James Baldwin: “No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine.”


We’ve written about author James Baldwin before – here and here and here. He’s one of the most remarkable voices in American lit. So we were pleased when LitHub recently republished his 1986 interview with David C. Estes. He begins with questions about James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which had just been published the year before. The book examines the Atlanta child murders that took place over a period of twenty-two months in 1979 and 1980. Says Baldwin:

JB: No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine. You just have to trust it. I’ve not been able to read the book, but I remember some of the moments when I wrote this or that. So in some ways, it’s a kind of melancholy inventory, not so much about myself as a writer (I’m not melancholy about that), but I think that what I found hard to decipher is to what extent or in what way my ostensible subject has changed. Nothing in the book could be written that way today.

Estes retraces his career, and Baldwin recalls his early days as a writer. Another excerpt: 

JB: Later, at Commentary, I had a marvelous relationship with one of the editors—Robert Warshow, my first real editor. He asked me to do an essay about the Harlem ghetto. When I turned it in, Robert said, “Do it over.” He didn’t say anything more. So I did. And then he said, “You know more than that.” I began to be aware of what he was doing. When he saw me come close to what I was afraid of, he circled it and said, “Tell me more about that.” What I was afraid of was the relationship between Negroes and Jews in Harlem—afraid on many levels. I’d never consciously thought about it before, but then it began to hit me on a profound and private level because many of my friends were Jews, although they had nothing to do with the Jewish landlords and pawnbrokers in the ghetto. So I had been blotting it out. It was with Robert that I began to be able to talk about it, and that was a kind of liberation for me. I’m in his debt forever because after that I was clear in my own mind. I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been afraid to talk about it because I was a closet anti-Semite myself. One always has that terror. And then I realized that I wasn’t. So something else was opened.

DCE: What major artistic problems have you had to confront in your nonfiction?

JB: I was a black kid and was expected to write from that perspective. Yet I had to realize the black perspective was dictated by the white imagination. Since I wouldn’t write from the perspective, essentially, of the victim, I had to find what my own perspective was and then use it. I couldn’t talk about “them” and “us.” So I had to use “we” and let the reader figure out who “we” is. That was the only possible choice of pronoun. It had to be “we.” And we had to figure out who “we” was, or who “we” is. That was very liberating for me.

I was going through a whole lot of shit in New York because I was black, because I was always in the wrong neighborhood, because I was small. It was dangerous, and I was in a difficult position because I couldn’t find a place to live. I was always being thrown out, fighting landlords. My best friend committed suicide when I was twenty-two, and I could see that I was with him on that road. I knew exactly what happened to him—everything that happened to me. The great battle was not to interiorize the world’s condemnation, not to see yourself as the world saw you, and also not to depend on your skill. I was very skillful—much more skillful than my friend, much more ruthless, too. In my own mind, I had my family to save. I could not go under; I could not afford to. Yet I knew that I was going under. And at the very same moment, I was writing myself up to a wall. I knew I couldn’t continue. It was too confining. I wrote my first two short stories, and then I split.

Read the whole thing here.

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