmies in comparison to the writers who had protested.
In reply, there was no way to "prove" that Dreiser, Farrell and Wright were not
contaminated by the false values they attacked; probably, since they were mere mortals
living in the present society, they were contaminated; and so one had to keep insisting
that such writers were nevertheless presenting actualities of modern experience,
not merely phantoms of their neuroses.
If Bigger Thomas, as Baldwin said, "accepted a theology that denies him life," if
in his Negro self-hatred he "wants to die because he glories in his hatred," this
did not constitute a criticism of Wright unless one were prepared to assume what
was simply preposterous: that Wright, for all his emotional involvement with Bigger,
could not see beyond the limitations of the character he had created. This was a
question Baldwin never seriously confronted in his early essays. He would describe
accurately the limitations of Bigger Thomas and then, by one of those rhetorical
leaps at which he is so gifted, would assume that these were also the limitations
of Wright or his book.
Still another ground for Baldwin's attack was his reluctance to accept the clenched
militancy of Wright's posture as both novelist and man. In a remarkable sentence
appearing in "Everybody's Protest Novel" Baldwin wrote: "our humanity is our burden,
our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more
difficult -- that is, accept it." What Baldwin was saying here was part of the outlook
so many American intellectuals took over during the years of a post-war liberalism
not very different from conservatism. Ralph Ellison expressed this view in terms
still more extreme: "Thus to see America with an awareness of its rich diversity
and its almost magical fluidity and freedom, I was forced to conceive of a novel
unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the
final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction." This note
of willed affirmation was to be heard in many other works of the early fifties,
most notably in Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March. Today it is likely
to strike one as a note whistled in the dark. In response to Baldwin and Ellison,
Wright would have said (I virtually quote the words he used in talking to me during
the summer of 1958) that only through struggle could men with black skins, and for
that matter, all the oppressed of the world, achieve their humanity. It was a lesson,
said Wright with a touch of bitterness yet not without kindness, that the younger
writers would have to learn in their own way and their own time. All that has happened
since, bears him out.
One criticism made by Baldwin in writing about Native Son, perhaps because
it is the least ideological, remains important. He complained that in Wright's novel
"a necessary dimension has been cut away; this dimension being the relationship
that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition
of shared experience which creates a way of life." The climate of the book, "common
to most Negro protest novels... has led us all to believe that in Negro life there
exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse,
such as may, for example, sustain the Jew even after he has left his father's house."
It could be urged, perhaps, that in composing a novel verging on expressionism Wright
need not be expected to present the Negro world with fullness, balance or nuance;
but there can be little doubt that in this respect Baldwin did score a major point:
the posture of militancy, no matter how great the need for it, exacts a heavy price
from the writer, as indeed from everyone else. For "Even the hatred of squalor/Makes
the brow grow stern/Even anger against injustice/Makes the voice grow harsh..."
All one can ask, by way of reply, is whether the refusal to struggle a still greater
price. It is a question that would soon James Baldwin, and almost against his will.
In his own novels Baldwin hoped to show the Negro world in its diversity and richness,
not as a mere specter of protest; he wished to show it as a living culture of men
and women who, even when deprived, share in the emotions and desires of common humanity.
And he meant also to evoke something of the distinctiveness of Negro life in America,
as evidence of its worth, moral tenacity and right to self-acceptance. How can one
not sympathize with such a program? And how, precisely as one does sympathize, can
one avoid the conclusion that in this effort Baldwin has thus far failed to register
a major success?
His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is an enticing but minor work:
it traces the growing-up of a Negro boy in the atmosphere of a repressive Calvinism,
a Christianity stripped of grace and brutal with fantasies of submission and vengeance.
No other work of American fiction reveals so graphically the way in which an oppressed
minority aggravates its own oppression through the torments of religious fanaticism.
The novel is also striking as a modest Bildungsroman, the education of
an imaginative Negro boy caught in the heart-struggle between his need to revolt,
which would probably lead to his destruction in the jungles of New York and the
miserly consolations of black Calvinism, which would signify that he accepts the
denial of his personal needs. But it would be a mistake to claim too much for this
first novel, in which a rhetorical flair and a conspicuous sincerity often eat away
at the integrity of event and the substance of character. The novel is intense,
and the intensity is due to Baldwin's absorption in that religion of denial which
leads the boy to become a preacher in his father's church, to scream out God's word
from "a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill
me." Religion has of course played a central role in Negro life, yet one may doubt
that the special kind of religious experience dominating Go Tell It on the Mountain
is any more representative of that life, any more advantageous a theme for gathering
in the qualities of Negro culture, than the violence and outrage of Native Son.
