- James Baldwin and the Great Divide: Adapting “Equal in Paris” for Golden Age Television
In America, now, this country devoted to the death of the paradox—which may, therefore, be put to death by one—[the Negro’s] lot is as ambiguous as a tableau by Kafka.—James Baldwin (“Everybody’s” 17)
The world of television—at least then, I suppose now—it’s sort of a Kafka world; you can never tell exactly who is responsible for what. The agency will tell you it’s the sponsor; the sponsor will tell you it’s the agency or the show itself, and sometimes everyone blames the network. It’s very difficult to determine where the blame lies.—Gore Vidal (qtd. in United States 256)
In June of 1959, the Tamiment Institute and the journal Daedalus sponsored a conference titled “Problems of Mass Culture and Mass Media,” the proceedings of which were published as Culture for the Millions? (Jacobs). Attended by members of the New York Intellectuals as well as television industry professionals, the conference asked if the mass media could disseminate high culture to all. Despite the conference’s lofty cultural goals, many of the New York Intellectuals took the opportunity to maintain their status as arbiters of highbrow taste and to repeat the group’s long-standing critique of mass culture as a threat to both modernist art and democracy.1 By relying on the rhetoric of “the great divide” (Huyssen viii) that preserved the absolute opposition between modernism and mass culture, the New York Intellectuals accrued what Pierre Bourdieu calls “symbolic capital” or prestige.2 Hugh Wilford already has noted how the New York Intellectuals parlayed this capital into secure positions in the academy and used it to influence publishing (4, 119). Yet critics have analyzed only tangentially how the New York Intellectuals used their cultural authority to influence television programming in a similar fashion,3 albeit to a lesser extent.4 As a result of their influence, television mined the Intellectuals’ modernist canon for source material, and the Intellectuals obtained guest spots on television talk shows where they could discuss their literary and political opinions.5 While the rhetoric of [End Page 112] the “great divide” stressed the absolute difference between modernism and mass culture, this very same rhetoric empowered the New York Intellectuals to move back and forth over this supposedly uncrossable cultural chasm.
At the conference, one of the New York Intellectuals answering the question “Culture for the Millions?” in the negative was James Baldwin. Taking his cue from Dwight Macdonald and appropriating language from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), Baldwin regretted that “the people in general cannot bear very much reality,” and as such, they were susceptible to the distractions of the culture industry (“Mass Culture” 3). In his concluding remarks, he added that the creative artist “does not really have much to do with mass culture, no matter how many of us may be interviewed on TV” (6). The absoluteness of Baldwin’s comments at the conference obscured the great difficulties he had in traversing the great divide of modernism and mass culture when compared to his peers. As Douglas Field, Geraldine Murphy, and Michael Nowlin all note, Baldwin relied on the argot of the New York Intellectuals to achieve prominence early in his career. Baldwin’s modernist commitments enabled him to gain entrée into New York Intellectuals’ circles, but his affiliation with the group never was settled entirely due to his racial identity and commitments to the civil rights of African Americans and, to a lesser extent, homosexuals. To achieve his goals within the group, Baldwin repurposed the discourse of the Intellectuals to extend “liberal subjectivity to blacks and gays” (Murphy 1021). At the same time that Baldwin’s rejection of television as culture for the millions positioned him as a loyal member of the New York Intellectuals, his comment that the creative artist “does not really have much to do with mass culture” belied the fact that just two years before, in the spring of 1957, Baldwin and Sol Stein, his friend and editor, had adapted Baldwin’s autobiographical essay “Equal in Paris” (1955) for...