James Baldwin: ‘I Never Intended to Become an Essayist’
From a Classic Interview with David C. Estes
As essayist, James Baldwin has written about life in Harlem, Paris, Atlanta; about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jimmie Carter; and about Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Norman Mailer. In examining contemporary culture, he has turned his attention to politics, literature, the movies—and most importantly to his own self. To each subject he has brought the conviction, stated in the 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village,” that “the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too.” Thus he has consistently chosen as his audience Americans, both black and white, and has offered them instruction about the failings and possibilities of their unique national society.
Several of the essays in Notes of a Native Son (1955), published two years after his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, are regarded as contemporary classics because of their polished style and timeless insights. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948–1985 marks his long, productive career as an essayist. It includes over forty shorter pieces as well as three book-length essays—The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976). Baldwin’s most recent book is The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), a meditation on the Atlanta child-murder case. It is his troubled and troubling personal reencounter with “the terror of being destroyed” that dominates the inescapable memories of his own early life in America.
David C. Estes: Why did you take on the project to write about Wayne Williams and the Atlanta child murders? What did you expect to find when you began the research for The Evidence of Things Not Seen?
James Baldwin: It was thrown into my lap. I had not thought about doing it at all. My friend Walter Lowe of Playboy wrote me in the south of France to think about doing an essay concerning this case, about which I knew very little. There had not been very much in the French press. So I didn’t quite know what was there, although it bugged me. I was a little afraid to do it, to go to Atlanta. Not because of Atlanta—I’d been there before—but because I was afraid to get involved in it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to look any further.
It was an ongoing case. The boy was in jail, and there were other developments in the city and among the parents and details which I’ve blotted out completely which drove me back to Atlanta several times to make sure I got the details right. The book is not a novel nor really an essay. It involves living, actual human beings. And there you get very frightened. You don’t want to make inaccuracies. It was the first time I had ever used a tape recorder. I got hours of tape. At one moment I thought I was going crazy. I went to six or seven or eight places where the bodies had been found. After the seventh or the eighth, I realized I couldn’t do that anymore.
DCE: There is a sense in the book that you were trying to keep your distance, especially from the parents of both the victims and the murderer. In fact, you state at one point in it that you “never felt more of an interloper, a stranger” in all of your journeys than you did in Atlanta while researching this case.
JB: It wasn’t so much that I was trying to keep my distance, although that is certainly true. It was an eerie moment when you realize that you always ask, “How are the kids?” I stopped asking. When I realized that, I realized I’m nuts. What are you going to say to the parents of a murdered child? You feel like an interloper when you walk in because no matter how gently you do it you are invading something. Grief, privacy, I don’t know how to put that. I don’t mean that they treated me that way. They were beautiful. But I felt that there was something sacred about it. One had to bury that feeling in order to do the project. It was deeper than an emotional reaction; I don’t have any word for it.
It wasn’t that I was keeping my distance from the parents. I was keeping a distance from my own pain. The murder of children is the most indefensible form of murder that there is. It was certainly for me the most unimaginable. I can imagine myself murdering you in a rage, or my lover, or my wife. I can understand that, but I don’t understand how anyone can murder a child.
DCE: The carefully controlled structure of your earlier essays is absent from Evidence.
JB: I had to risk that. What form or shape could I give it? It was not something that I was carrying in my imagination. It was something quite beyond my imagination. All I really hoped to do was write a fairly coherent report in which I raised important questions. But the reader was not going to believe a word I said, so I had to suggest far more than I could state. I had to raise some questions without seeming to raise them. Some questions are unavoidably forbidden.
DCE: Because you are an accomplished novelist, why didn’t you use the approach of the New Journalism and tell the story of Wayne Williams by relying on the techniques of fiction?
JB: It doesn’t interest me, and I’ve read very little of it. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a very pretty performance, but in my mind it illustrates the ultimate pitfall of that particular approach. To put it in another way, when I write a play or a novel, I write the ending and am responsible for it. Tolstoy has every right to throw Anna Karenina under the train. She begins in his imagination, and he has to take responsibility for her until the reader does. But the life of a living human being, no one writes it. You cannot deal with another human being as though he were a fictional creation.
