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  • Baldwin's (Afro)pessimism:Another Country as a "Colonized and Acculturated Society"
  • Megan Finch (bio)

In 1949, "Everybody's Protest Novel" proclaimed "the arrival of a highly gifted essayist," announcing James Baldwin's fiction as a departure from the prevailing genre of race liberalism (Field 833).1 Four years later, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) received positive reviews as a newer, more universal race novel, depicting, according to Harvey Curtis Webster, the "Negro enmeshed in the human dilemma, not just a victim of underprivilege, segregation, and unreasoning violence" (qtd. in Francis 100). While acknowledging its departure from the protest fiction of the 1940s, this race-focused criticism made little comment on John Grimes's queer desire. It had even less to say about Baldwin's next novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), positioning the ostensibly white queerness of David and Giovanni as "an aberration" in the author's corpus (Francis 7). When, in 1962, Another Country made it clear that alongside reporting on school desegregation Baldwin would represent Black men having sex with other men in his fiction, "The author of the beautiful, lyrical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and the piercing, soulful essays of Notes of a Native Son (1955) … had seemingly betrayed his audience's trust" (Francis 7).

Yet to what public trust, besides perhaps the "ass-splitting truth," had the author who promised to depict the "resolutely indefinable [and] unpredictable" human pledged himself (Baldwin, "Everybody's" 15)?2 Mid-1960s critics of the liberal establishment generally located Baldwin's betrayal in Another Country's treatment of race and sex, critiquing the novel for falling victim to the "typical" aesthetic pitfalls of Negro protest fiction and the added one of gratuitous sex. Despite praising Another Country as a protest novel, Irving Howe writes that "No longer is Baldwin's prose so elegant or suave as it once was; in this book it is harsh, clumsy, heavy-breathing with the pant of suppressed bitterness" (366). Although he calls attention to the irony of this style given Baldwin's earlier critiques of Richard Wright, for Howe the true betrayal is of Rufus's, and later Ida's, rage. Alongside these justifiably angry Black characters, the plot of Rufus's surviving white "friends" becomes "another novel … a nagging portrayal." Taken [End Page 93] together, the plots pull "upon [Baldwin's] attention [and] are difficult to reconcile" (367). Robert Bone finds the novel a greater failure, connecting this betrayal to the representation of sex. Bone asks: "Distracted by this nonsense" of "[f]ive orgasms (two interracial and two homosexual) or approximately one per eighty pages," how can a reader "attend to the serious business of the novel?" (13). While Bone acknowledges the thematic significance of Eric's sexuality, arguing that in the novel the "homosexual becomes emblematic of existential man" (16), he is neither convinced of this generalization nor that it sufficiently weds the novel's "two articulating parts" (13). Placing Another Country in a genre that produces "a great space where sex ought to be" endemically, these critics failed to imagine any "truth" in its depictions of sexual intimacy (Baldwin, "Alas" 188).

Given these early critical preoccupations, it is unsurprising that a lens to account for the humanism that Baldwin grounds in representations of non normative sex and desire emerged with the advent of queer theory. Nor is it surprising that these later critics approached Baldwin's work intersectionally. While focus varied, "queer theory … allowed critics to acknowledge that Baldwin wrote about race, but also wrote about a variety of other topics" (Francis 70) and became an umbrella under which the novels "always explored the fraught intersection, indeed the mutual constitutive dynamics, of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality" (Manditch-Prottas 183). This broadly queer and intersectional approach made Giovanni's Room—a first-person narrative of a white American man in France who desires other men—"a classic work in modern gay fiction" (Nelson 92). Yet despite the similarities between Giovanni's Room's David and Another Country's Eric—another white, queer, American man on the continent—this queer inter-sectional lens has not been able to fully reconcile the latter's humanity with that of the...