Mentors: James Baldwin

He missed the first class. In fact, he missed the first three.

By Matthew SpecktorJanuary 6, 2012

    Mentors: James Baldwin

    HE MISSED THE FIRST CLASS. In fact, he missed the first three. In his place came an emissary, a small, solemn fellow who cocked his head and closed his eyes and explained how Mr. Baldwin has been detained in Paris. I was nineteen, and had only a cursory understanding of who "Mr. Baldwin" really was. I'd read Giovanni's Room, and passages of The Fire Next Time had been drilled into me by a zealous Marxist high school teacher, but really I was fascinated, and not a little appalled, by whatever it was that allowed someone to blow off his own students so comprehensively. "Mr. Baldwin" was late. In fact he would show up only five times during the semester's allotted sixteen weeks, so what was I doing sitting in a classroom with someone I won't name, but whose own credits amounted (at least as I measured them then) to a single novelization of a famous Blaxploitation movie? This wasn't the person I'd come to study with, for whom I took a thirty minute bus ride every week from my own campus to Mt. Holyoke College's. There were fifteen people in the class, three from each of the five schools in our consortium. We'd been chosen by lottery. And week upon week, we'd go and we'd wait and at last James Baldwin's factotum would come in and apologize, sort of, for the great man's absence.

    I don't really remember anything about his classes, this substitute's, except that they involved a great deal of silence and contempt. His, presumably, for our soft, white entitlement, and mine, entirely premature, for his failure to be someone famous. My entitlement was my contempt, in other words, which made his fully justified. I recall the whole mode of those classes as being essentially oracular, and though whatever he said, this oracle, this substitute prophet, is lost to time, he seemed to spend the few hours every week closing his eyes and intoning something, various things, about the Art of Fiction. I do not remember turning in any writing, those first few weeks. I do not remember being asked for any. This class was, nominally, a workshop, but it became for a while a sort of dispiriting, faithless church. We were told things about how to write. We wrote them down, I think. These words were, by implication, Baldwin's. But we never knew for sure.

    Eventually, he came. At the beginning of the fourth week, I straggled down the waxy hallway and found — for whatever reason, I was early — James Baldwin, standing on the threshold of his own classroom as if he were confused about whether he should enter it. There was no one else there. And of course, I recognized him, slowed down so that I could light a cigarette, which at the very least would prevent me from doing or saying something stupid, would give me something to do besides ogle the famous writer. He came over and he took my hand and he cupped it between both of his own so that he could, likewise, use my match. He didn't say anything. And he didn't release my hand for a good fifteen seconds. The moment had a frieze-like quality, and was also a form of automatic seduction. I was charmed, by someone whose charm felt general. He took me in, by which I mean turned those bulbous eyes in my direction, and then introduced himself finally. It was an intimate moment without any intimacy in it. I'm not sure I've ever mattered less to another human being.

    This last observation is speculative, and like all observations of the famous, it's at least minorly embroidered. I recall James Baldwin holding my hand for a very long time. I don't, in fact, remember much else. He had an inordinately gentle manner, a softness that was intrinsically memorable. But the expected narrative, I suppose, is either that Baldwin proved himself to be a surprisingly dynamic teacher or the reverse, that he was negligent and mean and careless or drunk. Neither of these things are true, quite. He was not very interested in his students, and his sporadic, perfunctory appearances within our classroom — this was late in his life, and he would be dead in barely over a year — were occasions. They were like talk show appearances, performative, urbane. I remember, once, at a party, Jean Cocteau said — he didn't say it to me, of course, but he said... Direct from Paris, Baldwin came and he wandered into a classroom in Western Massachusetts and he spoke to a roomful of undergraduates. He wasn't unprepared. He came, with Joseph Conrad in the one hand (he seemed to loathe Conrad, and Lord Jim in particular) and Henry James in the other (The Princess Casamassima was the improbable favorite) and he spoke about what to do and what not to do. It wasn't particularly helpful that Conrad, whose sentences are unimpeachable, was his idea of a "bad" writer and Henry James, whose sentences can be hard to untangle — at least for a nineteen-year-old — was who he thought we should imitate. Between this, his rare attendance, his sleek charm, his preoccupation with whatever was happening in Paris and the nagging, infuriating, unshakeable presence of his sidekick (for even when Baldwin came, the right hand was there, nodding and intoning and posturing and condescending), I dropped out. I don't mean I stopped taking the class — it was hard to get into, and I was too interested to see what would happen next — but I stopped paying attention. He didn't take us seriously, so why should I give my all in return? I did turn in a story, and as it happened, Baldwin showed up the week we were supposed to discuss it. He liked it. And that seemed to me the final insult, because I didn't know much but I was sure (even if I wouldn't have admitted it to myself at the time) my own fiction was lousy. I took his kindness for what it was, the half-assed attention of a paycheck player.