Like Wright before him, Baldwin wrote from the intolerable pressures of his own
experience; there was no alternative; each had to release his own agony before he
could regard Negro life with the beginnings of objectivity.
Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, seems to me a flat failure. It
abandons Negro life entirely (not in itself a cause for judgment) and focuses upon
the distraught personal relations of several young Americans adrift in Paris. The
problem of homosexuality, which is to recur in Baldwin's fiction, is confronted
with a notable candor, but also with a disconcerting kind of sentimentalism, a quavering
and sophisticated submission to the ideology of love. It is one thing to call for
the treatment of character as integral and unique; but quite another for a writer
with Baldwin's background and passions to bring together successfully his sensibility
as a Negro and his sense of personal trouble.
Baldwin has not yet succeeded -- the irony is a stringent one -- in composing the
kind of novel he counterposed to the work of Richard Wright. He has written three
essays, ranging in tone from disturbed affection to disturbing malice, in which
he tries to break from his rebellious dependency upon Wright, but he remains tied
to the memory of the older man. The Negro writer who has come closest to satisfying
Baldwin's program is not Baldwin himself but Ralph Ellison, whose novel Invisible
Man is a brilliant though flawed achievement, standing with Native Son
as the major fiction thus far composed by American Negroes.
What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it
displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this
country -- I say "apparent" because the freedom is not quite so complete as the
book's admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man
does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter.
No white man could have written it, since no white man could know with such intimacy
the life of the Negroes from the inside; yet Ellison writes with an ease and humor
which are now and again simply miraculous.
Invisible Man is a record of a Negro's journey through contemporary America,
from South to North, province to city, naive faith to disenchantment and perhaps
beyond. There are clear allegorical intentions (Ellison is "literary" to a fault)
but with a book so rich in talk and drama it would be a shame to neglect the fascinating
surface for the mere depths. The beginning is both nightmare and farce. A timid
Negro boy comes to a white smoker in a Southern town: he is to be awarded a scholarship.
Together with several other Negro boys he is rushed to the front of the ballroom,
where a sumptuous blonde tantalizes and frightens them by dancing in the nude. Blindfolded,
the Negro boys stage a "battle royal," a free-for-all in which they pummel each
other to the drunken shouts of the whites. Practical jokes, humiliations, terror
-- and then the boy delivers a prepared speech of gratitude to his white benefactors.
At the end of this section, the boy dreams that he has opened the briefcase given
him together with his scholarship to a Negro college and that he finds an inscription
reading: "To Whom It May Concern: Keep This Nigger-Boy Running."
He keeps running. He goes to his college and is expelled for having innocently taken
a white donor through a Negro gin-mill which also happens to be a brothel. His whole
experience is to follow this pattern. Strip down a pretense, whether by choice or
accident, and you will suffer penalties, since the rickety structure of Negro respectability
rests upon pretense and those who profit from it cannot bear to have the reality
exposed (in this case, that the college is dependent upon the Northern white millionaire).
The boy then leave for New York, where he works in a white-paint factory, becomes
a soapboxer for the Harlem Communists, the darling of the fellow-travelling Bohemia,
and a big wheel in the Negro world. At the end, after witnessing a frenzied race
riot in Harlem, he "finds himself" in some not entirely specified way and his odyssey
from submission to autonomy is complete.
Ellison has an abundance of that primary talent without which neither craft nor
intelligence can save a novelist: he is richly, wildly inventive; his scenes rise
and dip with tension, his people bleed, his language sings. No other writer has
captured so much of the hidden gloom and surface gaiety of Negro life.
There is a great deal of superbly rendered speech: a West Indian woman inciting
men to resist an eviction, a Southern sharecropper calmly describing how he seduced
his daughter, a Harlem streetvendor spinning jive. The rhythm of Ellison's prose
is harsh and nervous like a beat of harried alertness. The observation is expert:
he knows exactly how zootsuiters walk, making stylization their principle of life,
and exactly how the antagonism between American and West Indian Negroes works itself
out in speech and humor. He can accept his people as they are, in their blindness
and hope: -- here, finally, the Negro world does exist, seemingly apart from plight
or protest. And in the final scene Ellison has created an unforgettable image: "Ras
the Destroyer," a Negro nationalist, appears on a horse dressed in the costume of
an Abyssinian chieftain, carrying spear and shield, and charging wildly into the
police -- a black Quixote, mad, absurd, pathetic.
