Book Review

The Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin

it's not Baldwin's best, but it's better than most books by everyone else!

The evidence of things not seen is one of, if not the, last book published by James Baldwin in his lifetime and – as far as I can tell – the only book-length prose text of his not to have been included in any of the three Library of America volumes edited by Toni Morrison that collate the vast majority of his writing (tho LOA doesn’t – yet – publish Jimmy’s plays, poems or once day when I was lost).

I don’t quite know why this particular book of Baldwin’s remains gently outside of his otherwise widely published oeuvre. Perhaps, it is the date of publication and/or the deal he made with the initial publisher, but, whyever, to get hold of a new copy of this text, one cannot order it alongside the beautifully designed and presented major publisher editions that hold most of Baldwin’s writing, but instead it is only currently available in this raggedy print on demand version, which is irritatingly filled with clear typographical errors, missed punctuation and non-standard capitalisation. Baldwin deserves better, so I’d be interested to learn why he hasn’t got it here…

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The Evidence of Things Not Seen is short, a little over 100 pages, and though it is ostensibly Baldwin’s later – and later-life – version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, rather than the journalistic true crime text that the blurb and pull quotes promise, it feels more like a James Baldwin greatest hits, with a handful of references to the criminal trial that it is – loosely speaking – about.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, a scary number of Black children were found dead in Atlanta. The vast majority showed clear signs of violence, though some didn’t (and the violence varied significantly), and the vast majority, too, appeared to have been bathed immediately after or immediately before death. There was – at least as far as Baldwin and the wider public was aware – no sign of sexual assault. These were, the story went, signs of a violent, cruel, more demonic murderer, motivated by the creation of fear and terror, rather than by a sexual motive, something that Americans (a strangely – and we forget it! – puritanical country) could at least understand, even if they didn’t approve.

A young gay Black man has been tried and convicted for the murder of two young adults, and though though he has not been tried for the 30-ish other murders, the prosecution’s arguement for this case rests on the fact that if he did these 2 murders, then he did the others, and if he did the others, he did these.

This, as you can see, is a closed loop, with the man’s arrest proving his guilt and his guilt justifying his arrest, with the presumption of guilt (something one imagines is “unconstitutional”, a legal protection that permits the private ownership of assault rifles and – for a very long time – permitted the enslavement of people!) for a crime that is not the one the man is on trial for explaining and confirming the presumption of his guilt of the two murders he was jailed and convicted for doing.

So, it’s definitely an interesting case, and happening at an interesting time, the supposed halcyon years following the civil rights movement and Watergate and before the neoliberal, financialising agenda kicked off. It’s also an interesting point in Baldwin’s life: he is living in the south of France, with his long term partner, many of his friends are already dead, he is 60ish and only has a couple of years left.

His writing is, of course, beautiful and intelligent and witty and blunt, but there just seems to be an absence of fire – understandable given his personal contexts (success, acclaim, comfort, love), though disappointing given the subject and subjects of the book.

Baldwin gives some detail about the parents of murdered children, about the flimsy police investigation, about local, statewide and national politics and how they affected the case, about forensic scientific methods (including an interesting digression on the history of fingerprinting and criminal investigation), all surrounding Baldwin’s articulate and honed verbalizing of American institutionalised racism, so although the evidence of things not seen is undoubtedly a fucking excellent book when compared generally with any average book, when considered as part of Baldwin’s work, it is looser, more digressive, less piercing, and less perfect than his work tends to be.

Absolutely, though, I would recommend this to anyone who loves Baldwin or is interested in literary true crime and/or 1980s discussions of race in America, but if you’ve never read Baldwin before, this isn’t the place to start. Probably not the place to finish either, something I’m very much aware of as I slowly edge towards the end of experiencing his works for the first time.

I’ve left two novels to read until after I’ve read his poetry, one last play and his uncollected non-fiction.

James Baldwin is excellent. This book is excellent. It’s just not as excellent as James Baldwin can be. But it is, definitely, excellent.

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