Notes of a Native Son – Part 3 (of 3)

The last part of Notes of a Native Son is made up of several travel essays Baldwin wrote in Europe – “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” an essay about how African Americans see Africans (and vice-versa) in Paris; “A Question of Identity,” mostly about white Americans coming to understand themselves while they’re in Paris; “Equal in Paris,” the strange but true story of Baldwin’s arrest (equal parts Les Miserables and The Trial) of eight days Baldwin spent in jail for accepting a stolen gift – a bedsheet a new friend had taken in protest from a hotel he had dramatically checked out of; finally, the best in the section, “Stranger in the Village,” a piece about Baldwin’s stay in a Swiss village, but one that broadens to a much more universalized statement about being black in a white-supremacist world.  These are more occasional pieces, but I can pull some things out of each to talk about.

After this I’ll be reading Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel.

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Notes of a Native Son – Part 2

…it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart…

Part II of Notes of a Native Son contains 3 essays: “The Harlem Ghetto,” a journalistic account of the politics, press and religious life of mid-50’s Harlem; “Journey to Atlanta,” an indictment of the Progressive Party (attention Bernie Sanders supporters!) overlaying a narrative about Baldwin’s brother touring the south; and finally, the soaring, lyrical memoir “Notes of a Native Son.”  Here is discussion of one passage from each:

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Notes of a Native Son – Part 1

Notes of a Native Son (1955) collects some previously published essays and includes some originally penned for the collection.  I have read the eponymous essay (“Notes of a Native Son”) with my classes for the last several years, and it’s always a powerful reading experience.  It’s Baldwin at his most directly autobiographical – it’s in Part II of the book, so I’ll write about that next time.

But this time, I’ll stick to Part I of the book, which is mostly literary and film criticism.  It  includes 4 essays – “Autobiographical Note” (not actually part of Part I), “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” a criticism of both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and also Native Son; “Many Thousands Gone,” a further consideration of Native Son; and “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough,” a critical review of a 50’s-era Carmen-remake film with a mostly black cast.  I’ll stick to finding one paragraph from each, quoting and discussing.

Quite honestly if you don’t care what I have to say, you can still skim for the Baldwin quotations, which are independently inspiring, maddening and thought-provoking.

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James Baldwin – Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain is easy to underestimate, especially if you place it into the too-easy critical category of “semiautobiographical first novel.”  The first time I read it, a few years ago, I made just that mistake.  I spent the whole time tracking the “John” character for what it might tell me about James Baldwin himself.  Which is not to say that it doesn’t tell is us something about him, but there is a lot more going on that makes me wonder why this book isn’t more widely read and talked about as a book high school students could read. The protagonist is a probably-gay 14 year old black male living in Harlem in the 1930’s; he has a tense relationship with his parents and his siblings, he is complicated, his motivations are not transaprent to himself, and he is at the center of a complicated family group protrait, with two strong women and a dissolute but not irredemable stepfather playing key roles that the novel moves in and out of the present to consider. Continue reading

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James Baldwin – Earliest Collected Essays on Race, Sexuality and Bad Books

In six early book reviews, Baldwin pans what he sees as second-rate novels.  I read these pieces mostly with an eye to seeing trends in Baldwin’s views on the questions those novels dealt with more than as reviews per se (especially since I haven’t read the novels).  I’ll pull out a quotation or two from each essay and say a little bit about it.  The books reviewed are mostly about race and racism, but “Preservation of Ignorance” is an early essay which addresses issues of homosexuality and heteronormativity.

These essays were all published before Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) – I’ll blog about those books in future entries.  For now here’s a paragaph or so about each of these six. Continue reading

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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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