James Baldwin’s Another Country

When I read Another Country in high school, it changed my life. I had never read a book before that depicted the world I wanted to live in, hoped to live in, thought I lived in. It’s a vast soap opera set in New York--mostly the Village--in the late-50s. The characters are mostly artists, black and white, gay and straight, and they love each other, hate each other, sleep with each other, and try to write books and make music. For all the--many--failings they exhibit, they are all trying desperately to live authentically and to figure out how to cross barriers in order to make connections.

When I read it a second time and a third time, I was disappointed in the prose. I remembered the books emotional impact but all I could see were the moments of laziness, sloppiness. I was disappointed.

But I remembered that it was a book that changed my life, so I kept believing in its power without feeling it.

Summer school ends tomorrow and we finished with Baldwin. I felt, once again, the book’s amazing power. Why?

It’s partly the power of reading a New York novel in New York, of knowing the city better than I did the first few times through. It’s partly being older and having a fuller perspective on the failings of art and love. It’s partly watching my students’ engagement with the book. And, most of all, it’s largely having the Woolf book behind me.

In the midst of writing on Woolf, it’s hard not to insist that every sentence be as crafted as a Woolfian sentence. But that’s not the only way to write. And it’s a relief to be enough out of her thrall to see the passion of Baldwin.

And he’s been in the news all week: Maud links to the TLS plea to release Baldwin’s letters; Dwight Garner joins his voice to the plea; Randall Kenan, author of The Fire This Time is on WNYC. And, if you can, check out the DVD, The Fire Next Time for amazing archival footage of Baldwin and moving tributes by Baraka, Styron, Angelou and more--we watched it in class and I was fighting back tears.