I know it’s March and I’m writing about my third book, but it’s not that bad. I read this book a couple of weeks ago and am just getting around to writing about it, and there are a couple of other books in the bank. Whatever.
James Baldwin’s novel was on a list of five books from which my son (age 13, 8th grade) had to make a choice, back in November-December I guess. He ended up doing Julius Caesar. Talking about the booklist seems like a separate post.
I’ve known about Baldwin as a mid-century classic for a number of years, and I had read a couple of his essays here and there, but I wasn’t sure about exactly how he became James Baldwin and why he seemed to possess so much authority. It’s funny, because this is a minor adjunct to the biography and criticism discussion (another separate post) over at my blog guru Dorothy’s site, Of Books and Bicycles. My interest in reading GTIotM had a substantial biographical component. I knew about this important literary figure, but I hadn’t really read any of his work, and I was curious about why he was important. Another way of looking at it is simply that I knew he was a great writer and I wanted to read his work. No worries.
Seeing GTIotM on the list provided an unexpected impetus. I saw that it was his first novel, read about how he worked on it over a period of years, how it reflected important elements of his family relationships and upbringing and culture. And by that time I was excited to dive in.
It was some time ago that I finished it, and quite a while before that that I started. I would say that I read the novel in three big chunks, and that’s more or less how it’s structured.
The first part sets up the life and conflicts of the central character. The writing and its flow and the setting of a deeply religious Harlem home filled with strong characters and conflict are immediately engaging and powerful. There’s something extraordinary about reading an ambitous and polished first novel. It establishes a voice and a writer and creates a literary personality all at once. After reading 25 pages, you get it–oh, this was Baldwin’s 1st book? No wonder he was such a big deal for 30 years. He’s an Important Writer, no doubt about it. The biography discussion came out of DW reading Woolf’s Night and Day, which is something of an apprentice novel. GTIotM is just the opposite. In it Baldwin arrives fully formed. It’s exciting to read.
I’ll also mention, since I’m in Woolf and modernism-mode these days (amongst so many other things), that part of Baldwin’s accomplishment is good timing. The book and its style make the most of the progress in literary form and style through the 1st half of the 20th century. It’s a first novel by someone who has seemingly read Joyce and Hemingway and lots of others, and he’s writing a very modern book, one that somehow captures not just a life and a perspective and a family and a past, and on top of that a city and a culture and racial conflicts, but also a literary culture as well. Baldwin had grown up in Harlem and fled downtown, and it’s easy to think of the pre-technicolor 50s and Greenwich Village as amazingly cool. This book is about as cool and solid and real as it gets.
I’m not sure that I’ve made this connection quite so clearly before in my own head, but I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on New York in the 50s recently, and this book adds a big fantastic layer to all of that. Another book I finished in February was Partisans, about the so-called New York Intellectuals clustering around the Partisan Review, and last fall I was reading and writing about Andy Warhol and Truman Capote in the 50s. Getting into the early careers and reception of Baldwin and Capote, which were happening at roughly the same time (love those timelines!), would be an interesting study. But I just made the connection through thinking about Kerouac, who I haven’t spent much time putting into this mix. I really loved the Louis Menand New Yorker article on Kerouac last fall. Book list-wise, I was thinking about how kids read Catcher in the Rye and head towards On the Road, which isn’t too far from one part of my own early literary education. And it occurred to me what a powerful book GTIotM would be in this context. And tons of people presumably find it that way, getting to it early on–when I mentioned to one of my friends that I was reading it he said that it was one of his favorites and had been a very important book to him, reading it in college. It seems like you could teach a great course just going through a bunch of these books from the 50s, that there are a bunch of books (and writers) beyond the first one or two that come to mind, and none of them are “second tier.” Excuse the babbling tangent…
The next thing about GTIotM for me, these days, is the way it examines religion and faith and character. I was reading the heart of it right after finishing A New England Tale, and at the same time I was reading about Olive Schreiner growing up as the daughter of a missionary and writing African Farm, and it was kind of funny how I found myself in the middle of another book all about religion. Thinking about GTIotM now, a few weeks after reading it, the power of religion in the book and the African-American culture it reflects, the movement to the city from the south, is all just stunning. There is just an astonishing amount of feeling in the book, and you get a palpable sense of people struggling with basic humanity, preserving life but becoming destructive under the weight of oppression.
All of the storytelling and cultural elements are truly great. I can’t do them justice or give them adequate analysis, but it’s all there in the novel and a big pile of exegesis. Another especially impressive item worth mentioning, that I saw mentioned somewhere, is the way that the novel moves back and forth through different timeframes and settings. As I said above, Baldwin had a half-century of modernism preceeding him, but that doesn’t make his accomplishment any easier, as he approached his own story and materials. It’s all just quite amazing. What a great book, what a great writer.
Baldwin wasn’t exactly a kid when he published it. Earlier it was discussed how Mary Shelley and Olive Schreiner were writing important novels as teenagers. Baldwin worked on the novel for years, but it is still an extraordinary first novel. Lots to be said, I suppose, about different career trajectories. This was a great read.