Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. By JAMES BALDWIN (London, Michael Joseph, 1968). 407 pp. 35s. The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. By FERN MARJA ECKMAN (London, Michael Joseph, 1968). 256 pp. 42s.
One creates, as Baldwin has said, out of one’s own experience. But the experience of being a Negro in America is so consuming as to allow of little other consciousness. It is a total way of life and, worse, a retroactive one: the Negro does not act, he reacts. Equally, the Negro writer is trapped in the ghetto of his mind. His dilemma is whether he should escape it and become impotent (as a creative artist) or whether he should embrace it and perish in the process. Richard Wright chose the one and then the other, finally coming to rest in an alien Africa. Ralph Ellison got the ghetto off his chest with a single novel, and then fled to the groves of Academe. Le Roi Jones has chosen the second alter- native, and already his writing has become uncomprehending of ’the holiness of the heart’s affection and the truth of the imagination.’ Baldwin, in trying to retain the creative vision while accepting the burden of his blackness, has only succeeded in bifurcating himself. There is Baldwin the essayist, trenchant, clear, burning with truth; and there is Baldwin the novelist, racked upon the confessional certainly, but failing to re-create the total human condition. And yet it is to him that one looks for a solution to the black impasse.
The story of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone is, as another reviewer has remarked ’the stuff of magazine fiction-particularly woman’s magazine fiction’, and does not need to be recounted here. The strength of the novel lies elsewhere: in the poignant descriptions of Harlem life-of the Proudhammer family, for instance, on their good days, when despite the immediate hell outside, they are able to create from within themselves, out of some residual humanity as it were, a profound and glowing love for each other. The central figure in all this, as in Lawrence, is the woman. It is she who weaves and spins and holds the family together. When the whole of society is bent on emasculating her man, denying him the social roles that help to proclaim his maleness (bread-winner, decision- maker, architect of the children’s future, etc.) it is she who carries the vestigial burden of his manhood. ’What she saw was certainly not for many eyes; what she saw got him through his working week and his Sunday rest; what she saw saved him. She saw that he was a man. For her, perhaps, he was a great man. I think, though, that for our mother, any man was great who aspired to become a man: this meant that our father was very rare and precious.’ (What price, Moynihan ?) There is a desperate beauty too in the relationship between the young Leo and his brother which, before being broken by prison and church, reaches the climax of sexual love. ’I had not been trying to give, I had not been even trying to take and I had not felt myself as I did now, to be present in the body of the other person, had not felt his breath as mine, his sighs and moans, his quivering and shaking as mine, his journey as mine. More than anything on earth that night, I wanted Caleb’s joy. His joy was mine.’ A love that passeth all under- standing. And it is the enormity of this love that defines, even as it defies, the waste land of their lives.
But when Baldwin moves out of ghetto life into the ’larger society’-to the relationship of Leo Proudhammer with white Kentucky-born Barbara, to the relationships of people caught up, through their art, in the make-believe world of integration, his vision becomes less comprehending and incisive, his characters stilted and lifeless.
Baldwin’s central problem, it would appear, is still his unresolved love affair with America – his inability to leave her for good and her refusal to accept him totally. ’… There was another way to live,’ reflects Baldwin~Proudhammer, the hero of the novel. ’I had seen it after all, and I knew. But I also knew that what I had seen I had seen from a distance, a distance determined by my history … I had the choice of perishing with this doomed people or of fleeing them, denying them, and, in that effort perishing.’ But nowhere in Mrs. Eckman’s biography, The Furious Passage of James Baldwin, is this problem examined. The book indulges, instead, in an adulation so sickening that one begins to wonder about the man who lent himself to it. In the course of the first two and a half pages, Baldwin is variously described as ’a wood-carving in a Gothic cathedral’, ’the shriek of the lynched’, ’an accusing finger’-a being ’jagged as a sliver’, moving ’like a flickering light’, moving also with ’financial indulgence and royal caprice’ among his friends, and converting the while ’each new locale into a perambulating court’. Nor does it end there; it goes on in similar vein, though not at the same fevered pitch, for 235 horrendous pages more-treating us to the great man’s habits, tastes, mannerisms (those of speech are highlighted by italics-thousands of them), anger, anguish, etc., etc.-till Baldwin comes through as an overbearing, pompous, vainglorious, burdensome little man.