Writer Wednesday: James Baldwin

I quoted him for years, but I never knew who Baldwin was until last fall.

It came as a complete surprise to me that James Baldwin wrote fiction. I had it in my mind that he was an educator, an essayist and an activist. It just hadn’t occurred to me that did all that and wrote fiction.

I first became aware of Baldwin when I was working as an education reporter for the Stamford Times. As part of my duties I had to cover several graduations every spring, three of them in Stamford. The superintendent there was fond of quoting Baldwin’s paradox of education from the writer’s 1963 A Talk to Teachers. The super included the exact same quote from Baldwin at each of the graduations every single year. I must have heard it 15 times.

I got hip to the super’s graduation speech tricks by the second year. Rather than look up the paradox of education again and again and again, and rather than try to take down the whole, lengthy quote during the graduation speech, I simply printed out the quote and kept it in my desk at work:

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.

I grew pretty familiar with the paradox of education as I tried to gracefully work it into three separate graduation stories every June. So last year, when a professor, Kim McLarin, mentioned Baldwin during the first workshop for my MFA program, I snapped to attention. James Baldwin? A-talk-to-teachers Baldwin? Paradox-of-education Baldwin?  We couldn’t be talking about the same Baldwin, could we?

Now, after having read Another Country and read more about Baldwin, I’m impressed by all the things Baldwin did. He was an activist for civil rights, he wrote fervently about racial and sexual issues and he was a prolific and eloquent author.

Below the break is the craft essay I wrote for Kim about plot in Another Country.

The Rise of Conflict in James Baldwin’s Another Country

There never were such escape artists as the characters created by James Baldwin in his aptly-named novel Another Country.

Each of his principal characters tries to get away from conflict in the book; almost all of them are tempted in some way to find “another country;” to run from their personal struggles. Rufus wants to get on a boat and leave, Vivaldo and Ida want to take their embattled relationship away from the racial tensions of the United States, Cass and Richard want to move out of the city, and Eric has already fled, but is drawn back to New York by his career. All of these characters want to escape their troubles, but Baldwin keeps them all tied to New York City, where the conflict rises steadily around them until they must face it.

James Frey discusses three types of conflict in How to Write a Damn Good Novel: static, jumping, and slowly rising conflict. Static conflict occurs when the conflict does not evolve and the characters involved in the conflict do not change as a result of the conflict. Jumping conflict occurs when a conflict rises quickly, i.e., a character moves from happiness to rage. Slowly rising conflict is characterized by Frey as the best kind of conflict; a struggle in which tensions increase slowly, causing the characters to reveal their true selves as they grapple with their struggles.

Baldwin’s novel contains all three, albeit on very different levels.

In the first chapter of the book, the only pages in which the central character, Rufus Scott is alive, conflict jumps. The reader is first presented with a depressed and homeless Rufus, and then in a brilliant flashback, the reader sees him falling in love with a Southern white woman, Leona, his downfall. In his earliest scenes with Leona, Rufus is depicted a successful jazz musician, simply bedding a groupie for the evening. But as he and Leona fall into a relationship, the flashback begins to hop around and Rufus, the easy-going drummer, is suddenly violent, beating Leona, accusing her of sleeping around and threatening his best friend with death before weeping himself to sleep.  When we return to the narrative moment, Rufus is on the mend after months on the street. He finally contacts his best friend and considers going home to see his family. In the same evening, however, he takes a train to the George Washington Bridge and commits suicide. It’s a 436-page book. Rufus is dead by page 88. The readers and characters will spend the next 344 pages grappling with his death and his life. That’s where the real, steadily rising conflict begins.

The core conflict in the book is catalyzed by Rufus’s suicide. Each character tries to understand his death and what it means to them, but the white characters that loved Rufus were blind to his struggles as a black man, while Rufus’s sexuality is a blind spot for the men, particularly for Vivaldo. This conflict with the true nature of Rufus Scott sets the scene for the novel’s various conflicts: Vivaldo and Ida’s tumultuous relationship, Ida’s quest to make it as a singer while exploring her identity as a black woman, Eric’s struggle with his own past and his romance with Yves, Cass’s struggle with her own understanding of race and class, and Vivaldo’s repressed bisexuality.

All of these are steadily rising conflicts. As an example, let’s look at the conflict of Cass Silenski, who puts her life as a wife and mother at risk when she initiates an affair with Eric. Cass is first introduced as a motherly figure, a woman who – from the standpoint of Vivaldo – is in a solid marriage with her would-be author husband Richard. But by page 74, the reader is able to catch a whiff of her conflict when she tells Rufus and Vivaldo, in fun, that she’s tired of her husband. The joke is revealing, but remains just a quip until Cass and Vivaldo are headed to Rufus’s funeral. Cass realizes in the taxi that her husband has disappointed her by writing an uninspired book that represents “the absolute limit of his talent.” Forty pages later she is revealed to hate Richard’s success and all the people and parties that come with it, but we don’t see Cass and Richard fight until page 245 and she doesn’t initiate her affair with Eric until page 287. Cass’s story reaches its climax when she admits her infidelity to Richard, triggering an explosive argument, which leads to a possible divorce and loss of her children.  That climax coincides with the climax of Vivaldo’s conflict with his sexuality and with Ida, and with Eric’s struggle with his relationship with Yves, whom he fears he will lose in New York. The conflict in each character’s life is raised slowly.

Finally, Baldwin uses static conflict as a backdrop for the novel. Throughout the novel, there is a bubbling racial tension between blacks and whites. That conflict is everywhere in the book; unnamed characters on the streets act it out, the streets themselves exude that tension, it rends the two interracial couples, complicates the musical careers of both Ida and Rufus, and enters the discussions of each character. When the story strays from that conflict, Baldwin manages to bring the struggle back into focus — when the story becomes centered on the tension between Cass and Richard, Baldwin draws the reader back to racial tension when their sons enter after having had a fight with some black boys. When the story begins to revolve around Ida’s relationships with Steve Ellis and Vivaldo, she brings back the racial struggle by recounting the black musicians’ angry words to her on the stage.

The conflict between white and black, straight and homosexual, remains a static backdrop throughout the book. At the end of the novel, America has not become a better place. The struggle between the two races, and between society’s sexual norms and the sex life of individuals, remains.

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