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James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.”

Be it a piece of fiction, criticism, or journalism, great literature has always contained a social and political dimension with moral ramifications for the society in which it was conceived and written. But its unique role is to explore a version of reality that others may have overlooked—indeed, there may be nothing more subversive than honestly re-creating one’s own experience. However, when a writer or artist enlists in a specific socio-political cause—that is, how things ought to be, rather than how they are—their work might succeed in persuading people but, ultimately, it fails to achieve transcendent resonance. This tension between moralism and humanism requires clarification at a time when private life has been swallowed up by politics, and this is nowhere more apparent today than on the subject of race in America.

Few historic figures embodied that tension as vividly as James Baldwin. In 1948, as a 24-year-old aspiring writer brimming with urgency, Baldwin nearly got himself killed when he threw a coffee mug at a diner waitress in a spell of rage after she told him “Negroes aren’t served here.” He then set off for Europe to escape the stifling atmosphere of segregated America, and to discover precisely where his racial identity ended and his individual identity as an artist began. He would later write in his memoir, Nobody Knows My Name, that the journey gave him the moral and artistic freedom to “recreate the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.” “I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer. I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” Out of those reflections emerged his first two novels and the timeless essay collection, Notes of a Native Son, inaugurating the unique and lucid voice for which he’d come to be known.