Tuesday, February 9, 2021

the last book I ever read (Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, excerpt nine)

from Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.:

The writer Albert Murray hit Baldwin where he knew it would especially hurt. He claimed that Baldwin had turned his back on the lessons of Henry James, writing, “[James] did not oversimplify the virtues of heroes, the vice of his villains, the complexity of their situation or the ambiguity of their motives.” Baldwin’s literary gifts had become subordinate to politics. Another critic put the point this way: “Baldwin abdicat[es] … his responsibility as a serious writer … in the course of his decision, enthusiasm, and willinghess to assume the role of racial spokesman and representative.” Henry Louis Gates was even more direct. “By 1973 the times had changed; and they have stayed changed …. But Baldwin wanted to change with them. That was his problem. And so we lost his skepticism, his critical independence.”

I think that much of this criticism fails to take seriously the continuity of themes running through Baldwin’s body of work: that he continued to examine questions of American identity and history, railed against the traps of categories that narrowed our frames of reference, insisted that we reject the comfort and illusion of safety that the country’s myths offered, and struggled mightily with the delicate balance between his advocacy and his art. Critics preferred to think of the old man going bad in the teeth; that, somehow, he had failed to account for the changing times or became a caricature of himself. But I contend that Baldwin’s later work was a determined effort to account for the dramatic shift in the times, not a concession to them. He took seriously the politics and aesthetics of Black Power, and he gave expression to his disappointment and disillusionment with the forces that made the election of Ronald Reagan possible. Some critics simply disagree with his politics and disliked his shift in moral concern.

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