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James Baldwin. An appreciation of his non-fiction

Please note: this style of writing is called “block writing.” A string of thoughts, analyzing the structure in which authors build their arguments.

I have always considered the difference between literature and other written works, not really knowing the true definition. Baldwin’s writings are all pieces of literature, and from what I can discern, it is because they are pieces of fine art. Not many people can write something and have it be considered as literature, just as not everyone can put paint on a canvas and have it ‘published,’ or shown in an art gallery/museum. Producing something of that level of merit is difficult, and requires a great deal of past experience, thought, and revision before the final outcome is seen by even the editor. Baldwin has many thoughts and experiences, and as he transfers his intellect from his mind to paper, he refines his ideas, develops them in detail. Baldwin usually begins his essay with the problem he is attempting to understand or solve. “Every writer in the English language has at some point hated Shakespeare” (CoR 65). Another example: “Part of the price that Americans have paid for delusion, part of what we have done to ourselves, was given in Dallas, Texas” (CoR 82). Lastly, “I have never known a Negro in all my life who was not obsessed with black power” (CoR 99). These examples are easily defined as theses, the topic of his essay, the statement he will prove on the next several pages. The way he develops his ideas is what is interesting to me, and I found his method in the essay entitled “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” most compelling. In this essay, he speaks mostly of the connection between language and experience. Baldwin begins as stated above, and then moves to his own experience which brought him out of his envy of Shakespeare as an author. “I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar” (CoR 66). It is from his experiences that Baldwin is able to share his ideas, for they are what are most personal to him, and as fellow humans, we can relate to him and his thoughts through our own experiences. Baldwin then blocks a quote from that very scene and describes what he “suddenly heard for the first time.” Using adverbs like ‘suddenly’ draws the reader in, because it incites action in the mind of the reader. Through experiencing Julius Caesar, Baldwin was able to understand his relationship with the English language: “it is experience shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience” (CoR 68). If I were not familiar with Baldwin’s earlier works, I would think this is where he realized his own voice, and developed his own style. He certainly refined it, though, and began to involve more personal experiences in his later essays; where in his earlier essays he speaks more objectively and not so much about himself, but of others. “Now, of course the people cannot bear very much reality” (CoR 4), “The people who run the mass media and those who consume it are really in the same boat” (5), “The confusion in this country that we all call the Negro problem has nothing to do with the Negroes” (14). I am not saying that Baldwin doesn’t speak in the first person for most of his essays, because he does, and he walks the reader through his own thoughts, but what differs in his later essays comes with his explanations of his raw, personal experiences. In the Baldwin’s essay, which is only four full pages long, he uses the word ‘experience’ seven times, and in rapid succession in the three paragraphs located in the middle of his essay. While he is not so explicit about his revelation of the importance of experience and role in teaching others, he very clearly involves the reader in a different way; I found several examples in his works written after 1964. In “In Search of a Majority: An Address,” Baldwin writes “what I am really going to do is invite you to join me in a series of speculations” (NONS 215). He is openly stating that he wants to experience what he is about to write with his readers, inviting us to join him. In Baldwin’s essay entitled “The White Problem,” he writes, “Let me force you, or try to force you, to observe a paradox” (CoR 96). Again, he is now forcing the reader to see how he sees, to observe; is that an action verb? Simply by addressing the reader the way he does, he is having a conversation with us, and we are having a conversation with him. Baldwin’s 1969 essay, “The Nigger We Invent,” is an open dialogue between himself and a certain Mr. Scheuer, and by writing it this way, it is as if we are experiencing a theatrical piece ourselves, for it could be acted out and looks very similar to a script: “MR. BALDWIN. I would like to make a suggestion before we begin…” “MR. SCHEUER. Would you like to invite her to testify with you?” “MR. BALDWIN. Yes.” You see? It is as if we are in the courtroom with them, as if we are in the audience. By addressing the reader directly, and involving us in the conversation, we are naturally more interested in what he has to say, just like when I am falling asleep in a class and the teacher involves me by asking me a question, I wake up. His speeches are just as involved, for he even writes in the interruptions from his audience during the speech . “[Interruption: “What is ‘civilization’?”]” (CoR 124). I find this to be a unique turn in a writer’s career, and while it is difficult for me to discern what has actually changed from before this essay to after, since I have not been trained in the English language like others have, I still find “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” to be an important monument in Baldwin’s writing career. “Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it” (CoR 67). I would have never said that about Baldwin after reading his earlier works, although I think I see where he is coming from. His writing style is very different from Faulkner’s, for example. I have observed that Baldwin is much easier to read than Faulkner, because of his choice of syntax and use of wording, I think. Baldwin is more straightforward, and leads the reader, step by step, along the path in his mind that has to do with the topic he is focusing on, and addresses us personally. While we have only read Faulkner’s fiction, he has a tendency to be a linguist when he writes, forming sentences in ways that make the reader interpret the meaning differently than if he were to write that sentence in my own style. I believe that Faulkner, like Shakespeare, dare I say, has found a way to use language. In Light in August, he goes so far as to invent his own words, like a “bugswirled kerosene lamp” (4) or “creakwheeled” (7). The use of these words is very helpful for both Faulkner as a writer and me as the reader, because he would not have said it differently, and the reader thus interprets the text the way he wanted us to, but this is one of the ways in which Faulkner uses language, and Baldwin does not. I have always found Baldwin’s writing more easy to read than Faulkner’s, and for that reason I say that Baldwin’s writing style is more effective than Faulkner’s. One should not be more respected than the other, because they are both so accomplished in their own ways, but Baldwin’s style appeals more to the masses, and Faulkner’s style appeals more to other writers and English students. This is why Faulkner is said to be “the writers’ writer,” and why I find Baldwin so much easier to read. I do not have to spend so much time deciphering Baldwin’s words on a page, as I do Faulkner’s, but instead, Baldwin makes me think about what he wants me to think about, and openly asks me to do so. Perhaps a better way to describe Baldwin’s style is that he is more clear than Faulkner, and more precise. I am never left with the need to reread anything that Baldwin has written, unless the topic is very foreign to me. I can usually read through what he has written and move on to his next point. I find this to be a refreshing change from Faulkner’s writing, where I am constantly going back to the beginning of the paragraph, seeing how everything he writes is extremely dense and using words I might need to reference in the dictionary. The way he consolidates both those traits in addition to the passion that comes through in his writing makes his pieces more interesting to me than Faulkner’s works. The length of Baldwin’s essays average about eight pages, ranging from three pages to thirty seven pages in length. It certainly depends on the topic he chooses to write about, and how passionate he is, but he is mostly succinct in the points he makes and then moves on. In his longest essay I could find, “Princes and Powers,” a seasoned Baldwin reader will understand that the topic of this essay is something of import to the author. While written in a historical way, describing the occurrences of a certain Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists, Baldwin adds snippets of his own opinions and judgment on what is being said. “Much of this made great sense to me, even though Senghor was speaking of, and out of, a way of life which I could only very dimly and perhaps somewhat wistfully imagine” (NONS 150). It is for the reason that it is a historical essay that it is so much longer than his others. He writes out what was said in during the conference, and by whom it was said. “[Leopold Senghor] began by invoking what he called the ‘spirit of Bandung.’ In referring to Bandung, he was referring less, he said, to the liberation of black peoples than he was saluting the reality and the toughness of their culture” (149). He then elaborates on what was said and adds his own observations to those acts and statements. “It was not the drum it had once been, he told us, but despite whatever mishap had befallen it, I could have listened to him play it for the rest of the afternoon” (149). He will give his own impressions, and then go back to the experience, referencing what has been said, and add larger portions of his thoughts. “Just what the specific relation of an artist to his culture says about that culture is a very pretty question” (151). Baldwin goes on to describe the problems of that relation, in his opinion, and that Mr. Senghor had described, but then go on to the next occurrence in the debate after a paragraph or two. For this reason, even in his longest essay, Baldwin remains concise. And while someone must be passionate about something enough to convince the reader that it is worth his/her while to read it in the first place, Baldwin’s works are more poignant than most essays/reviews I have read. The writing style is also more clear in the sense that he clearly states that he is referencing his own experiences: “I found myself, willy-nilly, alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil” (NONS 187). It can be seen again in “Down at the Cross:” “I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis” (296). Writing of one’s own experiences, from knowledge of my past writings, at least, are much more clearly written than if you are speaking in terms of something you are unsure of, or don’t have a full understanding of. This is why I believe that this essay is less clear than, say, what I wrote in my