In July 1957, an ocean liner set sail from France to New York and on board was the 32-year-old, James Baldwin. Nine years earlier, he had made the reverse journey and left his native New York City for Paris with $40 in his pocket and no knowledge of either France or the French language. He had chosen Paris because his mentor, Richard Wright, was living there, having sought refuge from the demeaning racial politics of his homeland. The young James Baldwin felt that if he was ever going to discover himself as a man and a writer, then he would also have to flee the United States. His exile in France had often been difficult, and was marked by poverty, a period in jail, and at least one suicide attempt, but in the end this opening act of Baldwin's literary life proved to be triumphantly productive. His first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) established his name, and his collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955), and his controversial second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), secured his reputation as an important, and fast-rising literary figure.
Baldwin's first books were written in hotel rooms, in borrowed houses or apartments, and eventually in his own cramped flat in Paris. During these early European years, the relatively unknown Baldwin was largely "offstage" and beyond the scrutiny of media attention. Aside from the weight of his own ambition, and the practical difficulty of money, there was little pressure upon his slender shoulders. The young writer was focused, fearlessly engaging with a wide range of difficult subjects, including the frustrations of adolescence, homosexuality, and the problematics of the father-son relationship.
The literary tone that he seemed to have perfected was a powerful fusion of African-American oration and 19th-century moral romanticism in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson. Baldwin's gracefully lilting sentences were informed not only by the cadences of the King James Bible, but by Henry James's narratives. The young author's mutable words, and elliptical phrases, endlessly circled back on themselves in a self-questioning manner, weaving patterns of doubt while, paradoxically, achieving an overall effect of carefully attained certitude. Baldwin's decision to return to the US in July 1957 marked a turning point in the writer's career and signalled the end of this age of both innocence and discovery. The man who stood on the deck of the ocean liner in 1957, and who turned his face towards the western horizon, knew that by ending his European apprenticeship and returning to the US he would be stepping onstage and into visibility.
In 1941, the 17-year-old Baldwin had declared, in his high school yearbook, an ambition to be a "novelist-playwright". When asked to add a further comment, Baldwin wrote, "Fame is the spur and - ouch!" All journeys exact a price, but as Baldwin sailed towards the second act of his writing career, there is no way he could have intuited just how difficult for him, physically and emotionally, the next decade or so would prove, and how the frenzy of these years would ultimately affect his stated ambition to be a "novelist-playwright".
The second act of Baldwin's literary life extended from 1957 until 1970, and in this time he produced two novels, Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968). The somewhat plotless drama of Another Country eventually holds together because of the passion and intensity of the prose, particularly evident in the bold opening section of the novel, which concerns the jazz musician Rufus Scott. Even here, however, the tone occasionally topples over into rhetorical excess and melodrama, and by the time we reach Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, Baldwin's understanding of form seems to have abandoned him. The narrative is inert and rendered largely in flashback, the tone is often shrill, the characterisation sketchy, and the book insists on pounding us over the head as it makes its "points". In fact, it is difficult to believe that the author of this rambling fiction could be the same person who wrote the poised and understated Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Baldwin's non-fiction of the early 60s was better suited to the more declarative register in his voice. The sinewy, almost hesitant prose, and the unstable syntax suggest a purposeful, intellectual questing, but in his fiction these deviations imply an incompleteness of characterisation and a structural formlessness which gives rise to a suspicion that the author has simply taken both hands off the wheel. His non-fiction better accommodates his stylistic circumlocution, and the essays in Nobody Knows My Name (1961) successfully pick up where Notes of a Native Son left off, so much so that the publisher subtitled them, More Notes of a Native Son.
The Fire Next Time (1963) is undoubtedly Baldwin's masterpiece, and it spectacularly captures the racial and socio-cultural divisions in the US on the eve of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The publication of the book created a sensation, for here was a black man insisting that white Americans might not care about their own salvation, or their moral corruption, but if they don't shape up then they will be faced with potential disaster. All over the south, black people were being beaten at lunch counters, or at voter registration drives, or when peacefully protesting in the street, or worshipping in their churches - but this finger-wagging, pop-eyed, diminutive Negro of reputedly questionable morals was warning white Americans that the same iniquities might well be visited on them unless they began to put their house in order.
