I want to start the debut of a column, which goes into the complex, muddy, and often beautiful intersections in American literature and culture.
In the last 4 years, believing in the gorgeous mosaic of American literature became less like trying to find a median in the culture wars and more like burning cosmic sage outside my window. The attack at the capital and the paranoia, depravity, and Thackeryan class conceit of the right has been drastic to form a circle in my thinking. I am against the toxic identity politics of so many twitter warriors, not because I think there is some middle ground. Still, because-as James Baldwin said in his interview with Studs Terkel-” I don’t want to wake up with my shoe on the other foot.”
The complete antipathy so much of woke Twitter has toward white writers (The Tennesse Williams and W.H Auden callouts are particularly sickening) has blinded many to Baldwin’s sense of cosmopolitanism as a way toward a beloved community. Baldwin didn’t write about Gide, Bergman, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Gorky, Styron, and Page because they were white. He had no patience for a single inch of the destructive colonnades that racists from the slaveholders to the Trumpists have constructed whiteness to be. He wrote about them because he felt they had something to say about the culture and understood that one had to broaden your antennas other than the self.
Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson are most known as intimidating literary patricians, fathers that loom large in the artlessly personal memoirs of several post-war lit critics. Yet, their Olympian standards and insistence on the discipline of close reading made them two of the most interesting critics and cosmopolitan critics of Baldwin’s fiction. Most white and respectable black critics of the last quarter of the 20th century viewed Baldwin’s fiction as first too parochial, then too in the vein of protest novelists, Trilling and Wilson’s Baldwin was a one-person library of Babel, a titan out the gate who created a syntactic galaxy in his prose that called on Henry James, The King James Bible, Black speech, and the tense power of the Chekhov and Tolstoy translated by Constance Garrett.
In his review of Another Country in the New York Herald Tribune, Trilling argued that Baldwin’s first two novels-1953’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, the tale of a black church family facing a series of their own individual reckonings, 1955’s Giovanni’s Room, the tale of a white man abroad trying and failing to sell the reader on his sexuality, ethics, and personal history-an elite member of the literary and intellectual Avant guard. who “ranges over the subtleties, complexity, and perversities of the modern ideology and includes in his purview not only the particular anomalies of negro thought, but the whole moral view of the nation,” a writer who also belonged in the tradition of novelists who “accept his culture and be accepted by it, but also — so it seems — he must be its critic, correcting and even rejecting it according to his personal insight.”
He also argued, and quite persuasively, if I might add, that those two books didn’t make money/have the devastating impact that his essays did and that Baldwin, by the time of Another Country, was under pressure to produce a novel that resonated on such a mass scale. In the same review, Trilling wrote that Baldwin.
“Stands in such striking isolation, and, as a consequence, what he writes must sound with an especial significance, and there will inevitably be more than usual concern with the way he conducts his literary and intellectual life, with his powers of growth with the changes and development of his attitude and opinions…The position, it need scarcely be said, is an insupportably difficult one.
This, Trilling argued in the review, was the reason Baldwin wrote what he thought to be a pop potboiler. He did not hate the book: Trilling often wrote of its tremendous power, chided critics who denigrated it as a protest novel by pointing out the multifaceted character dynamic and argued that Baldwin’s “primacy of will, his (literary) affirmation arising out the literary awareness of the negro situation” carried the book to a literary finish line. He did argue that, unlike Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, it had to be carried, however, as the “rambling Driserian prose” that makes the last 3/4th of the book was a step down from Baldwin at his absolute best as a stylist.
Wilson was an even bigger aesthete then Trilling, with sensibilities about race that didn’t age well (His mealy-mouthed moderate platitudes in reviewing Faulkner’s Intruder in the dust, Patriotic Gore, his book about the civil war that, to quote Louis Menand, “covered every aspect of the civil war except the reason it was fought”) When he evolved on race, however, he did so remarkably. In the Bit Between My Teeth, his recollection of the literary scene between 1950–1965, Wilson argued that Another Country worked because he knew not to make all his characters “James Baldwin,” that his understanding that oppression didn’t make his characters into saints, but characters enlivened by his “making the individual shine and throw everything else into isolating shadow.”
