- James Baldwin's Later Fiction: Witness to the Journey
The impetus for Lynn Orilla Scott's examination of James Baldwin's later fiction comes from her sense that his decline in both public [End Page 763] reputation and critical reception after the mid-sixties is linked to important misreadings of his last three novels by both scholars and the liberal political constituency that had previously embraced him. Scott notes: "At first glance it would seem that James Baldwin's life and work have received considerable attention. . . . [I]t becomes very clear after reviewing the critical output that comparatively little has been written on Baldwin's last three novels" (5). Scott opens by speaking of her own biographical relationship to Baldwin through her relationship to a favorite aunt Orilla Scott whom Baldwin memorializes as partly the reason that he "never managed to hate white people" (vii). The biography of Orilla Scott and Lynn Orilla Scott testifies to the complex boundary-crossing power of Baldwin's work and public personae. For Scott, who read a copy of The Fire Next Time given to her by her aunt while a first-year student at a private girls school in England, Baldwin's work offered her "a first glimpse of yet another world" allowing her to discover in it "a voice that made me feel he was letting me in on his life, as he was, somehow, letting me in on my life as well" (vi-vii).
Baldwin's renown as a writer and public persona was at least partially a result of his ability to provoke such connections. Yet Scott begins her examination of Baldwin's later fiction at Baldwin's memorial service in order to point out the frequent inability of Baldwin's public persona and critical reception to reflect the richness of the racial and sexual complexity evoked by his work. Scott notes that not only was "the only speaker at Baldwin's funeral who was not an African American . . . the French ambassador," but also that there was an absence of any mention of Baldwin's homosexuality (4). For Scott, this demonstrates, despite Baldwin's acclaim, the difficulty that his legacy continues to pose for academic and popular reception. Deploying a rich complex mix of biography, exploration of critical reception, and close reading, James Baldwin's Later Fiction: Witness to the Journey sets out to rectify the critical lapse in Baldwin studies. It does so not only in hopes of stirring a reevaluation of the critical dismissal of Baldwin's later work, but also so it may effect a reevaluation of many of the critical truisms developed about Baldwin's liberatory vision of art and social justice.
Implicit in James Baldwin's Later Fiction: Witness to the Journey is a critique of the breadth and scope of existing Baldwin scholarship. Scott attributes the decline in Baldwin's reputation and the neglect of his later novels to Baldwin's refusal to "tell the stories that various critical constituencies wanted him to tell." This is connected not only to Baldwin's later works' seeming embrace of black power politics, but also, according to Scott, with "a concern for salvation [that] may make him incomprehensible to certain postructuralist [End Page 764] sensibilities" (17). Scott also argues that Baldwin's later work confounds critical engagement "also partly due to the pressures of canonizing black literature by defining a black difference" (7). Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just Above My Head add to Baldwin's legacy by complicating his ever-present themes of personal and religious salvation, as well as presenting his evolving notion of the black family as a not uncomplicated site of possible redemption, including an indictment of black homophobia and the positing of sexual love between brothers as a model for possible reconciliation.
The strength of Scott's work rests in her wide-ranging knowledge of Baldwin criticism, of Baldwin's biography, and her ability to combine both into an important intervention into existing Baldwin scholarship. Because...