(An)Other Modernism: James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room, and the Rhetoric of Flight
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(An)Other Modernism:
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, and the Rhetoric of Flight

From the late 1980s, critical analysis of the relationship between modernism and race has slowly picked up speed. Arguments decrying traditional modernism’s exclusionary nature have produced numerous revisionist literary histories giving voice to the rich variety of contributions written by what we might call modernism’s “others”: from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Baker; de Jongh), to the writings of women modernists (Scott), to those of Latin America and of the African diaspora (Calinescu; Gilroy). However, while such critical analyses have greatly broadened our understanding of modernism, bringing to the field many new perspectives previously unconsidered in this context, they have also succeeded in bringing to light a number of alternative modernist canons. Each of these has demarcated its own discrete space within modernism, and each has recuperated a piece of modernism to an extrapolation of its own separate cultural framework (whether that be defined by race, gender, geography, or any other means of organizing knowledge about a specific subject)—rather than seeking to rearticulate the more traditional notions we hold about [End Page 932] modern culture itself. Yet if the goal of such explorations is actually to change our understanding of modernism, of what it is and was, then this revisionist work must undertake much more than simply bringing to the fore numerous previously silenced voices. Such work must also begin to analyze the interrelationships between these disparate visions of modernism and, in so doing, seek to offer a clearer, less fragmented comprehension of literary modernity as a cultural movement. With such understanding, it will become possible to learn many potentially useful things about modernism, its time and its effects, that would otherwise miss notice. 1 Such possibilities include the significance of intertextuality in the modernist contributions of authors from disparate cultures and identities, as well as the impact on their work of having lived in multiple cultural contexts.

While James Baldwin would perhaps not initially seem a likely candidate in an analysis purporting to examine these issues, a closer look at his work through its problematic relationship to the tradition of African American literature, and the way in which this relationship speaks to the difficult relation between African American literature and modernism itself, suggests otherwise.

James Baldwin and the Flight into Modernism

In Baldwin, an alignment between traditional modernism and African American literature finds an almost ready-made aesthetic bridge through the intensity of Baldwin’s interest in the Euro-American modernist Henry James, as Lyall H. Powers elaborates in a recent essay:

Coupling Henry James and James Baldwin may still seem to be an odd undertaking, but there is ample justification for doing so. In Baldwin’s list of the ten novels that had helped him “break out of the ghetto,” two are by Henry James—The Portrait of a Lady and The Princess Cassamassima [. . .]. And in Baldwin’s published work there is explicit encouragement for coupling him with James. The first essay in his early collection Nobody Knows My Name (1961), for instance, begins: “‘It is a complex fate to be an American,’ Henry James observed [. . .].”

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Despite this useful connection, Powers seems more concerned with establishing echoes of James’s work in Baldwin’s, to reveal a certain “indebtedness,” and in calling what he terms Baldwin’s “preoccupation with the problem of identity” a “Jamesian theme” (152). Such an emphasis, however, works to detract from the originality of Baldwin’s work (Porter 152) and its aesthetic properties. 3 Yet if a study of Baldwin is undertaken in terms of the effects of such artistic influence, not to show what his work owes to that influence but rather, to reveal the results of that influence in his work, one finds that Baldwin’s interest in Henry James opens up what might be considered a new cultural path within the framework of African American literature, by which it may advance beyond the idea of “protest” into a cultural future in which its artistic parameters are no longer determined exclusively by the ideas of “black” and “white.” This is because such a study would, of...