His high style embraced ambiguity and paradox at a time when nobody had heard a writer, let alone a black writer, speak of race in a manner that went beyond the crude vulgarities of a discourse rooted in binary oppositions: good/bad, black/white, right/wrong. To Baldwin, the drama of race involved the confession box and whispered narratives of guilt that might eventually give way to blessings of absolution and "no charge" on the penance front. Acute social observation and personal autobiography come together dramatically in The Fire Next Time, and this grand lyrical assault upon his country's wilful myopia, and its inability to confront the full implications of its own history, was published, appropriately enough, 100 years after the emancipation of the slaves.
Much of Baldwin's other writing in this period, including the play Blues for Mr Charlie (1964), the screenplay based on the life and death of Malcolm X (eventually published as One Day When I Was Lost), and numerous uncollected essays, testify to the stylistic shift away from the nuanced ebb and flow of the first act of his literary career, and his new engagement with polemic. This was the age of political assassinations, prison riots at Attica and elsewhere, and the emergence of the Black Power movement; given the times, Baldwin's belief in the refining power of redemptive love was beginning to sound decidedly unhip.
As the 60s progressed, an increasingly vociferous Baldwin appeared keen to adopt a public position in all his writings, as though he were trying to defuse some of the criticism that was being levelled against him, particularly from the African-American community and writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and Amiri Baraka. He seems to have been stung into becoming not just a witness, but a mouthpiece. However, this anxious attempt to "hustle" a politically strident voice felt false - even, one suspects, to Baldwin himself.
This second act of his literary life is remarkable, not only because of the uneven quality of the work, but also because of the degree of fame that Baldwin achieved. In the mid-60s he was arguably the most photographed author in the world; on May 17 1963 he was on the cover of Time magazine the week after John F Kennedy. He was in constant demand for lectures and readings all over the US and around the world, and he was continually being interviewed on television, radio, and in print. His performances were often dazzling and were generally delivered with an authority that overwhelmed the audience.
With this level of fame came a daunting travel schedule, and it is astonishing that Baldwin found the time to get any work done. In fact, he was only able to do so by retreating to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, or to various friends' homes in New England, or else travelling to Turkey and hiding away from the monster called fame. There could be no denying, however, that this was a monster he had chased down and fed, and he was fully aware that it was easier, and more profitable, both financially and in terms of his profile, to stride to the podium, as opposed to the desk. In a July 1965 televised BBC interview with the writer Colin MacInnes, Baldwin spoke openly of his predicament: "The great terror of public speaking is that you begin to listen to yourself. By and by, since you are always telling people what to think, you begin to forget what you do to think. And the moment that happens, of course, it's over. It's over."
By 1970 it was too much, and 46-year-old James Baldwin, his health broken, and in need of rest and recuperation, returned to France, this time to the south, to St Paul de Vence, where he began the third and final act of his literary life. While the work in the second act might not have entirely fulfilled the promise of the first, he had, during his 13 years in America, developed a reputation as a courageous man and a brilliant orator who spoke out for moral change, and he was, indeed, regarded by many as a witness. He was unquestionably famous, but by this stage of his life he was more famous for being a celebrity-spokesman than a writer.
By leaving the relative "obscurity" of Paris, and stepping on to centre stage in the US, he had achieved "fame", but it was now beginning to appear that he had he done so at the cost of his writing. The question facing him now was what to write about? The US in 1970 bore little relationship to the US of 1957, and his role as a witness no longer appeared to be crucial. In 1973, Time magazine decided not to run an exclusive interview with Baldwin and Josephine Baker in France, conducted by their European correspondent, Henry Louis Gates Jnr. They deemed Baldwin - to use their word - "passe". However, though Baldwin's celebrity status was declining, he could at least reapply himself to his writing. Or so he thought.
