- "Just Enough for the City":Limitations of Space in Baldwin's Another Country
James Baldwin's novel Another Country begins with the suicide of Rufus Scott, a young black jazz musician who spends the last month of his life alone and homeless, filled with anguish, and roaming Manhattan's streets. Although Rufus dies within the novel's first hundred pages, he is Another Country's most important character, structuring the narrative through a series of relationships and memories each evoked by his death.
Even before Rufus's ultimate month of wandering, he is dispossessed of a permanent home. Having years before left his parents' place in Harlem, Rufus finds himself—and eventually, his white Southern girlfriend, Leona—living in a series of increasingly shabby East Village and Lower East Side apartments. Racism, poverty, and violence all thwart Rufus's attempts to claim a permanent home, and condemn him to a life of temporary habitation until the last nights of his life, when he sleeps in movie theaters and finds warmth in all-night diners. While Rufus's experience of domestic impermanence is the most protracted, all of the characters of Another Country find themselves, at some point in the novel, moving from one place to another, attempting to create "home life."
To say that Rufus Scott is the absent protagonist of Another Country is not a unique claim; that his life and death shape everything that occurs afterwards is a point agreed upon by many. My reading argues that Rufus, as absent protagonist, is equally central to the framing of the novel's spatial logic. His dispossession and eventual homelessness disrupt and interrogate the symbolic and material value of home and call into question the limitations imposed by the available postwar discourses of home and family. This reading of the various domestic and public spaces within Another Country relies on the distinction between space and place made by Michel de Certeau's claim that "space is a practiced place" (117). Certeau allows us to understand that place exists on a map or as a proper noun, but space is created through lived experience, and while place is knowable and mappable in specific geo-political terms, space is layered with both visible and veiled histories, signs, symbols, and experiences.1 Using this language, and building on the important literary work that has arisen in the last fifteen years in the area of cultural geography, this reading of Another Country argues for an understanding of the material world occupied by Baldwin's characters as informed by and informing the "the socio-spatial dialectic."2 This approach to reading Another Country not only allows for a reading of "space as a system of meanings—to see space … as text"—but also reminds us of the important work of literary interventions and the multiple possibilities for (re)imagining national, urban, and domestic spaces (Jarvis 4).
Another Country was published in 1962, at a time when Baldwin was deeply engaged with the larger conversation and debate between black nationalism and the civil rights movement.3 In the November 1962 New Yorker article "Letter from a Region in My Mind," Baldwin reflects on a dinner he shared with Elijah Muhammad at the Nation of Islam headquarters in Chicago.4 Baldwin highlights [End Page 117] Muhammad's discussion of land and nation as a moment of particular agreement and enlightened understanding:
And I looked again at the young faces around the table, and looked back at Elijah, who was saying that no people in history had ever been respected who had not owned their land. And the table said, "Yes, that's right." I could not deny the truth of this statement. For everyone else has, is, a nation, with a specific location and a flag—even, these days, the Jew. It is only "the so-called American Negro" who remains trapped, disinherited, and despised, in a nation that has kept him in bondage for nearly four hundred years and is still unable to recognize him as a human being.("Region" 115-16; original emphasis)
Baldwin's prose lends a precision and clarity to the ideological, symbolic, and material interrelatedness of land ownership, national...