- The Critical Reception of James Baldwin 1963–2010: “An Honest Man and a Good Writer.” by Consuela Francis
In the middle of the first section of Consuela Francis’s meticulously researched and densely detailed text The Critical Reception of James Baldwin 1963–2010, Baldwin himself speaks to the matrix in which his early reception, at least as presented by Francis, is framed. In a 1984 interview for the Village Voice, Baldwin tells the senior editor that “[above all] I feel like a stranger from almost every conceivable angle” (64). Though this statement is made twenty years into Francis’s journey into early Baldwin’s reception, the comment seems fittingly apropos for the critics and themes she demarcates. Her goal is to map the directions literary criticism, both popular and academic, took over the course of Baldwin’s life and beyond. Her study comes at a time of reinvigorated interest in Baldwin, as Francis correctly points out in her concluding pages. I personally witnessed this reinvigoration of Baldwin studies at the 2015 American Literature Association conference where a workshop examined the question “Why does Baldwin resonate with undergraduate students today?” The discussion centered on the police brutality incidents of the moment and Baldwin’s articulation of the winter, summer, spring, and fall of Black discontent. Francis’s section on Baldwin in the contemporary moment provides intriguing answers to this question.
Francis begins with a section on Baldwin’s reception divided into three time frames: his early reception (1963–72), the period that Francis defines as the era of Baldwin’s ascension into the canon (1974–1987), and the posthumous re-theorizing of his work (1988–2000). To undertake this Herculean task, Francis includes some eighty critics and thirty reviewers whose readings run the gamut from comparisons with Richard Wright and Baldwin as problematic Negro spokesman, to the source and impact of his celebrity, dissections of his literary technique, his sexuality, and his success or failure as a writer on issues of universality.
In introducing her historical assessment, Francis begins with Irving Howe and Robert A. Bone as major voices in criticism of Baldwin’s early work. Through the presentation of their points of view, often in conversation with one another, two of the sharpest angles in the geometrics of Baldwin reception emerge: white guilt and homophobic reactions. Although Francis repeats throughout her study that there does not appear to be a “critical center” (2) to Baldwin’s reception, the argument over what contributed to his perceived fall [End Page 105] from grace rests on his complex treatments of gender, sexuality, and race. What is a bit confusing is the absence of the provenance of the critics mentioned, with exceptions which are equally confusing. Francis goes to great lengths in another section of the book to tell readers about the credentials of Harold Bloom, who is probably one of the best-known twentieth-century American literary critics. Yet of Howe and Bone, upon whom Francis lays the foundation of Baldwin’s early reception, there is no such backstory. The assumption seems to be that the names, and the textual passages from their work, alone are sufficient to establish credibility. Another conundrum, for this reader at least, is the absence of any synopsis of the Baldwin texts in the context of the early critiques. It appears that Francis assumes that the audience for her book is comprised of Baldwin experts.
Francis completes Part One with chapters, “Canonizing” and “Re-theorizing James Baldwin.” Again, although the section on the elevation of some Baldwin works provides some close readings, the bulk of the chapter is devoted to a resurrection of the Baldwin-Richard Wright debate, articulated along an axis of the Black Arts movement and, of all people, Eldridge Cleaver. The import of this section is the emergence of identified Black voices on the matter at hand. Francis’s treatment of “Re-theorizing” expands the discussion of Baldwin’s sexuality, defined by Francis as “the queering of James Baldwin” (62). While the opening of...