The Mary Renault Society

The Triangle Area of North Carolina

James Baldwin

Thirteen Mary Renault Society members were at the February 27 gathering hosted by David Champagne & Michael Bassman in Cary.

At 8:26 just after dinner a little time was taken for Society business. Charlie passed out a proposal for returning MRS to a monthly schedule beginning in April (see below). The group agreed to this enthusiastically, including not holding a MRS meeting in November (the fourth Sunday would be three days after Thanksgiving). People quickly offered to host the two meetings not already spoken for (David DeMarini for May 22 in Chapel Hill, and Tony DeAngelo for July 24). The Treasurer mentioned that some people hadn’t paid dues yet - $20 per individual or couple. Shouldst you be among the miscreants, contact him, please.

Business taken care of, Thomas Sherratt introduced Associate Professor Randall Kenan of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. Prof. Kenan was born in Brooklyn but fortunately rescued and raised in Chinquapin, NC. He graduated from UNC-CH in 1985, having spent a summer in 1984 at Oxford. Partly through the efforts of his mentor Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize laureate, he eventually became an editor at Knopf. The year he first began teaching at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence College, his writing career began with his first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, in 1989. (Our host, Michael, recommends Visitation of Spirits to the group; he teaches it.)

James BaldwinProf. Kenan has long been fascinated by James Baldwin, civil rights activist and American writer: novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet. In 1993 he published a young adult biography of James Baldwin [James Baldwin: American Writer (Lives of Notable Gay Men & Lesbians), Chelsea House Publications, New York, NY; 1994-01], and he edited Cross of Redemption, a book of uncollected writings of James Baldwin that has just been released by Pantheon. An excerpt from The Cross of Redemption appears here.

James Arthur Baldwin was born in 1926. Though he was illegitimate, his mother quickly married his stepfather, a storefront preacher, and eventually he had eight siblings. Baldwin’s father was a bitter, abusive, and controlling man, and the relationship between the two of them was strained. When 14, he became a Pentecostal youth minister, but three years later he turned away from organized religion and began knocking around doing odd jobs in Greenwich Village – also writing essays, book reviews, and stories. (Baldwin was exempted from military service in WW II because he was a major income earner for his large family. His stepfather died in 1943.) There he attended The New School for Social Research, a university with a lot of prestigious alumni and distinguished faculty members. Though he did not graduate, he did eventually do some teaching at the school.

He worked on a NJ railroad for a while, enraged when he was turned away from a whites-only restaurant – just one more chink in the structure of outrage at the segregationist system that framed his life.

Prejudice against blacks wasn’t the only cross he dealt with; he had by now also discovered his homosexuality – at a time when the cultural or political equality of either group genuinely was still near zero. His novels in particular show a personal exploration of identity in the face of the complex social and psychological oppression attached to being poor, black, and homosexual, and the almost violent outrage of his writing certainly stems from the turbulence of racial struggle in the 60’s.

Alienated from his culture by what appeared to be hopeless American prejudice against blacks and gays, in 1947 he left for Europe (Paris and Istanbul), to stay nearly ten years. French racism (against Algerians) bothered him just as much, but in 1949 he met and fell in love with one Lucien Happersberger, who spirited him away to the family chalet in Switzerland. It was a deep but complicated – not fairy tale – relationship; and three years later Lucien devastated him by marrying a woman he had gotten pregnant. Other, later relationships he may have had were in the shadows, and not between equals. Though he had some contact with Bayard Rustin, there is little evidence of a relationship of any kind.

In 1953 Baldwin’s first (semi-autobiographical) novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published; it routinely winds up on lists of the 20th century’s greatest novels. This was followed by Notes of a Native Son in 1955, an acclaimed collection of essays on race and culture. Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was published in London in 1956, the same year that Mary Renault’s first historical novel appeared; like Renault it very uncharacteristically for the times showed empathy towards homosexuality (it got good reviews, and eventually it was published here).

In 1957 Baldwin returned to the US – though just for visits. His 1962 Another Country, completed in Istanbul, became a major bestseller. It and the 1963 The Fire Next Time brought in a lot of money. When he returned to the US in 1962, he quickly became involved in the civil rights tumult, becoming a major voice of the movement. Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s magazines were telling him to go find out what was going on, and some magnificent essays resulted.

