James Baldwin was an eminent essayist, novelist, and playwright – but he was also a master of the Q&A interview. Perhaps his 1984 Paris Review interview was his best, with interviewers Jordan Elgrably and George Plimpton (read the whole thing here). We include some excerpts below.
May this post serve as a reminder that this Thursday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m., the Another Look book club will feature a discussion of Baldwin’s incendiary The Fire Next Time (1963) at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall at 616 Serra Street on the Stanford campus. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating. The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.
Now here are the excerpts from The Paris Review. In the first passage, the interview asks Baldwin about his flight to France, where he eventually died at his home in Saint-Paul de Vence in 1987:
INTERVIEWER: Why did you choose France?
BALDWIN: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.
INTERVIEWER: You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.
BALDWIN: Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.
INTERVIEWER: Has writing been a type of salvation?
BALDWIN: I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.
INTERVIEWER: Was there an instant you knew you were going to write, to be a writer rather than anything else?
BALDWIN: Yes. The death of my father. Until my father died I thought I could do something else. I had wanted to be a musician, thought of being a painter, thought of being an actor. This was all before I was nineteen. … My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. … He died when his last child was born and I realized I had to make a jump—a leap. I’d been a preacher for three years, from age fourteen to seventeen. Those were three years which probably turned me to writing.
INTERVIEWER: Were the sermons you delivered from the pulpit very carefully prepared, or were they absolutely off the top of your head?
BALDWIN: I would improvise from the texts, like a jazz musician improvises from a theme. I never wrote a sermon—I studied the texts. I’ve never written a speech. I can’t read a speech. It’s kind of give-and-take. You have to sense the people you’re talking to. You have to respond to what they hear.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a reader in your mind when you write?
BALDWIN: No, you can’t have that.
INTERVIEWER: So it’s quite unlike preaching?
BALDWIN: Entirely. The two roles are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. …
INTERVIEWER: Was there anyone to guide you?
BALDWIN: I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think painters would help a fledgling writer more than another writer might? Did you read a great deal?
BALDWIN: I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoevsky, from Balzac.
INTERVIEWER: “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience,” you’ve said.
BALDWIN: Yes, and yet one’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.
INTERVIEWER: You were in utter despair after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Did you find it difficult to write then, or do you work better out of anguish?
BALDWIN: No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit. I didn’t think I could write at all. I didn’t see any point to it. I was hurt . . . I can’t even talk about it. I didn’t know how to continue, didn’t see my way clear.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a big shifting of gears between writing fiction and writing nonfiction?
BALDWIN: Shifting gears, you ask. Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy. …
INTERVIEWER: But the essay is a little bit simpler, isn’t it, because you’re angry about something which you can put your finger on . . .
BALDWIN: An essay is not simpler, though it may seem so. An essay is essentially an argument. The writer’s point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or a play you’re trying to show them something. The risks, in any case, are exactly the same.
INTERVIEWER: What are your first drafts like?
BALDWIN: They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.
INTERVIEWER: As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?
BALDWIN: You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”
BALDWIN: Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind. … I believe what one has to do as a black American is to take white history, or history as written by whites, and claim it all—including Shakespeare.
The book that rocked a nation: Another Look takes on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Join us on March 5!Tuesday, February 10th, 2015
In the last year, the killings of black youth have sparked protests and violent clashes with police across the nation, putting racial justice in the headlines. Next month, the Another Look book club will reflect on these issues with a public discussion of James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, the author’s scathing, yet compassionate, reflections on the consequences of America’s racial inequities.
The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating.
The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.
Michele Elam, who will moderate the event on the novelist, playwright, essayist and activist, said that she selected the The Fire Next Time“because its urgent insistence that black lives matter is as poignantly relevant today as it was in the civil rights era.” Elam, whose Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin will be out this month, added that “The Fire Next Time offers some of his most cogent and searing insights into race, power, and love in America.”
Read the full Stanford Report article here or click the link below.
The book has two parts: Baldwin’s essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which originally ran in the New Yorker, and also “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” a shorter piece that Elam called “a meditation on the fragility of black boyhood.”
Baldwin wrote to his nephew of the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed, and his countrymen “do not know it and do not want to know it. He added, “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
He claimed in the longer essay that white men project their fears and their longings onto African Americans. “The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.”
Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the first of nine children. He never knew his biological father, but his stepfather was a harsh preacher. At school he studied with Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and worked on the high school magazine with Richard Avedon, who would become a world famous photographer. The book dwells briefly on his precocious and brief teenage career as an evangelical preacher. He moved to Greenwich Village at 17 to be a writer. A British television journalist recalled that when he started his career he was black, impoverished and homosexual – how disadvantaged can you get? “No, I thought I hit the jackpot,” he said, grinning. Then after the laughter subsided, added, “It’s so outrageous you could not go any further, so you had to find a way to use it.”