Both arguments have moved me, but until I read Marilynne Robinson’s Jack-thought, Trilling won. Feeling the pressure from agents and activists of the movement, Baldwin would kneecap the crux of his novel in calling Rufus Scott a Christ figure. However, in more interviews than not, Baldwin explicitly said not to read “country” as a propaganda pamphlet. Taken as such, the first 120 pages of the book(the events leading to his death) are gripping. They read in the vein of his first 2 novels: Lean, electric, tightly written and told at a gripping pace. The other 360 pages of the novel that tripped me up A lot of them were great. But some of them dragged-scenes Baldwin finished in 5 pages in his earlier books seemed to take 15 in Country-and story after Rufus’s death seemed anti-climactic compared to peak Baldwin.
Here is where Robinson taught me to re-read Him and Country. Her Gilead novel series center around the struggles of two family trees and five characters: John Ames and Jack Boughton, two good friends but different preachers, Glory and Jack Boughton, the wayward son and Daughter of Pastor Boughton, and Lila Ames, the decent church wife who went through hell to get to where she is. In each of the first three novels, 2004’s Gilead, 2008, Home, and 2014’s Lila, Robinson tells multiple stories behind each Rashomon like take about the struggles they have, their sensibilities of god and struggle, and the creation myths they made about their stripe of land in Iowa as it on its way from turning from an abolitionist haven into a racist stronghold. Those multiple tales are some of the most complex ruminations I’ve read about religion, class, race, gender, and liberalism. Each of the first three books is very easy to be charmed by; all of the characters have a surface likability to them, so much so that to trash the books for their religiosity has become a cheap east coast literary critic take.
When one doesn’t take too much out of them, however, is where the novels become interesting, as the characters stop becoming dueling hallmark mouthpieces. Still, characters struggle to be good like all human beings and fail under the circumstances. In Jack’s last book of her Gilead tetralogy, she turns the literary nuance meter up to 11. In it, Robinson gives her outlaw his literary say, taking pains to show that he’s a fuck up, yet showing in his actions, his narrative is not finding a place to achieve grace, and his personal moral pain-that his family, as nice as they are, hasn’t really dealt with the horror of the race-his devastating side of things. It is a fitting end to her literary project, giving the other three books so many more layers of ambiguity.
Also, in Jack, Marilyne Robinson has created her own Rufus Scott. It wouldn’t be facile to compare Jack and Rufus’ surface fates because Balwin and Robinson shared the same sensibility. Baldwin’s subtle indictment of Rufus wasn’t in the death scene but how he had a hand in fucking up his whole life. Both Baldwin and Robinson give their anti-heroes valid reasons why they were drifters in society, but what he also did was show how Rufus threw away the life rafts people gave him, that he had friends, family, art, and love, and tried to destroy all of them with his own hand. More than that, it shows that Rufus knew that he had done it, couldn’t fix it, and had no way of functioning or doing everything except going to the river.
Like Rufus, Jack begins the novel without a stable residence, out of sorts, and is plagued by the devastating fatalism of someone who can’t stop doing dumb shit. Yet it is the feelings of love and affection he has for Della, a black erstwhile preachers kid of a sterner temper, that causes him to attempt to come up from his own muck. They share bonds they have in books, church experiences and want to find an authentic sense of god, and this causes him to at least try to climb to some light. That he struggles to do so in the novel, that, in his steps backward after steps forward, he can frustrate the reader so much, and that, after everything, he still is there and still trying, makes it one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.
That is how Robinson’s Jack made me take on Another Country a third time. What makes Another Country work for me now is the last 3/4ths, those rambling pages where Rufus’ best friends struggle on the question of whether Rufus was god, the devil, or painfully human. It is here where both Trilling and Wilson are right; the book’s “immediacy of experience,” the characters processing grief and who they are, and “the splendid isolation” in their messy individuality make the novel truly great. It is also here where Baldwin and Robinson share a kinship that to be human is to be imperfect, to fall and seek grace, and to do your damnedest to see what is in front of you clearly and put one foot in front of the other as a human being. I don’t know how woke that last sentence is, but I know that only this will be the way for us to process the ugliness we live in today.