- All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin by Douglas Field
Douglas Field’s fresh study of Baldwin’s life and art avoids the limitations that mar so many previous studies. By stressing he has no “fixed notion of reading James Baldwin” but instead focusing on “the shifting and developing James Baldwin from the 1940s to the 1980s” (2), he avoids the oversimplified approaches that have either falsely vilified or crudely romanticized the work of this major African American writer. Field refuses to provide any consistent narrative of Baldwin’s life or labeling of his work because Baldwin’s writing “crosses multiple disciplines, genres, and boundaries” (145), generating ideas that were always “developing” and in “flux” (3). All Those Strangers, therefore, is presented as an “exploratory” study rather than as a definitive analysis and, as a result, it offers a finely nuanced and penetrating account of both Baldwin’s wonderfully complex personality and his richly layered art.
Early chapters focus on Baldwin’s political commitments in the 1940s and his later clashes with the FBI. These important areas have never received the critical attention that they deserve and Field’s careful research produces new insights into these important parts of Baldwin’s early career. Baldwin’s work for the radical left, when he wrote for Commentary and Partisan Review and developed close friendships with Trotskyites such as C. L. R. James and Philip Rahv, is examined closely. Field establishes that Baldwin was “firmly anchor[ed]” in this New York intellectual milieu (28), sharing its anti-Stalinist distaste for propaganda and its call for a more complex form of psychological realism centering on the individual. This important part of Baldwin’s life laid the foundation for the critical stance he developed in Notes of a Native Son.
His leftist activities eventually drew the ire of the FBI, which began a file on him in 1960 and submitted him to “relentless surveillance” for twelve years (48, 55). (Surprisingly, J. Edgar Hoover showed more interest in Baldwin, whose file contains 1,884 pages, than Richard Wright, whose file has only 276 pages.) Baldwin’s openly professed status as a gay man became an obsession with Hoover, who, curiously, linked Baldwin with the Communist Party. The sheer incompetence and relentlessness of this misguided witch hunt provides fresh insight into the struggles that Baldwin and many other black American writers and intellectuals faced during the Cold War. And it helps to explain Baldwin’s darkening view of American culture in his middle and late career. [End Page 65]
Field’s meticulous research and close readings of Baldwin’s work challenges the commonly held view of many scholars that Baldwin’s writing became increasingly secular, even antireligious, as his career developed. Although he agrees that Baldwin became more and more skeptical of institutional religion, he argues powerfully that all of Baldwin’s writing is firmly grounded in the black Pentecostalism he experienced as a fourteen-year-old boy preacher. Surprisingly little attention has been given to this vitally important matter, and Field argues cogently that the “critical silence” about Baldwin’s religious vision can be explained by the inability of conventional scholarship to engage such a vitally important aspect of his art (83). Field’s carefully detailed analyses of Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and If Beale Street Could Talk make a compelling argument that Baldwin drew heavily throughout his career from black Pentecostalism’s strong emphases on redemptive love, personal conversion and a vision of African American life as a form of exile. And he lucidly explores how Baldwin was also strongly influenced by how the church made religious use of black music, particularly gospel, blues, and jazz.
Field also takes issue with another widely shared reading of Baldwin which claims that he “lost his way” as a writer in the late 1960s by adopting the values of the Black Power movement, becoming an angry protest writer who could not give coherent literary form to his late novels and essay collections. Field makes...