But even Ellison cannot help being caught up with the idea of the Negro. To write
simply about "Negro experience" with the esthetic distance urged by the critics
of the fifties, is a moral and psychological impossibility, for plight and protest
are inseparable from that experience, and even if less political than Wright and
less prophetic than Baldwin, Ellison knows this quite as well as they do.
If Native Son is marred by the ideological delusion of the thirties,
Invisible Man is marred, less grossly, by those of the fifties. The middle
section of Ellison's novel, dealing with the Harlem Communists, does not ring quite
true, in the way a good portion of the writings on this theme during the post-war
years does not ring quite true. Ellison makes his Stalinist figures so vicious and
stupid that one cannot understand how they could ever have attracted him or any
other Negro. That the party leadership manipulated members with deliberate cynicism
is beyond doubt, but this cynicism was surely more complex and guarded than Ellison
shows it to be. No party leader would ever tell a prominent Negro Communist, as
one of them does in Invisible Man: "You were not hired [as a functionary]
to think" -- even if that were what he felt. Such passages are almost as damaging
as the propagandist outbursts in Native Son.
Still more troublesome, both as it breaks the coherence of the novel and reveals
Ellison's dependence on the post-war Zeitgeist, is the sudden, unprepared and implausible
assertion of unconditioned freedom with which the novel ends. As the hero abandons
the Communist Party he wonders, "Could politics ever be an expression of love?"
This question, more portentous than profound, cannot easily be reconciled to a character
who has been presented mainly as a passive victim of his experience. Nor is one
easily persuaded by the hero's discovery that "my world has become one of infinite
possibilities," his refusal to be the "invisible man" whose body is manipulated
by various social groups. Though the unqualified assertion of self-liberation was
a favorite strategy among American literary people in the fifties, it is also vapid
and insubstantial. It violates the reality of social life, the interplay between
external conditions and personal will, quite as much as the determinism of the thirties.
The unfortunate fact remains that to define one's individuality is to stumble upon
social barriers which stand in the way, all too much in the way, of "infinite possibilities."
Freedom can be fought for, but it cannot always be willed or asserted into existence.
And it seems hardly an accident that even as Ellison's hero asserts the "infinite
possibilities," he makes no attempt to specify them.
Throughout the fifties Richard Wright was struggling to find his place in a world
he knew to be changing but could not grasp with the assurance he had felt in his
earlier years. He had resigned with some bitterness from the Communist Party, though
he tried to preserve an independent radical outlook, tinged occasionally with black
nationalism. He became absorbed in the politics and literature of the rising African
nations, but when visiting them he felt hurt at how great was the distance between
an American Negro and an African. He found life in America intolerable, and he spent
his last fourteen years in Paris, somewhat friendly with the intellectual group
around Jean-Paul Sartre but finally a loner, a man who stood by the pride of his
rootlessness. And he kept writing, steadily experimenting, partly, it may be, in
response to the younger men who had taken his place in the limelight and partly
because he was a dedicated writer.
These last years were difficult for Wright, since he neither made a true home in
Paris nor kept in imaginative touch with the changing life of the United States.
In the early fifties he published a very poor novel The Outsider, full
of existentialist jargon applied but not really absorbed to the Negro theme. He
was a writer in limbo, and his better fiction, such as the novelette "The Man Who
Lived Underground," is a projection of that state.
In the late fifties Wright published another novel, The Long Dream, which
is set in Mississippi and displays a considerable recovery of his powers. This book
has been attacked for presenting Negro life in the South through "old-fashioned"
images of violence, but one ought to hesitate before denying the relevance of such
images or joining in the criticism of their use. For Wright was perhaps justified
in not paying attention to the changes that have occurred in the South these past
few decades. When Negro liberals write that despite the prevalence of bias, there
has been an improvement in the life of their people, such statements are reasonable
and necessary. But what have these to do with the way Negroes feel, with the power
of the memories they must surely retain? About this we know very little and would
be well advised not to nourish preconceptions, for their feelings may well be closer
to Wright's rasping outbursts than to the more modulated tones of the younger Negro
novelists. Wright remembered, and what he remembered other Negroes must also have
remembered. And in that way he kept faith with the experience of the boy who had
fought his way out of the depths to speak for those who remained there.
