- James Baldwin’s Post-Sentimental Fiction:From “Previous Condition” to Another Country
One of the ironies of modern-day literary criticism is that the scholars who identify with the sensibility found in James Baldwin’s essays frequently distance themselves from the author’s fiction. The most recent enactment of this irony comes from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who uses his editorial introduction in The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006) to undertake a “reassessment both of the novel and of James Baldwin’s critique, itself now part of the canon” (“Introduction” xiii). Although Gates states that his objective is to establish the transcendence of Stowe’s novel over Baldwin’s critique, his method is not, as might be expected, to refute the critique itself. Instead, he turns from Baldwin’s essays to his literary output, and seeks to show that Stowe’s sentimental opus profoundly influenced Baldwin’s fiction. Focusing on the “novels about race” that Baldwin wrote in the 1960s (xxviii), Gates argues that the “Manichean simplicity” which Baldwin diagnosed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) would become the “central flaw” in works like Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) (xxvi). Alleging that the characters in these novels “seem to exist as set pieces for ideological diatribes rather than nuanced explorations of their full humanity,” he determines that Baldwin was never able “to extricate himself from sentimentality” (xxvi, xxx). Ultimately, then, it is a “reassessment” of Baldwin’s fiction that enables Gates to affirm the resilience of Stowe’s novel. Gates closes with the provocative suggestion that the essayist who was Stowe’s most acute critical executor would also become the novelist who was her [End Page 173] “twentieth-century literary heir”—amounting to little more than “Stowe in blackface” (xxx).1
Of course, Gates was not the first critic to offer up Baldwin’s fiction at the altar of his essays. As early as 1963, Irving Howe determined that while Baldwin had “secured his place as one of the two or three greatest essayists this country has ever produced,” he had “not yet succeeded . . . in composing the kind of novel he counterposed to the work of Richard Wright” (362). In 1970, Albert Murray lamented that Baldwin’s fiction had not lived up to the “assumed promise” of his early essays on aesthetics, and concluded that Another Country did not reflect the “sensibility of the novelist” any more than the “polemical essay, The Fire Next Time” (145, 148). Indeed, several years before Gates weighed in with his critique, Lawrie Balfour observed that “much of the critical attention generated by ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ has focused on whether or not Baldwin’s own novels escape his complaints about protest fiction” (“Finding” 75).
Despite being exposed to such negative assessments fairly early in his writing career, however, Baldwin persisted in thinking of himself primarily as a fiction writer. Baldwin’s commitment to his artistic medium seems to have been motivated by his belief that it was not essays and speeches but novels and short stories that had the capacity to improve race relations in the United States. During the early 1960s, when he was frequently asked to speak on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin resisted being hailed as a spokesperson, observing that “it is impossible to be a writer and be a public spokesman, too, because the line which you have to use, really, in polemics, is to my point of view, just a little . . . too simple” (“James Baldwin, as Interviewed” 13). By the late 1960s, when his nuanced approach to race relations was being drowned out by polarized integrationist and separatist positions, Baldwin would have cause to reaffirm his fidelity to fiction: “I am not a public speaker. I am an artist.” (“Disturber” 81). If Baldwin was optimistic about the prospect of improving U.S. race relations, it was because he believed in the transformative potential of a certain literary aesthetic.2
My aim in the present essay is not to adjudicate whether Baldwin’s fiction can be found guilty of sentimentality, but rather to illuminate aspects of his fiction that have been occluded by...