Book Review

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

great early[ish] essays from one of america's best

I’m still ploughing through the massive pile of books I bought myself for my birthday, and this is my first dip into a pair of items I purchased together. Foolishly, though, I read them in the wrong order.

This book, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1964 but collecting pieces from the previous fifteen years), should probably have been the book of the pair I read second, as the other one is Richard Wright’s seminal 1939 (or 1940 – Wikipedia has doubts) novel, Native Son, which the first quarter/third of Baldwin’s book explores in great – and spoiler laden – detail.

I haven’t read Native Son, and I will do by the end of the year, but I knew of it as an important novel written by a black American, though in my head I’d thought it was published 20 years later than it was. Baldwin writes at length about it, because it is an important book, a bestseller exploring racism, but he argues that the book’s faults are significant and overlooked.

Baldwin’s main criticism seems to be that the protagonist’s shift towards violence, regardless of motive, fits into the negative stereotypes white racists have of black Americans, while also managing to make the novel function as wish-fulfilment to a black readership. In some ways, Native Son is a precursor to blaxploitation films, despite – unfantasticly – there being real-world consequences/repercussions to the vengeful violence.

Baldwin writes about the failings of the “protest novel” more generally, too, about how anything written for a white audience or by a white progressive will inevitably be less confrontational and less direct than is necessary for societal change, while a protest novel written by a black writer must – almost inevitably – be truly, truly, bleak or fundamentally aggressive, both of which limit its potential to reach the wider readership that is required to affect societal change.

Baldwin’s conclusion, however, seems to be the (arguably small c conservative) idea that fiction has no function, no ability, to be significantly political. Novels can, he believes, evoke empathy and force an awareness of humanity where it had previously been ignored, but it will not do this if the writer’s motivation is this straightforward. A story that is written to make a serious point is weaker than a story that happens to make a serious point.

I don’t know if I agree with this, or even if Baldwin truly did, but he is very careful to draw a distinction between the appropriate purposes of fiction and the appropriate purposes of essay, reportage or memoir, which – of course – makes sense in a book containing the latter. 

The rest of Notes of a Native Son is more varied, and more concerned with place than literature/art. There’s a great piece about Baldwin’s younger brother’s (thankfully-bloodless!) trip to a very racist part of the USA to perform as a singer at a rich old Democrat’s charity event; there’s the famous piece about being [one of] the first black man[/men] to visit a tiny village in Switzerland (written about beautifully by Teju Cole in Known and Strange Things), and there’s a moving piece about his failure to ever connect, emotionally or intellectually, with his father.

The discussion of being a son resonates with me, obvs (see my sad prose chapbook My Father, From A Distance and my “Highly Commended” poetry collection Bad Boy Poet), but Baldwin’s exploration of the way structural prejudice and oppression directly contributed to the flaws in this relationship is powerful stuff. What a man is and what a man can be were very different ideas to the two men’s different generations. Baldwin was a young adult in a time of gentle optimism, while his father was not. Baldwin did successfully become a (rightly) lauded figure in a historically white industry (i.e. literature), and in other essays here he explores the ways in which his literary success required him to divorce himself from the society in which he grew up.

Baldwin became a writer, I misquote, when he arrived in France.

It was by escaping the realities of subtle racism in New York City and witnessing the different – and often less concealed – racism of rural Europe that Baldwin became able to see and evoke the problems of home. He wrote because he could, because he wanted to and because he felt that he must.

In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes beautifully and powerfully about culture, society and himself, and though he may dismiss and scorn “the protest novel”, Baldwin makes a great case for the validity and deservéd rise of “the protest essay collection”. 

Recommended, of course.


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