His most interesting fiction after Native Son is to be found in a posthumous
collection of stories, Eight Men, written during the last 25 years of his
life. Though they fail to yield any clear line of chronological development, these
stories give evidence of Wright's literary restlessness, his often clumsy efforts
to break out of the naturalism which was his first and, I think, necessary mode
of expression. The unevenness of his writing is highly disturbing: one finds it
hard to understand how the same man, from paragraph to paragraph, can be so brilliant
and inept. Time after time the narrative texture is broken by a passage of sociological
or psychological jargon; perhaps the later Wright tried too hard, read too much,
failed to remain sufficiently loyal to the limits of his talent.
Some of the stories, such as "Big Black Good Man," are enlivened by Wright's sardonic
humor, the humor of a man who has known and released the full measure of his despair
but finds that neither knowledge nor release matters in a world of despair. In "The
Man Who Lived Underground" Wright shows a sense of narrative rhythm, which is superior
to anything in his full-length novels and evidence of the seriousness with which
he kept working.
The main literary problem that troubled Wright in recent years was that of rendering
his naturalism a more terse and supple instrument. I think he went astray whenever
he abandoned naturalism entirely: there are a few embarrassingly bad experiments
with stories employing self-consciously Freudian symbolism. Wright needed the accumulated
material of circumstance which naturalistic detail provided his fiction; it was
as essential to his ultimate effect of shock and bruise as dialogue to Hemingway's
ultimate effect of irony and loss. But Wright was correct in thinking that the problem
of detail is the most vexing technical problem the naturalist writer must face,
since the accumulation that makes for depth and solidity can also become very tiresome.
In "The Man Who Lived Underground" Wright came close to solving this problem, for
here the naturalistic detail is put at the service of a radical projective image
-- a Negro trapped in a sewer; and despite some flaws, the story is satisfying both
for its tense surface and elasticity of suggestion.
Richard Wright died at 52, full of hopes and projects. Like many of us, he had somewhat
lost his intellectual way, but he kept struggling toward the perfection of his craft
and toward a comprehension of the strange world that in his last years was coming
into birth. In the most fundamental sense, however, he had done his work: he had
told his contemporaries a truth so bitter, they paid him the tribute of trying to
Looking back to the early essays and fiction of James Baldwin, one wishes to see
a little further than they at first invite: -- to see past their brilliance of gesture,
by which older writers could be dismissed, and past their aura of gravity, by which
a generation of intellectuals could be enticed. After this hard and dismal decade,
what strikes one most of all is the sheer pathos of these early writings, the way
they reveal the desire of a greatly talented young man to escape the scars -- and
why should he not have wished to escape them? -- he had found upon the faces of
his elders and knew to be gratuitous and unlovely.
Chekhov once said that what the aristocratic Russian writers assumed as their birthright,
the writers who came from the lower orders had to pay for with their youth. James
Baldwin did not want to pay with his youth, as Richard Wright had paid so dearly.
He wanted to move, as Wright had not been able to, beyond the burden or bravado
of his stigma; he wanted to enter the world of freedom, grace, and self-creation.
One would need a heart of stone, or be a brutal moralist, to feel anything but sympathy
for this desire. But we do not make our circumstances; we can, at best, try to remake
them. And all the recent writing of Baldwin indicates that the wishes of his youth
could not be realized, not in this country. The sentiments of humanity which had
made him rebel against Richard Wright have now driven him back to a position close
to Wright's rebellion.
Baldwin's most recent novel Another Country is a "protest novel" quite
as much as Native Son, and anyone vindictive enough to make the effort,
could score against it the points Baldwin scored against Wright. No longer is Baldwin's
prose so elegant or suave as it once was; in this book it is harsh, clumsy, heavy-breathing
with the pant of suppressed bitterness. In about half of Another Country
-- the best half, I would judge -- the material is handled in a manner somewhat
reminiscent of Wright's naturalism: a piling on of the details of victimization,
as the jazz musician Rufus Scott, a sophisticated distant cousin of Bigger Thomas,
goes steadily down the path of self-destruction, worn out in the effort to survive
in the white man's jungle and consumed by a rage too extreme to articulate yet too
amorphous to act upon. The narrative voice is a voice of anger, rasping and thrusting,
not at all "literary" in the somewhat lacquered way the earlier Baldwin was able
to achieve. And what that voice says, no longer held back by the proprieties of
literature, is that the nightmare of the history we have made allows us no immediate
escape. Even if all the visible tokens of injustice were erased, the Negroes would
retain their hatred and the whites their fear and guilt. Forgiveness cannot be speedily
willed, if willed at all, and before it can even be imagined there will have to
be a fuller discharge of those violent feelings that have so long been suppressed.
