- Protest Midcentury Style
In 1949, James Baldwin famously assessed the history of the US protest novel and found its contemporary possibilities lacking. Citing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin as his example, Baldwin laments protest fiction’s use of sentimentality as a “mask of cruelty,” a mask most recognizably worn by nineteenth-century scribbling women but donned more recently by masculinist scribes of literary outrage (14). Early 1940s writers like Richard Wright, Baldwin’s only other cited example, replicate the fundamental terms of nineteenth-century protest by writing fiction preoccupied with binary logics of good and evil, oppressed and oppressor. Approaching the centennial of Stowe’s protest novel, Baldwin argues that mid-twentieth-century writers have made the mistake of fighting present injustice by reproducing dead forms—forms dead on arrival even in their mid-nineteenth-century modes, which killed with kindness (as Jodi Melamed recently reminds) the very subjects they sought to moralize and uplift. Against such a restrictive taking up of “Cause” in protest fiction, Baldwin proposes writing in search of “truth” and “complexity” in order to constitute new formal as well as moral experiments that might change in tandem our understanding of the political (15).
On the one hand, Baldwin’s call for alternative literary experiments insists upon shifting the forms as well as the formations connecting the political and the aesthetic. This call resonates with Walter Benjamin’s critique of formalized protest writing in 1930s Germany, in which the forms assigned political radicalism could all too quickly be formalized as support for (rather than alternatives to) existing capitalist and fascist formations. On the other hand, Baldwin’s call might be seen as participating in emergent notions of aesthetic “freedom” from the tyranny of ideological cause. This version would resonate [End Page 363] with Lionel Trilling’s promotion of the complexity of “literary ideas” over restrictive ideologies in his 1950 tribute to the “liberal imagination.” Situated between these two positions, Baldwin’s protest cuts into the now-familiar historical formulations about the years immediately following World War II (WWII) in the US, in which liberalism sought to win its battle against communism by picking up racial protest and assimilating its more sentimental forms. These were the years when the new national literature, a priority among the imperial projects of the American century, was institutionalized in the canons of American studies (exceptional to other Area studies projects) and the methodologies of New Criticism (with their featured focus on ambiguity and irony). The universalist ambitions of US-centric liberalism needed American literature to triumph within Cold War formations of aesthetics and politics that pitched complexity against cause, truth against dogma. One key tactic of such triumphant representation was the integration of struggles against the color line as struggles on behalf of, rather than opposed to, US empire.
In connecting the literary forms of protest past and present, Baldwin introduces a central contradiction in the making of “American literature” as a category, even a categorical imperative, of midcentury politics and aesthetics. As Baldwin’s intervention into protest reminds us, literary and political struggles for and against racism, colonialism, and imperialism include struggles over which forms of “complexity” and “cause” would come to define the period. Poised between Benjamin’s radical antiformalism and Trilling’s New York intellectualism, Baldwin’s call for complexity marks a contradiction within the very universalisms proposed by US Cold War liberalism and what Lauren Berlant calls an “impasse” (191) for moving forward within its familiar terms. Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” marks one particular crossroads between dead forms and living fights for freedom and justice in the late 1940s and 1950s.
This problematizing of “cause” and “complexity” between Cold War and color line has been handed down to twenty-first-century literary scholars, who inherit along with it modes of periodization that have at times too neatly separated dead...