    This, of course, is speculative too. Maybe he thought my fiction was wonderful; maybe he couldn't wait to get back every week and talk to a bunch of undergraduates who could barely tell James' prose and Conrad's apart, and the urgent personal business that kept him in Paris really was urgent, and not just personal. But it doesn't matter, because I was taking his class for the wrong reasons, and it's entirely possible I'm writing this essay for the wrong ones also: because James Baldwin is a Figure, rather than a serious pedagogical influence. I had better teachers — just about every writer who ever set foot in a classroom where I was a student was a "better teacher," in that respect — and so why bother? There's truer reminscence of the man to be had elsewhere. It's hardly worth pointing out that great writers can be indifferent teachers. So why?

    I was in my thirties when I picked up Another Country for the first time. I'd read, and I'd loved, a tremendous amount of Baldwin's nonfiction by then (The Price of the Ticket had become, in fact, one of my favorite books), but I'd retained a willful ignorance of his fiction. Not since Giovanni's Room had I read anything, and that book, skimmed when I was eighteen, didn't mean a lot to me. Slender, homoerotic, slightly louche, it seemed (purely in hindsight, based on my teenaged misprision) like something I wouldn't need to revisit, like the music of The Smiths. I picked upAnother Country with the conviction I wouldn't much care for it, that it would seem bulky and antiquated and sexually overheated. I don't know where this set of notions came from. I thought it would be ... a mess.

    "He looked out of the window," (Baldwin observes, of one of the book's litany of culturally, sexually and otherwise confused figures — the novel is, in a sense, a sequence of political/erotic clashes, and little else):

    The beautiful children in the street, black-blue, brown, and copper, all with a gray ash on their faces and legs from the cold wind, like the faint coating of frost on a window or a flower, didn't seem to care, that no one saw their beauty. Their elders, great, trudging, black women, lean, shuffling men, had taught them, by precept or example, what it meant to care or not to care: whatever precepts were daily being lost, the examples remained, all up and down the street ... All the faces, even those of the children, held a sweet or poisonous disenchantment which made their faces extraordinarily definite, as if they had been struck out of stone.

    This passage, which is typical, contains any number of virtues which might conceivably be taught in a classroom: euphony, precision, rhythm. I might have read them at nineteen and marveled, correctly, at their loveliness and exactitude. They are as they describe: "extraordinarily definite, as if ... struck out of stone." Even as it aestheticizes its figures (those beautiful boys, likened by extension to windows and flowers), the prose does so without sentimentality, without touching down in mere romantic rapture. It corrects itself with that disenchantment, and with the rigor of that stone. But I wonder if, at that age or even at this one, I am prepared to deal with the writing's sheer intelligence, the force and weight of its judgment?

    "Perhaps such secrets" (and here Baldwin writes of the disclosure that Vivaldo, a failing bisexual novelist, had once robbed and severely beaten a gay man in Brooklyn),

    the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them a part of the world's experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this efford, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness, and she saw, with a dreadful reluctance, why this effort was so rare.

    It seems not too speculative to suggest that this effort, in some form, was the one Baldwin himself was making with the book. An autobiographical reading of Another Country wouldn't be very interesting, as it isn't with most novels, but the strength of this one comes, it seems to me, from the incredible evenness, the calm distribution of its molten sympathies. Baldwin indeed had a friend (Eugene Worth) who jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death, just like the novel's Rufus Scott. But the interest isn't in whether the book was anchored in Baldwin's own experience, so much as it is the gravity, the levelling force that allows its figures to exist under the most heightened conditions (Greenwich Village and Harlem in the 1960s), within the most fraught relations (gay men with straight women, black women with white men) without the writing ever boiling over into absurdity. Occasionally, it does: here and there the prose purples in ways that are almost regrettable ("it was like making love in the midst of mirrors, or it was like death by drowning. But it was also like music, the highest, sweetest, loneliest reeds, and it was like the rain"), but can't be, really. Not if the reward for writing this close to the point at which water becomes steam is doing it with such fairness, with an empathy that won't prove itself too selective.

    I'm not sure that any of these things reflect on Baldwin as a teacher at all, or even upon him as a human being. If he was indifferent in a classroom, if he was kind or he was funny, or seductive or lazy (although, suddenly, his dislike of Conrad, and his love for Henry James, makes sense: Conrad's sentences in fact do look nebulous and leaden next to the better ones on display here), all of these are completely beside the point. Another Country taught me. The writing itself shows up. I've had great, great teachers of writing and literature. Baldwin, at Mount Holyoke College in 1985, was not among them. But I crawled through the funnel of his disappointing person (as I'd argue anyone would have to, with any great book: no writer is the spiritual equal of their best literary performance) and I lay hands on his novel and it changed me. For good, I think.

    LARB Contributor

    Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesHarper’s, the Paris ReviewTin House, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has recently been at work adapting American Dream Machine for FX Networks.


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