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  • Finding the Jimmy in James:How James Baldwin Discovered Giovanni’s Room in Lambert Strether’s Paris
  • Christopher Stuart (bio)

In “The Art of Fiction” (1884), Henry James argues that when it comes to subject matter the novelist must be granted broad freedoms: “If we pretend to respect the artist at all,” he writes, “we must allow him his freedom of choice” even in the face of “innumerable presumptions that the choice will not fructify” (38). Although James agrees with Walter Besant that “A novel in its broadest definition” is a “personal impression” (33), he nonetheless rejects Besant’s stricture that therefore “a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life” (34). After all, James argues, there is no telling what, “imagination assisting,” a provincial young lady might not divine regarding the lives of men in the military. The only necessity is that she be “blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell and which for the artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale.” Furthermore, James democratically suggests, this “power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things,” is discovered in novelists “from town and country and in the most differing stages of education” (35). One prefers to think that, had it occurred to him, James would also have pointed out that this most “blessed … faculty” of the novelist is as little dependent on the “accident” of race as it is on gender, class, or geography. That it seems not to have, however, is not especially surprising since even contemporary critics have frequently been reluctant to accord the novelist the freedom and authority to imagine the lives of racial others. James Baldwin’s lifelong embrace of Henry James’s fiction, and more particularly his early and arguably most Jamesian novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), offers a revealing case in point, one that has inspired a long controversy. With its all white characters and its Jamesian theme of the American naïf in Paris, the novel seemed to some early critics a youthful literary misstep, an errant excursion beyond the boundaries of Baldwin’s native literary environment, which was to say the black experience in America as he had chronicled it so convincingly in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). For others, both early and late, the novel represents a misguided bid for artistic legitimacy [End Page 53] via capitulation to the dominant white literary culture. Most recently, some have sought to turn these interpretations inside out by arguing that the novel does in fact dramatize the black experience within Anglo-European culture, so long as one knows how to decode it and thus strip the “whiteface” from the novel’s “truly” black characters.

However diverse these approaches to Giovanni’s Room may seem, they share in common an attempt to resegregate the novelistic art in ways that Baldwin himself vigorously rejected throughout his career, in no small part because of what he had learned from reading James and especially what he had discovered in The Ambassadors (1903). As read by Baldwin, James’s novel describes the prevailing fantasy of innocence by which Americans imagine themselves as pure by imagining the Other as corrupt and thus beneath the dignity of their gaze. So read, the novel’s lesson for Baldwin was dual: on the one hand it showed him why his acute suffering as a black boy in Harlem was so invisible to his own countrymen; he was for them the emblem of the universal human corruption they refused to acknowledge in themselves. On the other hand, James’s novel also operated as a mirror, leading Baldwin to the painful but inescapable realization that, as an American himself, he had internalized the self-same dream of innocence and so had hidden his own vexing and ambivalent sexuality behind a cloak of denial and self-loathing. Adopting the terms of Giovanni’s Room, we might say that at a crucial point in his development, James helped Baldwin to the recognition that no matter our class, color, or sexuality, our “stink...


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pp. 53-73
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