- No Name in the South: James Baldwin and the Monuments of Identity
Something happened to James Baldwin. In an authorial swerve after The Fire Next Time, Baldwin seemed to abandon the literary promise of Go Tell It on the Mountain and produce increasingly blunt, polemical essays and fiction until his writing committed all of the artistic errors he decried in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” the essay that launched his career. His writing became sentimental. It abjured the complexities of the private life and traded ambiguity for glib ideological platforms.1 Whether or not we evaluate Baldwin’s later work as a period of decline, the trajectory of his career was not a reversal. In fact, Baldwin’s radicalism descended directly from his aesthetics. The staunch ethnic difference he asserted in his later career was an application of the artistic values he championed in his early career: they were both techniques of separation from the homogenizing effects of mass culture. The seemingly relentless expansion of mass culture in the postwar years suggested to many intellectuals that because cultural differences are endangered, they must be guaranteed by essential differences if they are to endure at all. Yet because the Holocaust and the Third Reich cast a pall over biological notions of race, the increasing interest in literary canon formation in the postwar years became a more innocuous template for the genetic transmission of a people’s essence. Artists like Baldwin found ways to substitute the essentialism of race for the essentialism implicit in the New Critics’ description of tradition and aesthetic formalism. And when an aestheticized tradition becomes the index for the enduring experience of a people, ethnicity becomes a version of aesthetic formalism.
Even if it did nothing else, Baldwin’s career as an essayist would be crucial for its representation of the broad cultural exchange between ethnicity and aesthetics, cultural identity and cultural value, burgeoning in the United States in the decades following World War II. The permutations of his remarkable essays reveal the elements of a relationship that would unfold between midcentury formalism and late-century multiculturalism. In the same way that an industry of literary criticism championed literature as a canonical lineage formed through the unique wholeness of individual texts, so did Baldwin see African Americans as a distinct group whose cultural integrity resides in the unique presence of collective memory distilled within the African American individual. New Critical values underwrote Baldwin’s idea of African American identity just as much as they guided his judgment about art and literature. But perhaps the most compelling conflation of ethnicity and aesthetics throughout his essays is the fact that the source of his African American identity also appeared to him as the consummate New Critical art object: the United States South.2 For Baldwin, the South was not a canonical monument because it was an ancestral realm of memory. Rather, it was a realm of memory because it was a monument. In the end, it was his critique of the region’s formalism that shaped his critique of ethnic identity. [End Page 221]
Protesting Everybody’s Novel
Baldwin’s early career was a spirited defense of New Critical aesthetics, which he associated more with Henry James than with the New Critics themselves.3 The Jamesian tradition of craftsmanship discovered in the details of consciousness and the private life all of the material an artist needs to discern larger cultural phenomena. Henry James spoke of experience as “a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue,” and when an imaginative artist engages experience, the mind “takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations” (“Fiction” 34). Part of what appealed to Baldwin’s dissenting spirit was that James identified modern culture itself as a threat to the fine sensibility that would discover it. In The American Scene, James was appalled by “the looming mass of the more, the more and more to come” in the United States and by the prospect that the “one all positive appearance is of the perpetual increase of...