journal a week ago. Occurrences in my own life, much like occurrences in Baldwin’s life, remain in your mind intact and clear, as the day you first experienced them. You are then able to approach it whichever way you would like, but still make more sense of it than if you are to write on the topic of philosophy, morals, ethics, supernatural things, scientific theory. You don’t really understand those things, you just have been told certain things and choose to believe them. I also discovered in Fleischauer’s article on Baldwin’s Style, that he uses patterns of simplicity, using only the most straightforward conjunctions, while moving the reader along with “repeated syntactical patterns as well as repeated words” (JBTS 144). When he wants to say something deeper and make certain connections that he would not be able to in his first portions of his paragraphs, many times he will write these statements or feelings as short afterthoughts, “something implacable in the set of the libs, something farseeing (seeing what?) in the eyes” (297). This way of writing, inserting short reflections into a sentence within parentheses makes it more of a personal experience to the reader. We have a lens into his mind that would, and in conventionally written essays usually, otherwise not have. You see Baldwin struggle to understand and organize his ideas in the same way that I am struggling to understand and organize his structure, “when I tried to assess my capabilities, I realized that I had almost none. In order to achieve the life I wanted, I had been dealt, it seemed to me, the worst possible hand. I could not become a prizefighter…I could not sing. I could not dance…I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously. The only other possibility seemed to involve my becoming one of the sordid people on the Avenue.” While he is speaking in the past tense, it is clear that he is reliving every emotion and thought he has put down on the page. For he ends with, “to put it mildly, blunt, whatever these people saw in me merely confirmed my sense of my depravity” (301). It is apparent that this is still a sore topic for Baldwin, that he has not come to peaceful terms with his sentiments on the ‘hands he was dealt,’ and that is very apparent. That last sentence is so sorrowful that it hurts to read, and that is where the passion is seen in his non-fiction; Baldwin’s passion shines through when he is transparent about his past experiences that hurt him, and his want to learn and make himself better and respected. Back to “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” “The authority of this language was in its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me” (CoR 68). Reading the reviews I gathered, in particular the one named “James Baldwin’s Style: A Prospectus for the Classroom,” helped me appreciate Baldwin’s writings more than I had previously. There is a section within it that analyzes his use of verbs and adjectives as a form of art. Using words that incite certain emotions or thought processes that make him a part of literature, for it is a rare skill and I certainly do not possess it, or have much less of a capacity to produce it. It is something I have noticed throughout his work, the use of words such as “groping” (NONS 65) and “vindictively polite” (67), that would leave a lasting impression or emotion, and can be easily found when reading. They are not used excessively, however, and it is for that reason that Baldwin is said to “use art but not abuse it” (JBTS 143). A common trait I found in Baldwin’s essays was his ample use of statements like this one: “it is experience shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience” (CoR 68). He writes his assertion similarly in this passage about his relationship with his father, “When he was dead I realized that I had hardly ever spoken to him. When he had been dead a long time I began to wish I had” (NONS 71). What is this formatting of a sentence called? Is it juxtaposition? Either way, he states what one thing is, and then states how the other thing complements the first or changes it, in a way that makes it stronger, and more memorable.

In addition to his thoughtful use of and placement of these provoking words, Baldwin has an air of simplicity in the way he makes his points. The majority of what he writes uses basic words, words you might see in a newspaper or magazine. When these basic words are structured in his structural style, however, they become much more powerful. It is clear that Baldwin has put a lot of preliminary thought into all of his writing. There is no way he could construct his arguments the way he does on the fly. Granted, he is much more effective and efficient in doing so than many other writers, as he would write and publish around five hundred pages a year. He starts with generalizations which he expands into more sophisticated thoughts and always with a point. He is a deliberate writer, every word written seems to have its place and is necessary; a skill that would be useful in this class; as much of what is written by students and authors of a lower caliber has some if not plenty of filler. Many of the articles found in my research can attest to that, as well as my own writings, even this one.

Bibliography

Baldwin, James, and Randall Kenan. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. New York: Pantheon, 2010. Print.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.

Fleischauer, John F. James Baldwin's Style: A Prospectus for the Classroom. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May, 1975), pp. 141-148


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