- The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin
The Cross of Redemption assembles Baldwin’s previously uncollected “occasional writings,” from his earliest book reviews of the 1940s to his last essays of the 1980s. It includes several essays and speeches; two profiles; six public letters; five forewords to other authors’ books; over a dozen book reviews; and one short story, “The Death of a Prophet” (1950). These materials do not appear in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 (1985) or in the Library of America edition of Baldwin’s Collected Essays (1998). They do, however, complement works collected in those volumes. A 1961 talk Baldwin delivered on “Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States,” for example, reads like working notes for The Fire Next Time (1963), and his 1968 profile of Sidney Poitier constitutes a prelude to his long essay on film, The Devil Finds Work (1976). While uneven, the book contains some remarkable, hard-to-find works. The editors have done Baldwin scholars and other devoted readers a real service by collecting gems such as “The Uses of the Blues” (1964), “Black Power” (1968), and “To Crush a Serpent” (1987); Baldwin’s account of the 1962 Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson heavyweight championship; a transcript of a 1969 meeting between Baldwin and a House Select Subcommittee regarding “Negro History and Culture”; and a series of letters Baldwin wrote his agent from Israel, Turkey, and Switzerland while finishing several projects—including Another Country (1962) and “the interminable ‘Down at the Cross,’” the 1962 New Yorker essay that would comprise the greater portion of The Fire Next Time. [End Page 774]
If this book makes one thing apparent, it’s that Baldwin must always have been starting or completing several projects. In addition to the individual works this book makes available, Cross of Redemption is uniquely valuable as a collection for the view it provides of Baldwin as a writer (constantly) at work, in multiple genres and for various occasions and purposes, including to pay the bills. Here Baldwin’s myriad personae are gathered into one volume: the exacting essayist, the severe book reviewer, the earnest letter-writer, the unapologetic arts critic, the impassioned speaker. While the short story that ends the book is not especially interesting in its own right (although it evidently anticipates Go Tell it on the Mountain  and “Notes of a Native Son” ), it serves as a parting reminder that, for a writer who considered himself foremost a novelist, the work this volume collects was not even “the work.” It is baffling that Baldwin composed these pieces, and an equal number of better-known essays collected elsewhere, while writing some of the most important American fiction of the mid-twentieth century. Editor Randall Kenan acknowledges as much when he describes “the staggering quality and sheer magnitude of Baldwin’s achievements” (xiv).
If Kenan’s introductory essay borders on hagiography, it is nonetheless refreshing in its attention to Baldwin’s literary craft. Kenan incisively highlights Baldwin’s “audacious … love for complex sentences,” a key feature of his style that “not only set him apart from his contemporaries, gave him a singular voice, but also allowed him to create thoughts of great nuance and shading and meaning” (xvii). Kenan is right to say that “reading a Baldwin sentence can feel like recreating thought itself” (xvii), but less helpful in comparing Baldwin’s “uncanny mastery of the English language” to “magic” (xviii). Still, to frame Baldwin as a literary figure more than a cultural theorist or social activist-prophet is a shrewd approach for this book, the strength of which is the insight it offers into Baldwin as a “literary prodigy” (xiv) and a writer at work.
Baldwin’s essays and profiles are the high points of this volume. In each, Baldwin performs his belief that “it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience” (55) by redefining and thus denaturalizing the words that are the tools of his trade. In 1961, he asserts that “nationalism...