I couldn’t fictionalize the story of the Atlanta murders. It’s beyond my province and would be very close to blasphemy. I might be able to fictionalize it years from now when something has happened to me and I can boil down the residue of the eyes of some of the parents and some of the children. I’m sure that will turn up finally in fiction because it left such a profound mark on me. But in dealing with it directly as an event that was occurring from day to day, it did not even occur to me to turn it into fiction, which would have been beyond my power. It was an event which had been written by a much greater author than I.
Reflecting on the writing of the New Journalists, I think the great difficulty or danger is not to make the event an occasion for the exhibition of your virtuosity. You must look to the event.
DCE: In other words, style can take away from the event itself.
JB: In a way. I’m speaking only for myself, but I wouldn’t want to use the occasion of the children as an occasion to show off. I don’t think a writer ever should show off, anyway. Saul Bellow would say to me years and years ago, “Get that fancy footwork out of there.” The hardest part of developing a style is that you have to learn to trust your voice. If I thought of my style, I’d be crippled. Somebody else said to me a long time ago in France, “Find out what you can do, and then don’t do it.”
DCE: What has been the reaction to Evidence in France, where you are living?
JB: Because of some difficulty in arranging for the American publication, it appeared first there in a French version. They take it as an examination of a social crisis with racial implications, but a social crisis. The most honest of the critics are not afraid to compare it to the situation of the Algerian and African in Paris. In a way, it’s not too much to say that some of them take it as a kind of warning. There is a great upsurge on the right in France, and a great many people are disturbed by that. So the book does not translate to them as a provincial, parochial American problem.
DCE: Were you conscious of the international implications of the case while you were writing?
JB: I was thinking about it on one level, but for me to write the book was simply like putting blinders on a horse. On either side was the trap of rage or the trap of sorrow. I had never run into this problem in writing a book before.
I was doing a long interview in Lausanne, and it suddenly happened that I could see one of those wide intervals. I was asked a question, and with no warning at all, the face, body, and voice of one of the parents suddenly came back to me. I was suddenly back in that room, hearing that voice and seeing that face, and I had to stop the interview for a few minutes. Then I understood something.
DCE: What seem to be the European perceptions of contemporary American black writers in general?
JB: A kind of uneasy bewilderment. Until very lately, Europe never felt menaced by black people because they didn’t see them. Now they are beginning to see them and are very uneasy. You have to realize that just after the war when the American black GI arrived, he was a great, great wonder for Europe because he had nothing whatever to do with the Hollywood image of the Negro, which was the only image they had. They were confronted with something else, something unforeseeable, something they had not imagined. They didn’t quite know where he came from. He came from America, of course, but America had come from Europe. Now that is beginning to be clear, and the reaction is a profound uneasiness. So the voice being heard from black writers also attacks the European notion of their identity. If I’m not what you thought I was, who are you?
DCE: Now that your collected nonfiction has appeared in The Price of the Ticket, what reflections about your career as an essayist do you have as you look back over these pieces?
JB: It actually was not my idea to do that book, but there was no point in refusing it either. But there was also something frightening about it. It’s almost forty years, after all. On one level, it marks a definitive end to my youth and the beginning of something else. No writer can judge his work. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to judge mine. You just have to trust it. I’ve not been able to read the book, but I remember some of the moments when I wrote this or that. So in some ways, it’s a kind of melancholy inventory, not so much about myself as a writer (I’m not melancholy about that), but I think that what I found hard to decipher is to what extent or in what way my ostensible subject has changed. Nothing in the book could be written that way today.
