James Baldwin – Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone

Though Baldwin wrote about his own life a lot, Baldwin’s 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone seems like the closest he came to writing a full-length autobiography.  It’s written in the first person and as his biographer David Leeming notes, a lot of the micro- and macro-level details of protagonist Leo Proudhammer’s life map onto Baldwin’s.

But this book still felt like a novel in the changes made.  Proudhammer is a stage actor turned movie star who suffers a heart attack at the outset of the book.  His stay in a San Francisco hospital provides a frame narrative which allows him to reflect on episodes in his earlier life.  Initially, as he drifts in and out of sleep, the memories are more distant and dream-like; towards the end, he and his friends make their way out of the hospital to a friend’s house, a Chinese restaurant and then finally a return to the east coast, and a resumption of his career.

The undulating, almost chapter-less organization of the text reminded me a lot of Proust, if M. had been a black man living in America, a bit more extroverted, who pursued an acting career.  Which might not sound all that similar to Proust’s M. at all – the overall effect of the narrative, though, is similar.  A kind of free association motivates the flashbacks and flash-forwards, though Baldwin’s free association is more social and less sensory in structure.

Anyway, the overall feel of the book was extraordinarily intimate, something I’ve noticed in different ways in each of Baldwin’s works of fiction.  There is always this very active sense of the ways personal interaction is both extremely particular and idiosyncratic, and yet still representative and demonstrative of the social structures that condition our lives.  That’s a tough square to circle, but really, for me (though not for all reviewers, apparently – Mario Puzo called this book a “simpledminded.. polemic”), Baldwin executes it persuasively.

I think one sort of problem a lot of white people have with books like this — which Puzo’s review illustrates very clearly — is that they tend to presume that everything is metaphor and allegory.  That when the protagonist has a humiliating run-in with the police (Proudhammer is arrested for trespassing after sleeping in and then leaving a white lover’s house alone, for example), or when we are treated to a grotesque depiction of a wealthy pseudo-liberal white couple, this is just the author “making a point about race” or something.

This is really just a more genteel species of the racist habit of white people refusing to believe people of color when they describe their experience.  These kinds of frustrating interactions, it seems to me, really happen, and they really happen to millions of people on a regular basis.  It seems to offend white literary sensibilities for them to be narrated with such straight-forwardness– surely, it seems, things can’t really happen like this.  Just like the court of public opinion ends up destroying already-dead figures like Trayvon Martin–where a good bit of the discussion in the white media takes the form of “well, the story really wasn’t that simple,” a certain kind of white reader encounters these narrations and thinks somehow the author has become polemical when they were really just being realistic.

One of the persistent concerns of this text is with acting, and roles.  The allegorical aspect of Proudhammer’s initial heart attack is obvious but still trenchant: there is a stress that Baldwin is giving voice to that arises from being black in America, a constant demand to play roles that seem to require the continual exertion of an almost impossible amount of mental and physical energy.  When Proudhammer collapses on stage, and his doctor tells him he needs to relax, we end up, by the end of the novel, understanding why that is not possible: the acting is an inevitable feature of his life, not because of his “stage personality,” but because the whiteness of our society constantly demands it of him.  At one point, Proudhammer explains that while he is tired of being relegated to playing minstrel-era servant types who dance jigs and act like simpletons, he confesses that he hates even more being asked to play long-suffering protagonists who we are actually supposed to sympathize with, as they make their peace with a racist world.

In keeping with the exploration of roles, there is also the signature Baldwin exploration of the intimate interpersonal dynamics that arise within actually racially diverse groups of people.  For me the most memorable sentence was this one:

Connections willed into existence can never become organic

This speaks a lot about the near-impossibility of the dream of American post-racial integration as it’s so often spoken about.  It’s a deeply perceptive answer to the old “why can’t we all just get along?”  It’s a truth enacted over and over again in this book – clusters of seemingly well meaning white people and well meaning black people gather and then disperse, those connections never quite becoming what everyone involved (or at least the white people) might have believed they could be.

The famous last passage of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time hints at the difficulty:

If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

There is a hope there, but also a dread, a resignation in the face of apocalypse.  That initial “if” – is it possible ever that it might be fulfilled?  Does being “relatively conscious” amount to anything in the end?

Leo Proudhammer begins the novel with a conflicted but certainly “organic” connection with his troubled brother Caleb, whose beating and arrest becomes the founding experience of trauma in young Leo’s life.  He moved along, in the second section, to a mostly white troupe of actors, falling in love with Barbara, though eventually they go their separate ways.  The novel’s final third brings us along to Leo’s relationship with “Black Christopher,” a resolving move in which Leo rediscovers the love he had for Caleb but now in an unambiguously erotic, grown-up context.

One of the book’s final scenes cashes in on the dynamics explored through these characters, as Leo and Christopher join Barbara and her southern-patrician parents for brunch.  Like some of the greatest moments in Dostoevsky, this scene’s awkwardness was palpable and in its own way hilarious.  Barbara’s parents insist that neither they not anyone else they’ve ever met is racist; Christopher tries to tell them off, Barbara is more or less silent, not wanting to “offend,” and Leo seems confirmed in his decision to have left her behind.

A scene like this is allegorical, yes, but all of his key elements it also happen every day in our real, non-allegorical world.  It is more or less, what public life in America has become.

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