Hero: James Baldwin

by tobelikeafeatherby

Dear Ellie,

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After a lazy hiatus I feel it is time to get the blog in much needed disciplined action again. I have been meaning to tell you about James Baldwin for a while, as he has slowly, but wonderfully, creeped up on me as a much adored writer. Initially I thought of Baldwin as a political and activist writer as his writing is very much thought of in terms of the American ‘black experience’. The first work of Baldwin’s I was given to read was an essay in his collection The Fire Next Time entitled ‘My Dungeon Shook’ whereby Baldwin writes a letter to his 14 year old nephew discussing the central role of race in American History. It wasn’t until I was given Baldwin’s 1956 novel ‘Giovanni’s Room’ that I became captivated by Baldwin and his work. There is something about the simplicity, but amazingly poetical way Baldwin writes that deeply resonates. While dealing with depressing issues and realities: homosexuality, poverty, race and violence, Baldwin manages to mask his books in a dreamy and almost glamorous aesthetic, leaving me dazzled but also shocked. His writing is gritty and seedy in an almost muckraking sense as he has an important message, but simultaneously with a F. Scott Fitzgerald allure.

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This post comes after I have just spent New Year in Paris and while walking along the Canal St Martin, enjoying irish coffees and rum and ginger at recommended ‘ghetto museum’ Le Comptoir General, I was transformed back to Giovanni’s Room and reminded of David and Giovanni running around an uninhibited and hedonist Paris. The novel draws parallels to Baldwin’s own life. He was born in impoverished and pentecostal Harlem in the 1920s, one of eight siblings. Baldwin has discussed how he discovered reading early and went to his local library and read every book. He knew he was bright ‘I knew I was black but I also knew I was smart’ and commented ‘I knew I had to use my mind to get my revenge.’ Baldwin felt being both gay and black he would not be able to write honestly in the US and so headed to Paris in the late 1940s where he became involved in the cultural radicalism of the left bank. Interestingly in ‘Giovanni’s Room’ the characters are all white, which drew Baldwin much criticism from his fans. Baldwin would return to the US throughout his life but retired to the south of France, dying at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1987. You must watch the brilliant PBS documentary about his life, where Maya Angelou is shown calling Baldwin her brother.

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Canal St Martin

Baldwin’s steamy and boozy 1962 novel  Another Country   is also breathtakingly good. It is set in Greenwhich Village and Harlem, again in the 1950’s, and portrays an array of predominately African American writers and jazz musicians dealing with interracial relationships, bisexuality and violence. Although the characters are so self-destructive and desolate you cannot help but want to be in on their excitement and share a drink with them late one night at a jazz bar.

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Le Comptoir General

On another literary note, I recently read this blog post about an interview with Ernest Hemingway, which is very telling of his character. The interviewer, Lillian Ross, has annotated and added thoughts to the original transcript of the interview. I hope you enjoy.

Love, Sarah xxxx

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