Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin
Here is a collection of ten essays, all bearing in one way or another on the Negro question, by the brilliant young author of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Readers of that admirable first novel will not be surprised by the vivid mordancy and sardonic humor of these essays. What does surprise-and I intend to labor the point a little-is their equivocation.
If I merely wanted to be clever at Mr. Baldwin’s expense, I might point out how readily Notes of a Native Son evokes an already shopworn judgment on writers of my own generation, namely, that we can never resist the temptation to reduce the ironies and paradoxical despairs of the 20’s into a sort of uniformly marketable commodity. The wryly pontifical ironies of a T. S. Eliot jostle the raffish ironies of a Ring Lardner, and manner threatens to swallow matter. Mr. Baldwin informs us that “Further, the militant men and women of the thirties were not, upon examination, significantly emancipated from their antecedents, however bitterly they might consider themselves estranged or however gallantly they struggled to build a better world. However they might extol Russia, their concept of a better world was quite helplessly American and betrayed a certain thinness of imagination, a suspect reliance on suspect and badly digested formulae, and a positively fretful romantic haste.” The first sentence, with its solemn “upon examination,” was surely carved from Eliot’s Sacred Wood, while the rather haggard elegance of the second puts us strongly in mind of Anthony West and his fellow pundits on the New Yorker. No doubt it is remarkable enough to find this kind of writing in a book by a Negro on the Negro question, but it remains something of a stunt nevertheless and not particularly germane to the book’s real quality, which is essentially novelistic- dramatic, dense, bitter, swift, and self-absorbed, the work of a born novelist whose political and social opinions, however just, are uniquely private and, from a purely political standpoint, frustratingly circular.
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