- James Baldwin by Douglas Field, and: “A Criminal Power”: James Baldwin and the Law by D. Quentin Miller
A self-declared “disturber of the peace,” James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the most important writers and controversial cultural critics of the twentieth century. His many novels, short stories, essays and plays have become influential standards in the American literary canon, but Baldwin scholarship is less settled. Baldwin continues, posthumously, to disturb the peace and the status quo through [End Page 777] the fresh surge of critical interpretations of his work. We can readily observe, building on (and occasionally upending) the previous scholarship on Baldwin, this critical interest reflected in the plethora of recent conferences, anthologies, and critical collections dedicated exclusively to Baldwin in the last few years. This attention to his life and work is all the more striking because single-author-focused monographs and conference sessions have been in decline in the last decade with the move away from literary histories based on “great men.” The critical celebration of this black, gay, expatriate does not, thankfully, represent a return to that approach, with its implied assumption that history is made by a handful of exceptional men who putatively rose above time and place.
Two recent books on Baldwin consider him, by contrast, as an individual of—not above—his time, understanding his iconoclasm as a function of the cultural and political contexts that defined him as other. D. Quentin Miller’s engrossing page-turner “A Criminal Power”: James Baldwin and the Law and Douglas Field’s slim but comprehensive James Baldwin, published in Northcote’s “Writers and Their Work” series, richly locate Baldwin in his specific time and circumstances. This does not render Baldwin provincial, an author tethered to a time whose works speak only to a certain era. Rather, Miller’s and Field’s studies testify to Baldwin’s enduring importance and contemporary resonance.
A Criminal Power characterizes the law as a unifying principle across Baldwin’s life and nearly all his literary efforts, finding that Baldwin’s encounters with social injustice, most acutely in conflicts with legal systems both in the U. S. and abroad, shape both the content and form of his writing. Miller opens with a riveting description of Baldwin’s suicide attempt during his brief incarceration as a young man in a French jail, suggesting that this traumatic event catalyzed his growing understanding of the many ways in which the law defines, regulates and oppresses particularly those deemed non-normative. Making causal claims about the biographical basis for creative work could be reductive, but Miller’s study deftly explores the subtler, complex relationships between the lived experience and literary production of his subject. In part because of his capacious understanding of what “the law” meant to Baldwin, I find Miller’s careful readings of both narrative form and content convincing.
Miller expands the notion of “law” here to include both the legal jurisprudence of the American legal system as well as an ever-threatening regulatory force with the imminent “power to oppress those without power: the poor, the black, the immigrant, the homosexual, the artist, the drug addict—in short, the hero-victims of Baldwin’s work” (3). The narrative arc of these characters reflects this struggle with the law in both its manifestations, Miller argues, as those who are dehumanized and diminished by the law become empowered (or not) to the degree to which they understand and protest both “the rhetorical and theoretical manifestations of the law” (4).
For Baldwin, art becomes a particularly crucial vehicle to reclaim humanity in the face of the law (2), and argues also that creative writers share this recognition of the potency of story-telling, of the way “powerlessness can be transformed to power through narrative” (9). And one recurring plotline in the narratives is the move from “fear to outrage” (3) through expression—the way the characters themselves, Miller argues, try to resist the silencing powerlessness associated with multiple...