MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

A Negro writer states the ugliest facts of American Negro life

ROBERT FULFORD July 28 1962
MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

A Negro writer states the ugliest facts of American Negro life

ROBERT FULFORD July 28 1962

A Negro writer states the ugliest facts of American Negro life

THIS FORTNIGHT

ROBERT FULFORD

THE SLOW, STEADY, agonized emergence of the American Negro as a human being is one of the great adventures of modern history. This emergence — all its complexity, anguish, and hope—is shown in the work of a small, wiry, edgy New York intellectual named James Baldwin. He is the author of five books, some short stories, and a great many articles. He is now 37 years old, and his latest book, a long novel titled Another Country (Saunders, $7.50, 436 pages) has recently been published.

Baldwin’s books tell their own bitter truth about Negro life in America. They reject easy liberal or progressive attitudes in order to describe—in spare, cautious, but richly evocative prose — what the white world has done to Negroes. Their message is difficult but necessary, and it offers a kind of hope: if these ugly facts can be faced, Baldwin’s books seem to say, then anything can be accomplished.

Baldwin’s central message is that the white world, by exploiting the Negroes for two centuries, has filled every Negro with a deep, selfconsuming hatred of whites. “There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood,” Baldwin says. And he sees only two ways to deal with it: live with it consciously or surrender to it. “As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.”

Baldwin is not afraid of offending those white people who believe they are helping American Negroes. In a celebrated article about Harlem housing projects, for instance, he said that these gleaming new buildings are merely the symbols of the white world’s hatred of the Negro and that the Negro accepts them in this spirit. They are put there, in Harlem, in the hope that the Negro will keep his place. They are an improvement on the old, squalid

ghetto, but — Baldwin wrote — the only way really to improve a ghetto is to abolish it. The Harlem redevelopment is as “helpful as makeup on a leper.”

These ideas have been expressed in two excellent books of essays, Notes of a Native Son, published in 1955, and Nobody Knows My Name, published in 1961. With these hooks Baldwin has made a reputation as one of the important social critics in the United States. The books turn up on best-seller lists and then persist for years as quality paperbacks; the best critics praise them and the best book clubs promote them. Baldwin himself has been singled out for special approval by Edmund Wilson and invited to dinner at the White House by John Kennedy. The best of the big magazines (Esquire) and the best of the little magazines (Partisan Review) now compete to publish his writings. He is widely accepted —• by w'hitc people, at least — as a spokesman for the new generation of American Negroes.

Now, in return for this acceptance in the best intellectual society, Baldwin has exploded, within the Establishment, a great bomb of a book. Another Country is abrasive, offensive, outspoken, and important. It should be argued about for years, and not just because it presents Baldwin’s ideas on race in a complex, fictional form.

Race is close to the centre of Another Country. and racial bitterness is the most obvious characteristic of two major characters. But racial friction is elaborately combined with what I have to describe as sexual anguish. And sex in several forms — including homosexual love — is handled with more bluntness than in any other serious American nove1 1 can remember. The words and phrases and vivid descriptions are never used only to shock, and certainly they never amount to pornography. But they do have the rather stunning effect of bringing the reader into close, painful contact with the characters.

Baldwin’s central characters in Another Country are tragic people: Rufus, a Negro jazz musician whose hatred of whites causes him to destroy, methodically, a white southern girl he half loves; Ida, Rufus’ sister, w'ho bitterly uses her sex as a weapon against whites; Eric, a homosexual actor whose private life is an agony; Cass, the unsatisfied wife-of a commercial novelist, for whom marriage is a kind of prison; and Vivaldo, a young white writer of unproved talent, w ho wanders aimlessly among all these people, becoming both a victim and a victimizer in the battle of sex and race.

“Another Country” means New York, and New York in these pages is a jungle in which terror hides behind every tree. Baldwin pays close attention to the city itself and the effect it has on those who live there. He describes the joyless bars, the frantic parties, the glum people (“their private lives screamed from their hot and discontented faces”); one of his characters, newly home from France, decides that a kind of plague is raging in these streets. If the novel has a villain it is the city of New York, where everyone wants to be and no one feels at home.

The faults of Another Country prevent it from being a successful novel. The dialogue often has an unreal, tinny sound; the prose is alternately brilliant and clumsy; the author’s points are sometimes pressed too earnestly. But these things don’t prevent Another Country from leaving with its readers a unique and powerful impression of Baldwin’s tormented world. His vision of a confused, panic-stricken society is unpleasant and dismaying, but in his hands it has about it the beauty of truth.