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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

James Baldwin’s prose still awe-inspiring

Published: December 9, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

As a prospective English major, it was upon first signing up for classes that I learned I was required to take Intro to Lit. This fact first frustrated me—I had just taken AP English and I did not have any desire to retake an intro class. Yet, since it’s required for the major, I took the class. My fears were not entirely unfounded—upon beginning the course I found I had already read 80 percent of the novels we covered—but I did discover a novel in our curriculum that has partly changed the way I view the world and the way I want to write in the future: “Another Country” by James Baldwin.

I had read James Baldwin before but admittedly only his short stories, with “Sonny’s Blues” being a quite famous one. Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924 and had a rough upbringing. Coping with an abusive stepfather, he became a renowned child preacher at age 14 despite his own religious doubts. Soon after, he realized his true love lay with the arts. During his teenage years, Baldwin also came to terms with his own homosexuality, although he constantly faced prejudice both against his sexuality and, as a black man, his race. This caused him to flee to Paris, where he wrote until he eventually returned to the United States. Although Baldwin is best known for his largely autobiographical first novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” he went on to experiment with many literary forms such as plays and essays.

The novel we covered in Intro to Lit opened my eyes to a side of Baldwin that is not thoroughly expressed in his short stories. “Another Country” is an epic novel dealing with sexuality, repressed desire and race. It changes location from the United States to France and back again, with each of the characters searching for redemption but usually ending up destroying themselves. As opposed to a short story, “Another Country” flourishes because of its ability to cover so much ground in its 400 pages. Though two of the main characters are dead within the first 100, the novel is able to deal with the aftereffects of grief and coping in its varied detrimental and uplifting forms.

While reading “Another Country,” I fell in love with the combination of Baldwin’s writing and storytelling. I believe that skilled writing and storytelling do not always go together; J. K. Rowling for example is an amazing storyteller, but her writing is not as excellent as, say, William Faulkner. Baldwin astonishes me in the way that he is able to all at once craft elegant sentences while also making the plot so interesting I cannot put the book down. While some complain that the characters in “Another Country” are whiny and self-absorbed, I simply think Baldwin is reflecting human nature accurately, a fact about humans that many people are afraid to confront.

When reading his work, it is also important to note Baldwin’s social activism. His works often serve a purpose: to illustrate to others the constraints of American society and what could possibly be done to fix them (especially in regard to sex and race). Baldwin himself became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee upon his return from France. He entered the civil rights movement with abandon, meeting with other central figures in the movement and marching in protests. Baldwin called the movement “the latest slave rebellion,” insisting like Malcolm X that since he was a citizen, he should not have to be labeled as fighting for his civil rights.

Baldwin died in December 1987 from stomach cancer while in France. Though nowadays his novels are not entirely popular and consistently read, he still receives recognition. “Sonny’s Blues” is included in most anthologies of short fiction, and Hampshire College has established a scholars program in his name. Toni Morison, herself a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is influenced by Baldwin and has edited volumes of his fiction.

After reading “Another Country” for class, I dove into Baldwin, reading “Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” is much like “Another Country” in its sprawling, artistic way of describing passions and strained desires and how they intermix within different sexualities and races. “Go Tell It On the Mountain” reminds me just how much Baldwin based many of his works on his own experiences. For someone who wants to be a writer like me, this is a useful lesson. An author should write about what they know, what they have experienced, in order to make a book more truthful and heartfelt. My discovery of Baldwin has already made me a better writer, and I will henceforth look to him as an example.