Lynn Orilla Scott. James Baldwin's Later Fiction: Witness to the Journey.
"What in the world was I by now," James Baldwin wondered in No Name in the Street, "but an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak?" Published in 1972, but begun in the late 1960s, Baldwin's long essay captures many of the ambiguities and complexities that characterized his mercurial writing career and stormy personal life. In contrast to the steadfast reputations of African American writers such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, Baldwin's status as a novelist is less secure. Although readers and critics have been quick to praise moments of Baldwin's breathtaking, syncopated prose, his work--particularly from the mid to late 1960s--is often viewed as patchy and inconsistent. By the early 1970s, Baldwin's reputation had dwindled; his last novel of the 1960s, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, was panned by critics who saw in his writing an uneasy tension between Baldwin the celebrity and Baldwin the aging political radical. Publicly humiliated and scorned by a younger generation of black radical writers (particularly Eldridge Cleaver and Amiri Baraka), Baldwin, it seemed, never recovered.
In James Baldwin's Later Fiction: Witness to the Journey, Lynn Orilla Scott attempts to redress the recalcitrant consensus among a wide range of Baldwin scholars (including Addison Gayle, Calvin C. Hernton, and Morris Dickstein) that Baldwin's later fiction signaled his demise as a novelist. Focusing on his last three novels (Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just Above My Head), Scott examines the reasons for the critical neglect of Baldwin's later work. Central to Scott's argument is the need to examine Baldwin's later novels through the prism of his earlier essays and fiction, focusing on three interconnected themes: "the role of the family in sustaining the artist; the price of success in American society; and the struggle of the black artist to change the ways race and sex are represented in American culture."
Scott's project is timely and long overdue, complementing the two most recent collections of essays on Baldwin (Dwight A. McBride, ed. James Baldwin Now , and D. Quentin Miller, ed. Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen ). As Scott points out, while both books include a number of nuanced and searching essays, neither pays much attention to Baldwin's later novels. In keeping with the recent (and welcome) resistance to dividing Baldwin's work (whether between his fiction and non-fiction, political or non-political writing), Scott challenges the claim that "Baldwin's increased political activism and militancy in the sixties led to his decline as an artist." In an engaging opening chapter, Scott examines Baldwin's critical reception and legacy, surveying a wide range of critical writing. While it is well-known that Baldwin scholars have neglected his later fiction, Scott's chapter lucidly chronicles the depth of these omissions.
Moving on to an examination of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, Scott places Baldwin's novel in the context of Civil Rights activism, arguing that many reviewers "missed ... the extraordinary way that Baldwin's fourth novel engaged with and challenged the racial and sexual politics of the sixties." Like most of the book this chapter is meticulously researched, illuminated by occasional flashes of inspired critical reading. Scott pays close attention to the complexities of the period's sexual politics, and her reading of Black Christopher as a challenge to the Black Power Movement's homophobia is insightful and convincing. But despite these merits, the chapter, indeed the book, occasionally lacks cohesion and fluidity. Scott's reading, for example, of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone through Robert Stepto's theory of "immersion narrative" lacks theoretical punch and development.
In her chapter on If Beale Street Could Talk, Scott skillfully blends biographical detail with Baldwin's other writing from the late 1960s onwards. Addressing the important question of Baldwin's female narrator Tish, Scott asks whether or not "Baldwin is simply exploiting a woman's voice in order to celebrate love for the black male and black manhood." Drawing on a range of criticism and interviews, Scott examines Baldwin's complicated articulation of sexual difference before discussing the novel's conflation of sacred and secular language. Paralleling Trudier Harris's excellent exploration of the crossroads of sex, religious discourse, and blues in Beale Street, Scott insightfully looks at how Baldwin's penultimate novel is critical of Christianity, while at the same time calling for a redefining of the church's role and actions.
Scott's final chapter explores Just Above My Head, developing Eleanor Traylor's reading of the novel "as a storyteller's novel told in a musical mode." For Scott, Just Above is not only a return to the roots of the black church in Go Tell It on the Mountain, but also forms an important part of Baldwin's quest to "create a form of self-representation that does justice to the complexity of African American subjectivity." Scott's premise is compelling, not least because it convincingly connects Baldwin's earlier and later work, while at the same time suggesting that his work was fluid, that it resisted fixity and closure in favor of development and exploration.
Scott's discussion of gospel music and sexual desire in Just Above is relevant and pertinent but adds little to the body of existing cultural criticism. In line with the other chapters, Scott is sensitive to the importance of Baldwin's sexual politics, exploring the context of how "gospel is a doubly coded form of self-expression" through a convincing reading of the secularity of gospel origins. As Scott rightly points out, Baldwin's mixing of sacred and secular meanings is part of a long tradition of African American culture, and yet his bold articulation of homosexuality within religious and musical discourse marks his work as both controversial and fascinating.
Scott's bold book is a useful addition to the renewed interest in Baldwin's work, and is particularly welcome given the paucity of writing on his last three novels. Although James Baldwin's Later Fiction lacks theoretical sophistication, it is redeemed by lucid prose and thorough research, blending biographical detail with sharp critical analysis and informative cultural criticism. At times, however, the prose lacks pace and the arguments, though of interest, read like a patchwork of interesting comments that don't quite hold together. There is considerable emphasis on the older canon of Baldwin scholars (such as Craig Werner and Donald B. Gibson), which means that much of the research, while thorough and relevant, isn't dazzlingly fresh. A more important caveat is that Scott's book stops short of interrogating the aesthetic flaws of Baldwin's later fiction. On the one hand, Scott is right to insist on the importance of these under-researched novels, but her argument would have been strengthened by acknowledging wider (and more straightforward) reasons why these novels remain on the periphery of Baldwin's oeuvre. These reservations notwithstanding, Scott's wide-ranging and insightful discussion of Baldwin's earlier work means that her book will have broader appeal than the title suggests. James Baldwin's Later Fiction will be a useful addition, not only to Baldwin scholars, but also to readers interested in post-war African American literature and culture more generally.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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