Light From a Fire

That James Baldwin does not occupy more of a place in the canon of twentieth-century American literature says much more about us than it does about him. While I have been hard on him at times, it is not – nor could it be – to the detriment of his remarkable talents. My complaints focus on the nature of his contributions – I wanted more novels, less polemics – but again, this is more my problem than his.

And I’ll admit that he was reaching for something, aspiring to something, as well – a power across the forms of which I see him to have chosen one over the other. In this struggle for plainspoken offense on behalf of truth, it is possible to both let him pass and grow hostile with impatience. Instead of trying to support my argument, I’ll present evidence against it, or rather, take the liberty of ceding the floor to him on the very subject. From Notes of a Native Son, this is the beginning of his essay, Everybody’s Protest Novel:

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that cornerstone of American social protest fiction, St. Clare, the kindly master, remarks to his coldly disapproving Yankee cousin, Miss Ophelia, that, so far as he is able to tell, the blacks have been turned over to the devil for the benefit of the whites in this world – however, he adds thoughtfully, it may turn out in the next. Miss Ophelia’s reaction is, at least, vehemently right-minded: “This is perfectly horrible!” she exclaims. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”

Miss Ophelia, as we may suppose, was speaking for the author; her exclamation is the moral, neatly framed, and incontestable like those improving mottoes sometimes found hanging on the walls of furnished rooms. And, like these mottoes, before which one invariably flinches, recognizing an insupportable, almost indecent glibness, she and St. Clare are terribly in earnest. Neither of them questions the medieval morality from which their dialogue springs: black, white, the devil, the next world – posing its alternatives between heaven and flames – were realities for them as, of course, they were for their creator. They spurned and were terrified of the darkness, striving mightily for the light; and considered from this aspect, Miss Ophelia exclamation, like Mrs. Stowe’s novel, achieves a bright, almost lurid significance, like the light from a fire which consumes a witch. This is the more striking as one considers the novels of negro oppression written in our own, more enlightened day, all of which say only: “This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” (Let us ignore, for the moment, those novels of oppression written by Negroes, which add only a raging, near-paranoiac postscript to this statement and actually reinforce, as I hope to make clear later, the principles which activate the oppression they decry.)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, in inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants – is a catalogue of violence. This is explained by the nature of Mrs. Stowe’s subject matter, her laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture; an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete; and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality – unmotivated, senseless – and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.

But this, let us say, was beyond Mrs. Stowe’s powers; she was not much of a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer; her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel; and the only question left to ask is why are bound stil within the same constriction. How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?

But that battered word, truth, having made its appearance here, confronts one immediately with a series of riddles and has, moreover, since so many gospels are preached, the unfortunate tendency to make one belligerent. Let us say, then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference; it is not to be confused with a devotion to Humanity which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause; and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty. We have, as it seems to me, in this most mechanical and interlocking of civilizations, attempted to lop this creature down to the status of a time-saving invention. he is not, after all, merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is – and how old-fashioned the words sound! – something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity – which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves – we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims. What is today parroted as his Responsibility – which seems to mean that he must make more formal declaration that he is involved in, and affected by, the lives of other people and to say something improving about this somewhat self-evident fact – is, when he believes it, his corruption and our loss; moreover, it is rooted in, interlocked with and intensifies this same mechanization. Both Gentleman’s Agreement and The Postman Always Rings twice exemplify this terror of the human being, the determination to cut him down to size. And in Uncle Tom’s Cabin we may find foreshadowing of both: the formula created by the necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth has been handed down and memorized and persists yet with a terrible power.

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