Review | Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin

G.T. Dempsey


James Campbell Talking at the Gates:  A Life of James Baldwin (University of California Press, 2021), pp. xxix, 365  ISBN:  9780520381681  $19.95

     In the 1920s, following on World War I, many American writers – such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald – went to live in Paris for the artistic freedom it offered.  In France, English-speaking writers could write and publish works that would be banned as obscene in America.  In the 1940s, following on World War II, many black American writers and artists went to live in Paris simply for freedom itself, to escape the institutionalized racism embedded in American society.   Richard Wright, author of Native Son, was one; James Baldwin was another.  It’s not that racism was absent in France.  As Baldwin soon discovered, while Algeria was still treated as an overseas extension of France itself, native Algerians were treated (in Baldwin’s phrase) ‘as the n…s of France.’  But such prejudice did not extend to American blacks, for they were Americans.

     In Baldwin’s own case, born into the times he was (1924-1987), by leaving America, he was escaping not just the geography of racism but also of sexuality.  Homosexual acts were still then proscribed by law.  The French could care less.  Baldwin turned his own dilemmas into art.  As our author puts it, ‘If it was necessary to isolate a single, dominating impulse driving James Baldwin’s work, it would be the need to defeat the silence which lies behind slavery and his people’s first forced arrival in America….  The voice of his ancestors echoes through his pages, filtering black biblical rhetoric and blues and gospel lyrics through the autobiographical mode he adopts to tell his own singular story – the story of all his race….’   Throughout his bestselling writer’s career, Baldwin’s truest subject was himself and, by giving a heightened reading of the kind of self-truth that goes beyond matters of fact, he laid out, searingly, the geography of black slavery and American origins.  When he departed for France, in his mid-20s, he commented, ‘I was always being asked to leave.’

Book cover for James Campbell's Talking at the Gates:  A Life of James Baldwin
Book cover for James Campbell Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (University of California Press, 2021), pp. xxix, 365 ISBN: 9780520381681 $19.95

     Born illegitimate, in true poverty, he first found a place as a boy preacher (his step-father from whom he took his last name was a preacher).  This was store-front Pentecostalism, ‘a direct transplant from the rural districts of the…segregated South….  Among its practices and beliefs are faith-healing, speaking in tongues, and a ritual…known as “pleading the blood,” a state of rapture characterized by trance as a prelude to salvation.’  From this early experience, Baldwin would produce his two most successful, because authentic, books:  his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (from 1953) and his essayistic indictment of racism in America The Fire Next Time (1963).  At that time, no one wrote more truthfully and disturbingly.  I can still remember my feeling when I read the latter book then, ‘This is it.  This is it.’  The essay ends with the lyrics from a spiritual which gives it its title:  “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!’  Truly, a ‘visionary sermon.’

     I also remember the common judgment, at that time, of Baldwin as a writer.  His essays were masterful; his fiction not much.  The author of this critical biography concurs.  I must say that I do as well.  When Baldwin began his writing career, first in New York and then in Paris, he was an ‘American writer.’  He published in the New Leader, the NationCommentaryPartisan Review.  His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, ‘among the first American novels to treat the subject of homosexuality with the same frankness permitted for heterosexual love,’ does so without the presence of a single black person.  Set in Paris, its cast of characters are Parisian, Italian, and white American.  When Baldwin became commercially successful – indeed, a ‘best-selling novelist’ – he published in Harper’sMademoisellePlayboy.  His intent was to be, and remain, an American writer, not a black American writer.  His writer’s creed was that ‘color and sex are the defining preoccupations of the American mind and…since it is individuals who make nations, of American history….’   In pursuing his goal of laying bare the dilemma of American life, his writerly models were Hemingway and Henry James.  The authenticity of his essays came from his authorial voice.  Driven by his ‘quicksilver intelligence,’ the essay form ‘enabled Baldwin to write as he spoke, to unfold his experience by discursive methods, until he came upon the meaning at the core.’  Paradoxically, it was the intrusion of this authorial voice into the speech of his fictional characters – ‘the author’s inability to keep his own opinions and tone of voice out of his characters’ mouths’ – which corrodes their fictional integrity.  The novels become exercises in ‘exchanging creative writing for demagogic oratory.’  It did not help that his novels are plotless and, thus, needs derive what authenticity they can from their characters which are scarcely individualized.  Still, the essay remained.

     Until, that is, the early ‘60s when Baldwin began to involve himself in civil rights activism.  Given the turmoil of the times, such an articulate writer could hardly have done otherwise.  But the unintended consequence of his involvement, both as an observer bringing home the truth to his readers and as a direct activist, resulted in his increasingly self-identifying as a ‘black writer’ and to his re-direction of his analytical focus from the human condition to the black American condition.  He deliberately shifted his writing style from the ‘lyrical cadence’ which drove his essays to the mode of a jazz musician or a blues singer:  ‘Nineteen sixty-three was the year his voice broke; and it affected every element of his literary style – his rhythm, his syntax, his vocabulary, the way in which…he reached judgments.’

     Still, it remains that James Baldwin is a major American writer and we still have those essays.  They still move me.  I find it hard to imagine any American they would not move.  And we still have Go Tell It on the Mountain.

     One particular virtue of this splendid accounting of Baldwin’s life and writings is the inclusion of a bibliography providing a chronological listing of all of Baldwin’s publications, both articles and books.  This should be required in any biography of a writer.  It would have been even more helpful, though, if this new edition had added at the end the three Library of America volumes of his collected essays and his fiction.

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G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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