Baldwin's The Fire Next TimeBaldwin's Time Magazine CoverThe son of the editor of The New Yorker asked him to do a piece on Malcolm X; it appeared in 1962 and the magazine sold out immediately. The Fire Next Time, published first in The New Yorker, brought him to the cover of Time Magazine in 1963.

Baldwin became a huge success. His prominence involved him in a lecture tour of the South for CORE, including stops in Greensboro and Durham, put him on the list of speakers for the 1963 March on Washington, and brought him into a group that Attorney General Robert Kennedy called together to explore the moral concerns behind civil rights problem.

But as the 60’s progressed, violence in the South increased. John Kennedy and Medgar Evers were both killed in 1963, and Malcolm X’s murder in 1965 was followed by the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – three of these personal friends of Baldwin’s.

His hopes crushed that the racial problems of the US could be solved peacefully, Baldwin decided he couldn’t stay here. He went to Paris and then Istanbul; he became famous there, so he went to Provence and bought an old inn. He remained overseas for most of the last 15 years of his life (though in 1983, he was a faculty member of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst).

Baldwin’s earlier works are generally seen as his best. His last book The Evidence of Things Not Seen (about the 28 Atlanta child murders of 1979-81 – much of which appeared in Playboy Magazine) was lackluster, sermonizing, and poorly received by critics.

Baldwin spent his latter years in St. Paul de Vence on the Riviera, France, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987. His funeral was held on December 8 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and he was buried in Harlem, the black capital of the U.S.

In the later period of his life, Baldwin’s ‘Here There Be Dragons’ appeared in Playboy. It deals with androgyny and the fact that, as a teenager he was adopted by a pimp, who lavished love on him. Its message: we can love anybody. Though many knew that Baldwin was gay, people were bemused and amused by how oblique he could be in responding to questions about his sexuality. He was mistrustful of the party line of gay people. Aware of how conservative Black America was, he had a cagy sense about not acknowledging his homosexuality and not wanting to sacrifice what his prominence had made possible.

Baldwin redefined what religion meant to him; some of his essays read like theology. He was very spiritual but not exactly religious, a point he often addresses in interviews. His language was sermon-like – well crafted – but this trait also makes his prose very difficult for youth.

Nowadays, two or three of his essays and one short story are still celebrated as Black literature, and reading his writings forces you to see how much the world has changed. In a time when public discourse often lacks civility, it might do each of us good to learn from Baldwin how far we have come.


Works by James Baldwin

Novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (53) · Giovanni's Room (56) · Another Country (62) · Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (68) · If Beale Street Could Talk (74) · Just Above My Head (79)
Plays The Amen Corner (54) · Blues for Mister Charlie (64)
Short story collections Going to Meet the Man (65: includes “The Rockpile” · “The Outing” · “The Man Child” · “Previous Condition” · “Sonny’s Blues” · “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” · “Come Out the Wilderness” · “Going to Meet the Man”)
Poetry collection Jimmy's Blues (85)
Essay collections Notes of a Native Son (55) · Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (61; essays and stories) · The Fire Next Time (63) · No Name in the Street (72) · The Devil Finds Work (76) · The Evidence of Things Not Seen (85) · The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 (85) · The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings of James Baldwin (11)
Collaborations Nothing personal (64; (with photographer Richard Avedon) · A Rap on Race (71; with Margaret Mead) · One day when I was lost (72; screenplay based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography Of Malcolm XA Dialogue (73; with Nikki Giovanni) · Little Man Little Man: A Story of Childhood (76: with Yoran Cazac) Native Sons (04; correspondence and photographs, with Sol Stein)
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MRS Monthly Schedule for 2011           
02/27/11 Randall Kenan James Baldwin David C. & Michael B. – Cary
04/24/11 Seth Maid Equality NC Peter B. – Chapel Hill
05/22/11 TBA Legal Issues David De.
06/26/11 Stan Kimer Gay Christian in the Land of Jesse Helms Charlie K. & Jerry N.– Raleigh
07/24/11 Pool Party? Business / planning / anniversary meeting Anthony De.
08/28/11 Cecil Wooten Homosexuality in the Ancient World Philip P. – Chapel Hill
09/25/11 Tom Dow Gay Travel Tom D. – Chatham Co.
10/23/11 Michael Brantley Art in the Baroque Era Michael B. – Raleigh
11/27/11 (Thanksgiving is Nov. 24. No November meeting)
12/10/11 none Joint holiday event with TAGS, Prime Timers Jack P. – Raleigh


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