James Baldwin Summer Reading Project

My woefully monochromatic high school and college education exposed me to nothing that James Baldwin had written – not even to his name.  I can remember a friend in college once mentioning him and me pretending that I knew who he was.

But several years ago I started reading James Baldwin with my students.  I read the first section of The Fire Next Time – anthologized as “My Dungeon Shook” (also often titled “A Letter to My Nephew”)  in a collection the school had bought for the class I was teaching.  For some reason I don’t quite remember, I decided to read it with them.  In order to get my students to pay attention, I often read the start of any text aloud.  This time, I was especially unprepared, so I was reading the text with them aloud, for the first time.  I remember quite clearly being so moved  that I almost couldn’tkeep  my voice from breaking (I’m NOT the teacher that cries in front of the class – nothing against you if you are, I’m just not).   Continue reading

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #10: Between the Acts

“Parsimony may be the end of this book.  Also shame at my own verbosity, which comes over me when I see the 20 it is–books shuffled together in my room.  Who am I ashamed of?  Myself reading them.  Then Joyce is dead: Joyce about a fortnight younger than I am.  I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in typescript to our teatable at Hogarth House… One day Katherine Mansfield came, and I had it out.  She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But there’s something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature…” (A Writer’s Diary 349 [1/15/41])

Virginia Woolf wrote these words a couple of months before her death, and they’re still cagey and circumspect about Joyce, but Mansfield’s “there’s something in this” seems somehow to speak for Woolf as well.  And other than Mrs. Dalloway, which has been placed repeatedly by many critics in the context of Ulysses, Between the Acts seems like the book most closely tracking Joyce’s own work, especially his final Finnegans Wake

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #9: The Years

The big question for me while reading The Years was about whether it’s a reversion to an earlier writing style – something more like a Victorian social novel, or if it’s a step forward in Woolf’s own evolution. The earlier novel of Woolf’s that most resembles this is Night and Day, which is definitely a traditional family/relationship/marriage novel. But though The Years seems a bit like that, it’s actually much more stylistically interesting (and puzzling). Continue reading

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(The Novels of Virginia Woolf #8: Flush)

Not the best-known (or the best) of Woolf’s novels, it’s also debatable whether it’s a novel.  Its cover page calls it a “biography,” which is strange, especially considering Flush is a cocker spaniel.  It was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, one Woolf must have read about in her ongoing attempt, seemingly, to read everything written in English and available from the British Library.

This book took an afternoon to read, and it is clever as far as it goes (not that far).  Woolf wrote it as a break after the extremely heady period after  she completed The Waves.  The narrative sounds a lot like the voice-over narration from the Babe movies.  I think if I knew more about Browning or her poetry I’d have more to say about this, but I haven’t, and I don’t.

Hermione Lee’s The Novels of Virginia Woolf doesn’t even mention this book, so I’ll just let these few paragraphs stand for the deeper take on it I might someday create (but probably not.

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #7: The Waves

This book is very difficult to write about; below I’ve only just mentioned most of the characters and their myriad interactions.  As a matter of subjective perception, I will say this book was the most rewarding to re-read so far.  I’ve tried to put some semi-coherent thoughts down here, but there is something extremely reductive in all my sentences that does not feel like it comes close to doing justice to the act of reading the book.  I’ll try my best.

…all are stories. But which is the true story? That I do not know. Hence I keep my phrases hung like clothes in a cupboard, waiting for someone to wear them. Thus waiting, thus speculating, making this note and then another, I do not cling to life (218)

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #6: Orlando

Orlando feels like a detour when taken in the context of Woolf’s other novels.  Obviously the parody biography style, and the fact that Woolf began the book as a joke colored my  reading of it.  It’s also hard to ignore the transsexual nature of its protagonist.  But the biggest thing I noticed in Orlando, something relatively separate from all that, but also (relatively speaking anyway) closer to the concerns of To the Lighthouse, is Orlando’s meditations upon the phenomenology of time.  Filtered through the lens of pseudo-biographical language, the passages about time can look like straightforward parody, but they also serve the broader purpose of reflection upon the ways that a more mundane biographical voice works in all of our heads, striving for the kind of “unity” that Woolf, in her diaries, worries Orlando lacks.  The parody-biographical voice allows Woolf to interrogate this concept in a more lighthearted, less anxiety-provoking way than Lily Briscoe’s similar deliberations towards the end of To the Lighthouse also pursue. Continue reading

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #5: To The Lighthouse

But what she [Lily] wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything.  Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly against her easel.  It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.  She stared, frowning (Book III. Chapter 12).

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #4: Mrs. Dalloway

Along with my recent experiences of Woolf’s three earlier novels (it was striking how much more introspective it felt than Jacob’s Room, and obviously the time-compression of the main line of the narrative was different), three ideas other informed my reading.  Idea #1:

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #3: Jacob’s Room

There is a lot more going on in Jacob’s Room, especially compared with both The Voyage Out and also Night and Day.  To begin with, let’s consider its genre.  In some ways, Jacob’s Room is a Bildungsroman, one that shows us the coming-of-age of an artistic, reserved young man.  Analogies suggest themselves – to both Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, both of which, apparently, Woolf had read in the years before writing Jacob’s Room – hence her declaration in her diary that what she was attempting might be “being better done by Mr. Joyce” (September 26, 1920).  Just like both Joyce’s and Proust’s works, this one moves through time confusingly and without very much explicit signposting.  

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The Novels of Virginia Woolf #2: Night and Day

Night and Day is not generally counted as one of Woolf’s “experimental” novels, but it experiments in its own subtle way with the style and conventions of the late Victorian social novel.  One way of understanding its experimentation can be seen by exploring the use to which references to Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novels (especially The Idiot) Woolf had read during the composition of Night and Day.  Just as with The Voyage Out, we can see the main events narrated as both a story about love and marriage compelling in its own right.  The principal characters – Katherine Hilbert, Mary Datchet, William Rodney and Ralph Denham – are taken through a sequence of changes whereby Katherine marries not the expected William, but the seemingly inappropriate choice of Ralph.  We can also read Katherine’s choice as a symbolic decision which moves away from the traditional British social novel (seen in William’s well-regarded study of Elizabethan prose, but also in Katherine’s family’s preoccupation with the construction of a biography of their poetic celebrity ancestor. Continue reading

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