It is not a pretty thought, but neither is it a mere "unrewarding rage"; and it
has the sad advantage of being true, first as Baldwin embodies it in the disintegration
of Rufus, which he portrays with a ferocity quite new in his fiction, and then as
he embodies it in the hard-driving ambition of Rufus' sister Ida, who means to climb
up to success even if she has to bloody a good many people, whites preferably, in
order to do it.
Another Country has within it another novel: a nagging portrayal of that
entanglement of personal relationships -- sterile, involuted, grindingly rehearsed,
pursued with quasi-religious fervor, and cut off from any dense context of social
life -- which has come to be a standard element in contemporary fiction. The author
of this novel is caught up with the problem of communication, the emptiness that
seeps through the lives of many cultivated persons and in response to which he can
only reiterate the saving value of true and lonely love. These portions of Another
Country tend to be abstract, without the veined milieu, the filled-out world,
a novel needs: as if Baldwin, once he moves away from the Negro theme, finds it
quite as hard to lay hold of contemporary experience as do most other novelists.
The two pulls upon his attention are difficult to reconcile, and Baldwin's future
as a novelist is decidedly uncertain.
During the last few years Baldwin has emerged as a national figure a leading intellectual
spokesman for the Negroes, whose recent essays, as in The Fire Next Time,
reach heights of passionate exhortation unmatched in modern American writing. Whatever
his ultimate success or failure as a novelist, Baldwin has already secured his place
as one of the two or three greatest essayists this country has ever produced. He
has brought a new luster to the essay as an art form, a form with possibilities
for discursive reflection and concrete drama which makes it a serious competitor
to the novel, until recently almost unchallenged as the dominant literary genre
in our time. Apparently drawing upon Baldwin's youthful experience as the son of
a Negro preacher, the style of these essays is a remarkable instance of the way
in which a grave and sustained eloquence -- the rhythm of oratory, but that rhythm
held firm and hard -- can be employed in an age deeply suspicious of rhetorical
prowess. And in pieces like the reports on Harlem and the account of his first visit
South, Baldwin realizes far better than in his novels the goal he had set himself
of presenting Negro life through an "unspoken recognition of shared experience."
Yet it should also be recognized that these essays gain at least some of their resonance
from the tone of unrelenting protest in which they are written, from the very anger,
even the violence Baldwin had begun by rejecting.
Like Richard Wright before him, Baldwin has discovered that to assert his humanity
he must release his rage. But if rage makes for power it does not always encourage
clarity, and the truth is that Baldwin's most recent essays are shot through with
intellectual confusion, torn by the conflict between his assumption that the Negro
must find an honorable place in the life of American society and his apocalyptic
sense, mostly fear but just a little hope, that this society is beyond salvation,
doomed with the sickness of the West. And again like Wright, he gives way on occasion
to the lure of black nationalism. Its formal creed does not interest him, for he
knows it to be shoddy, but he is impressed by its capacity to evoke norms of discipline
among its followers at a time when the Negro community is threatened by a serious
In his role as spokesman, Baldwin must pronounce with certainty and struggle with
militancy; he has at the moment no other choice; yet whatever may have been the
objective inadequacy of his polemic against Wright a decade ago, there can be no
question that his refusal to accept the role of protest reflected faithfully some
of his deepest needs and desires. But we do not make our circumstances; we can,
at best, try to remake them; and the arena of choice and action always proves to
be a little narrower than we had supposed. One generation passes its dilemmas to
the next, black boys on to native sons.
"It is in revolt that man goes beyond himself to discover other people, and from
this point of view, human solidarity is a philosophical certainty." The words come
from Camus; they might easily have been echoed by Richard Wright; and today one
can imagine them being repeated, with a kind of rueful passion, by James Baldwin.
No more important words could be spoken in our century, but it would be foolish,
and impudent, not to recognize that for the men who must live by them the cost is