My career began when I was twenty-one or twenty-two in The New Leader. That was a very important time in my life. I had never intended to become an essayist. But it came about because of Saul Levitas, who assigned me all these books to review. I will never know quite why he did that. I had to write a book review a week, and it was very good for me. You can always find turning points looking back, but there was one very long review of Raintree Country, a novel about an America I had never seen. Between the time that I turned in the review and its publication, the author, Ross Lockridge, committed suicide. It was very shocking because it was such a sunlit, optimistic book that had won every prize in sight. But he had blown his brains out. That marked me in a way. I didn’t feel guilty about it since he hadn’t read my review, but it struck me with great force. It was from that point, in hindsight, that I began to be considered an essayist by other people.
Later, at Commentary I had a marvelous relationship with one of the editors—Robert Warshow, my first real editor. He asked me to do an essay about the Harlem ghetto. When I turned it in, Robert said, “Do it over.” He didn’t say anything more. So I did. And then he said, “You know more than that.” I began to be aware of what he was doing. When he saw me come close to what I was afraid of, he circled it and said, “Tell me more about that.” What I was afraid of was the relationship between Negroes and Jews in Harlem—afraid on many levels. I’d never consciously thought about it before, but then it began to hit me on a profound and private level because many of my friends were Jews, although they had nothing to do with the Jewish landlords and pawnbrokers in the ghetto. So I had been blotting it out. It was with Robert that I began to be able to talk about it, and that was a kind of liberation for me. I’m in his debt forever because after that I was clear in my own mind. I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been afraid to talk about it because I was a closet anti-Semite myself. One always has that terror. And then I realized that I wasn’t. So something else was opened.
DCE: What major artistic problems have you had to confront in your nonfiction?
JB: I was a black kid and was expected to write from that perspective. Yet I had to realize the black perspective was dictated by the white imagination. Since I wouldn’t write from the perspective, essentially, of the victim, I had to find what my own perspective was and then use it. I couldn’t talk about “them” and “us.” So I had to use “we” and let the reader figure out who “we” is. That was the only possible choice of pronoun. It had to be “we.” And we had to figure out who “we” was, or who “we” is. That was very liberating for me.
I was going through a whole lot of shit in New York because I was black, because I was always in the wrong neighborhood, because I was small. It was dangerous, and I was in a difficult position because I couldn’t find a place to live. I was always being thrown out, fighting landlords. My best friend committed suicide when I was twenty-two, and I could see that I was with him on that road. I knew exactly what happened to him—everything that happened to me. The great battle was not to interiorize the world’s condemnation, not to see yourself as the world saw you, and also not to depend on your skill. I was very skillful—much more skillful than my friend, much more ruthless, too. In my own mind, I had my family to save. I could not go under; I could not afford to. Yet I knew that I was going under. And at the very same moment, I was writing myself up to a wall. I knew I couldn’t continue. It was too confining. I wrote my first two short stories, and then I split.
DCE: You said earlier that you never intended to become an essayist. Did you ever consider one or the other of the genres in which you worked as being more important than another?
JB: No, as a matter of fact I didn’t. I thought of myself as a writer. I didn’t want to get trapped in any particular form. I wanted to try them all. That’s why I say I remember having written myself into a wall. Significantly enough, the first thing I wrote when I got to Paris and got myself more or less together was the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”—a summation of all these years I was reviewing those “be kind to niggers” and “be kind to Jews” books. There was a mountain of them, and every one came across my desk. I had to get out of that, and “Everybody’s Protest Novel” was my declaration of independence. Then I began to finish my first novel and did Giovanni’s Room, which was another declaration of independence. And then I was in some sense, if not free, clear.
DCE: A striking feature of your work is the great amount of autobiographical material that finds its way into essays which are not primarily autobiographical.
JB: Well, I had to use myself as an example.
DCE: When did you realize that you should use yourself in this way?
JB: It was not so much that I realized I should. It was that I realized I couldn’t avoid it. I was the only witness I had. I had the idea that most people found me a hostile black boy; I was not that. I had to find a way to make them know it, and the only way was to use myself.
—New Orleans Review, 1986
From Interviews from the Edge: 50 Years of Conversations about Writing and Resistance. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Yakich and John Biguenet.