Even the most trenchant supporter of Baldwin's work will find it difficult to argue that the two novels of the 70s, If Beale Street Could Talk (1972) and Just Above My Head (1978), would, if they were not part of the Baldwin oeuvre, be much spoken of today. They are excessively rhetorical, structurally confusing, and lacking in any coherent characterisation. There are passages in both novels, particularly in Just Above My Head, which soar with a familiar eloquence, but all too often such moments quickly give way to longueurs where one feels as though the impatient author, Baldwin, has decided to elbow his way past the gallery of assembled characters and speak directly to us - witness to congregation.
Again, Baldwin's non-fiction of the 70s and early 80s is more successful than his fiction, because the form itself is more forgiving of his rhetorical habits. However, while No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) have much of his familiar perception and wit, the sinewy prose appears to have atrophied, and the liturgical rhythms have lost some of their skip and their beat. Sadly, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), Baldwin's report on the Wayne Williams trial for the Atlanta child murders, is a book that appears to have been, from the beginning, badly conceived. As it proceeds it feels increasingly padded with irrelevant autobiographical asides that continually lead the reader away from, rather than towards, the central subject matter.
Baldwin's biographer, James Campbell, recalls talking to him in the early 80s about his "comeback". I, too, remember similar late-night conversations with Jimmy in France. He would speak of the "comeback" with some gravitas, and then crack a huge smile as though the very notion of what he had just said amused him. But a part of him was in earnest. He knew that some of the purpose and clarity that he possessed in his early writing career had been lost in those recklessly public 13 years. When he told me, in the summer of 1984, that he would soon be publishing his collected essays, and that he was going to call them, The Price of the Ticket, he burst out laughing. The Price of the Ticket was a wonderfully compelling title, but I never asked him directly, neither on that night nor on subsequent nights, what the price of the ticket was, or what kind of a journey he had endured, or enjoyed, in return.
It is impossible to know what would have happened to Baldwin's writing career if he had not boarded that ship to New York in July 1957 and sailed towards fame. It may well be that, instead of producing more sensitively nuanced work in the tradition of his first two novels and Notes of a Native Son, his imagination might have stumbled in France (or in Turkey, or in Switzerland). Simply reading about developments back home in the US, as opposed to participating in them, would probably have driven Baldwin to distraction. Between 1957 and 1970, he utilised his great strength of purpose, and his boundless energy, in an attempt to combine his role as a public intellectual and spokesperson with his vocation as a writer. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that exposing his private life - the wellspring of his creativity - to public scrutiny, and investing so heavily in his sense of himself as a celebrity-witness, was costing him dearly as a writer.
Baldwin was a fiercely intelligent and perceptive, and he knew the perils of neglecting the inner self and relinquishing so much of his privacy. He frequently claimed that he felt compelled to live such a furiously public life as part of his duty to be a witness, but there are many ways of bearing witness. To do so while exposing oneself to the glare of the media spotlight is a particularly risky way of going about one's obligation. I am sure that, as he mounted public platforms, or once again submitted himself to the often banal questions of the interviewer, he understood that he was avoiding the inner meditation and reflection - the sitting in judgment on oneself - which is an essential part of a writer's development. He seemed to be forever onstage looking out, and part of his inner turmoil was fed by his understanding that the price of the ticket that he had purchased had necessitated his mortgaging his life as a writer.
When I first met Jimmy, in the summer of 1983, in the main village square in St Paul de Vence, the BBC producer who accompanied me asked him if he thought that he would ever win the Nobel prize. I was embarrassed by this question but, as generous as ever, Jimmy laughed, then took a languorous draw from his cigarette, smiled and said, "they'll probably get round to giving it to me some day". But that smile was a knowing smile.
As Baldwin sailed towards his destiny in July 1957, he knew that in the immediate future it would be very difficult for him to "settle down" and enjoy a life of domestic tranquillity. Perhaps if somebody had appeared in act two of his literary career and forced him to change his lifestyle, then Jimmy might have saved some of himself for Jimmy, and ultimately for his work. After all, to fall in love and achieve security is to find a kind of peace - a kind of invisibility. But this person did not appear, and during those 13 years his crazed, peripatetic schedule seemed to ensure that domestic stability, let alone tranquillity, was doomed to remain an impossible dream. Outside of his immediate family, he lacked a constantly close companion who, to put it simply, could be relied upon to love and protect him.