Use it he did. He wrote than a score of fiction and non-fiction works, including novels, essays, and plays. The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies, and put Baldwin’s face on the cover of Time magazine. The award-winning author was a popular speaker – lively, epigrammatic, scathingly witty, passionate and deeply humane. He eventually settled in the south of France, where he was named a Commander of the Legion of Honor the year before his death of cancer in 1987.
“The Fire Next Time is one of the great books of the last century,” said Wolff, who teaches the book every fall. “With forensic calm born of rage, Baldwin performs an autopsy on the self-flattering myths by which we blind ourselves to the radical injustices of our society, even as we congratulate ourselves on its moral superiority. Grounded in historical and personal experience, relentlessly logical, his words burn as hot today as when they left his pen.”
Certainly the book changed minds and lives. When he was still a graduate student, Bob Fitch, who currently has a photography exhibit spotlighting the Civil Rights era at the Stanford University Libraries spent all night reading the book and the next day bought a camera and began photographing the Civil Rights movement. A few years later, at an informal staff meeting held in Martin Luther King’s bedroom, he saw The Fire Next Time among the leader’s rumpled bedsheets. King told the young photographer that the book had inspired his own 1967 book, which would be his last, Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community? The Green Library exhibition continues through March 18.
Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto have copies ofThe Fire Next Time.
The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. Another Look also invites readers far away to join us in reading the book, and to send us comments. Podcasts of previous events are on the website.
With chaos and curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, race has been everywhere in the news this weekend. A few wise words are welcome, so please don’t miss award-winning author Tobias Wolff‘s “Heart of Whiteness,” his powerful piece on race in this week’s New Yorker. It opens with Toby going through stacks and stacks of old correspondence, including letters from writer Raymond Carver – “the tone so immediately and unmistakably his that I felt almost as if he were reading them to me.” Funny, that’s exactly what I felt about reading Toby’s own words. We work together on Stanford’s “Another Look” book club (I’ve written about it tons – try here and here and here and here and here), and I could hear his voice behind every phrase.
He continues: “Then I put the file aside and began glancing through some of my own. And I was disheartened by what I found there. Clumsy, effortful wit. Vulgarity. A racist joke. Sitting there alone, reading my own words, I felt humiliatingly exposed, if only to myself; naked and ashamed.” He recalls his early gifts as a clown and satirist, with “plenty of company in this line of banter.”
None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any—and the atmosphere of right-mindedness could become so absolute, so cloying, that one was sometimes compelled to say the unsayable just to break the spell, make some different music. But this was always done with a dusting of irony. After a black family bought a house on Ray’s block, an unredeemed neighbor complained to him that “a certain element” was taking over, and the word “element” immediately entered our lexicon as an irresistibly sublime piece of swamp-think. So, too, the word “Negro,” as if delivered by an out-of-touch white alderman seeking votes from that highly esteemed, if underserved, corner of his ward.
Could I have played with these words if I had been a racist? No—I couldn’t be a racist. Even as a boy I had been shocked by what happened in Little Rock, the spectacle of pompadoured thugs and women in curlers yelling insults and curses at black kids trying to get to school. With my brother, I joined the March on Washington. We were there.
When I joined the Army, at eighteen, I was trained by black drill instructors, marched and pulled K.P. and showered and bunked and jumped out of airplanes with black troops. If it hadn’t been for a black sergeant I served with in Vietnam, I doubt that my sorry ass would’ve gotten shipped home in one piece.
I read Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes and, especially, James Baldwin—“Jimmy” to my brother, Geoffrey, who was his friend when they both lived in Istanbul. I even almost met Baldwin! He was supposed to drop by the apartment in New York where Geoffrey and I were staying, Christmas of 1963. We waited all night, drinking, talking nervously, but he never showed up; one of the great disappointments of my life. It turned out that he’d been stopped by the white doorman.
Yet there was that joke. And a couple of other cracks.
I didn’t like meeting the self I had been when writing these letters—still playing the rake, tiresomely refusing to toe the line and speak the approved words in the approved way. Mostly I didn’t like the sense of exertion I found here, the puppyish falling over myself to amuse and impress another man. The result was coarse and embarrassing. I wanted to think that this wasn’t really me, just some dumb, bumptious persona I’d adopted, which, to some extent, it was.
But I had, after all, chosen this persona rather than another. And I had to wonder why. When we speak with a satiric voice, in mimicry of the unredeemed neighbor, aren’t we having it both ways? Allowing ourselves to express ugly, disreputable feelings and thoughts, under cover of mocking them? I didn’t want to believe that there was anything of me, the real me, in this voice, but, given the facts of my past, looming in piles around me, how could there not be?
It’s a beautifully written piece. Please do read the whole thing here.