- James Baldwin: America and Beyond eds. by Cora Kaplan and Bill Schwarz
In titling their ambitious new volume James Baldwin: America and Beyond, editors Cora Kaplan and Bill Schwarz make a bold claim of inclusivity. As they state in their Introduction to the collection, “the salient point resides in the conjunction” (4): the key to understanding Baldwin in a global era is in analyzing how this extraordinary writer managed to embed the national in the transnational, and vice versa. “Our concern,” Kaplan and Schwarz state from the outset, “is how he imagined America and beyond” (4). The volume is thus more or less neatly cleaved into two sections: first, “What it Means to Be an American,” and then “A Stranger in the Village.” At their most successful, however, the scholars and intellectuals gathered in this collection eschew such easy distinctions, showing how inadequate clear divisions become when applied to a writer as rich, complicated, and paradoxical as James Baldwin.
To give just a few examples from the volume (many would have been possible), we may turn first to Douglas Field’s essay “What is Africa to Baldwin?: Cultural Illegitimacy and the Step-fatherland” (209-28), which prominently situates his analysis of Baldwin’s attitude toward the culture and politics of Africa within a careful discussion of the writer’s early life as a preacher in Harlem and his decisive relationship with his father. Baldwin’s “complicated shifting views on Africa,” according to Field, are rooted in his “troubled relationship with his father” (210). This builds a biographical frame that situates Africa within Harlem, the political within the personal, and “beyond” within “America,” thus avoiding unhelpful dichotomies. Vaughn Rasberry’s” ‘Now Describing You’: James Baldwin and Cold War Liberalism” (84-105) similarly connects the national with the transnational; here, the locus of connection is the Cold War and its intimate (for Baldwin) links with civil rights-era racial discourse in the United States. Making such perceptive and unexpected connections was the very lifeblood of Baldwin’s political thought. Kevin Birmingham also outlines this in his essay,” ‘History’s Ass Pocket’: The Sources of Baldwinian Diaspora” (141-58), which explores the interplay of Israel and West Africa in establishing Baldwin’s national and transnational vision. In Birmingham’s view, “Baldwin discovered the complexity of the relationship between privacy and nationhood through a frame of reference that seems impertinent to both the private life and the national life: through his transnational life” (144). Such unlikely sources, unexpected connections, and paradoxical conjunctions are explored throughout the volume—new points of analysis which are essential if we are to genuinely expand our conception of Baldwin’s diverse and multifaceted legacy.
It may be pertinent to note here that the project of broadening the critical focus on Baldwin is neither completely unique nor entirely new. James Baldwin: America and Beyond is, rather, the latest step in a project arguably initiated by the Dwight A. McBride-edited James Baldwin Now (1999) and D. Quentin Miller’s Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen (2000). Both of those texts expressed their discontent with [End Page 771] what Miller described as the “frustrating” tendency of “literary criticism to fragment (Baldwin’s) vision” (233). More recent scholarship on the writer has continued to broaden our critical understanding of his vision and his writing—among the more prominent examples of this development, we may consider Magdalena J. Zaborowska’s James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile (2008), Douglas Field’s James Baldwin (2011), and the Randall Kenan-edited The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2011). All of these studies hinge on the conjunctions in Baldwin’s writing: the American and the transnational, the political and the aesthetic; the fiction and the nonfiction; the early works and the late works, et cetera. For too long, as Kaplan and Schwarz put it, “one Baldwin has been pitted against another Baldwin, producing a series of polarities that has skewed our understanding” (3).
The collection under discussion here is, therefore, to be welcomed. And yet, we may...