So much of his work rehearses the great difficulty, yet the absolute necessity, of love, and Baldwin was a romantic, and he did crave the type of protective love that would be enduring. As is often the case with generous and gregarious people, his fierce independence and general bonhomie often obscured this deep desire to be looked after and feel safe, but fame introduces a particular desolation into the soul, a loneliness that no amount of partying, or travelling, or drinking can mask.
The day after Baldwin died, I remember standing in the entrance hall to the house in St Paul de Vence and looking at his body as he lay in an open coffin. In the living room, his Swiss friend of nearly 40 years, Lucien Happersberger, his brother David Baldwin, and his friend and secretary, Bernard Hassell, were talking quietly. I sat down next to Jimmy and stared into his now peaceful face. I remembered that I had challenged him one snowy night in Amherst, Massachusetts, and asked him why he was wasting his time in "this dump of a town" instead of buckling down and producing another Jimmy Baldwin novel. The folly and stupidity of youth. He heard me out, then smiled gracefully and said, "One day you'll understand, baby." As I looked at him in his coffin, I wanted to apologise for not understanding that night in Amherst. He had given me friendship and warmth, and in return I had nothing to give back to him.
Twenty years after his death, I still have nothing tangible to give back to him, except some increased understanding of the price that he paid to become the extraordinary man that he was. By returning to the US in 1957, he found what he called a "role", and he found fame, but in order to achieve these goals he had to live a life that in the end could only prove injurious to him as a writer. I now understand that behind the clever title, The Price of the Ticket, there was courage, sorrow and pain. There was no self-pity. I now understand that the 17-year-old boy already knew something profound about the man that he would become. The boy had already intuited the price of the ticket. "Fame is the spur and - ouch!" As the talented youngster grew into the eminent man, he remained true to his dream, and he succeeded beyond anybody's wildest hopes, including his own; but every day he wrestled hard with the frustration of knowing exactly what he had lost, and missed out on, as he made his determined, and wilful, way in the world.
In November 1987 in St Paul de Vence, an ailing and bedridden Jimmy turned to David Leeming, another of his biographers, and said: "Sometimes I can't believe that I'm famous too." At this stage of his life, Jimmy's mind was beginning to wander, and his body was weakening. However, he was simply checking that he had really made, and completed, the journey towards fame. He knew that he had paid the price. He had been suffering the heartache of rejections from publishers, indifferent reviews, and falling sales for years now, but he had borne these slights with dignity. He may not have had at his side the one loyal, loving person that he seemed to yearn for, but at this juncture of his life he was surrounded by Lucien, David and Bernard, all of whom were devoted to him and who loved him deeply. And the passion and purpose of his writing, his early work in particular, had long ago ensured the permanence of his place in the literary canon. And, of course, more than any other mid- 20th-century American writer, he had set the stage for the debate on race that was needed then, and is still desperately needed today. The journey was complete. The price paid. The pain and frustration fully absorbed. "Sometimes I just can't believe that I'm famous too." Three days later, James Baldwin died.
· Foreigners: Three English Lives by Caryl Phillips will be published by Harvill Secker in September.
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-19854.7 · Rating details · 380 Ratings · 27 Reviews
The works of James Baldwin constitute one of the major contributions to American literature in the twentieth century, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Price of the Ticket, a compendium of nearly fifty years of Baldwin's powerful nonfiction writing.
With truth and insight, these personal, prophetic works speak to the heart of the experience of race and identityThe works of James Baldwin constitute one of the major contributions to American literature in the twentieth century, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Price of the Ticket, a compendium of nearly fifty years of Baldwin's powerful nonfiction writing.
With truth and insight, these personal, prophetic works speak to the heart of the experience of race and identity in the United States. Here are the full texts of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, and The Devil Finds Work, along with dozens of other pieces, ranging from a 1948 review of Raintree Country to a magnificent introduction to this book that, as so many of Mr. Baldwin's works do, combines his intensely private experience with the deepest examination of social interaction between the races.
In a way, The Price of the Ticket is an intellectual history of the twentieth-century American experience; in another, it is autobiography of the highest order....more
Hardcover, First Edition, 712 pages
Published September 15th 1985 by St. Martin's Press