Category Archives: James Baldwin

Links: Welcome! You’ve Got Weltschmerz!

Jonathan Franzen: “And AOL’s little box—the welcome screen, they call it, I guess—is so infuriating in its dopiness: ‘Surprising Leader In The Masters! Find Out Who!’ ‘Ten Things To Think About When Choosing A Hotel!’ ‘What Smart Travelers Know About X!’ It’s all in compact form, and it kind of tells me everything I need to know about the larger stupidity. It helps keep me in touch.”

Related: Lionel Shriver takes the Franzen hype as an opportunity to voice her righteous anger at the way her book covers favor girly imagery that’s out of touch with the book itself.

And related again: A few months back Shriver complained that Bret Easton Ellis‘ publisher spent too much money promoting his last novel. Ellis doesn’t disagree: “Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into?

On what science fiction writers can learn from the recent spate of literary novels with science-fiction themes: “Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that…two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big.”

How To Kill a Mockingbird inspired legal writer Dahlia Lithwick.

George Hitchcock, who published Raymond Carver‘s poetry in the literary journal kayak, died August 27.

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin is a bit scattershot, as the title suggests, but it has its share of provocative lines and it’s very much worth reading; the Library of America blog rounds up some of the coverage of the book.

Scott Timberg points to a couple of fine profiles he’s written on Daniel Alarcon and Yiyun Li.

Incoming college students rarely bother to read the book they’ve been assigned to read prior to their arrival on campus.

In fact, it seems like they’ll throw more energy into satirical news stories with headlines like, “Overzealous First-Year Reads Most of Summer Reading Assignment.”

Inspirational Verse

One hears, it seems to me, in the work of all American novelists, even including the mighty Henry James, songs of of the plains, the memory of a virgin continent, mysteriously despoiled, though all dreams were to have become possible here. This did not happen. And the panic, then … comes out of the fact that we are now confronting the awful question of whether or not all our dreams have failed. How have we managed to become what we have, in fact, become? And if we are, as indeed we seem to be, so empty and desperate, what are we to do about it? How shall we put ourselves in touch with reality?

James Baldwin, 1962

Harold Norse, 1916-2009

Update, June 14: Harold Norse obituaries from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle

Harold Norse, a poet, experimental novelist, and memoirist who associated with the Beat writers of the 60s and the gay liberation writers of the 70s, died June 8 in San Francisco. He was 92. In 2000 I spent a lot of time hanging out in Norse’s house on Albion Street in the Mission District, as he talked about his life and his relationship with members of Act Up San Francisco, a group of disreputable HIV deniers. In the story I ended up writing, he said he figured he had about five years left. I’m glad that he got four more than he anticipated.

It was a pleasure spending all that time in Norse’s living room, in part because he made my job so easy—he had so many good stories to tell about so many well-known authors, and he was eager to tell them. He’d hand me a copy of the June 1978 issue of Hustler, the one with the infamous “meat grinder” cover, and eagerly point to the short story of his inside. He’d tell me about this one time with W.H. Auden. This one time with Allen Ginsburg. This one time with Tennessee Williams. He was eager to talk about himself but never came off as pushy about being heard. There was a certain sadness to his existence—he lived alone, apparently was visited by friends only intermittently, and it could feel isolating in that odd little cottage on Albion Street in which he lived. (It was off the street, and you had to go through a sunken, viaduct-like walkway to get to it.) But it wasn’t the kind of misery you’d think would envelop an 80-something man living alone. Just a kind of fortress of solitude. As he told me himself, “I always said—and it was a stupid thing that I lived by—‘I won’t lift a finger to publicize my work. It has to come from the outside.’ So in a way I buried myself.”

We didn’t talk much after that story came out. Shortly after the piece was published he gave a well-attended reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. I’d helped bring more than ten people to a poetry event; my job was done. When his dishy 1989 autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel was republished in 2002, putting his work back in print for the first time years, I dropped him a line congratulating him, and we exchanged a few more e-mails. After that, I mainly just wondered what would become of his work and his reputation. A wide-ranging collection of his poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force, came out in 2003, but to little attention, and I don’t know whatever happened to that collection of his correspondence with Charles Bukowski, the book that Norse was certain would reposition him as a major American writer.

That won’t happen, even if the book does appear. Bukowski is still a cult writer, if a well-known one, and Norse had the problem of straddling so many eras in literature that he was hard to classify; he could translate Latin 19th Century Italian poetry, he was mentored by William Carlos Williams, he hung out with the Beats, he became a leading gay poet—and dealt with both the respect and ghettoization that came along with that. The man was complicated, in literary terms if not personal ones. But the correspondence is a fun read, and I’m cranky at the moment that the binder holding copies of it, which Norse gave to me while I was working on the piece, apparently hasn’t survived one of my recent moves. Poetry isn’t my bailiwick, and I can’t speak with any real authority about Norse’s work’s ability to endure. “I Am Not a Man,” one of his best-loved poems, strikes me as a overly sentimental, suitable for framing in America’s more ponytail-infested apartments, but I very much like “At the Cafe Trieste,” in which the weight of centuries of literature bear down on him in a coffee shop, and “You Must Have Been a Sensational Baby,” a portrait of pure lust.

I no longer have the Bukowski correspondence, but I do have Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, a sort of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again for the gay and bisexual literary set. Norse may not of have been a self-promoter, but he did have an ego, and the fun of flipping through it again, for me, is to feel that assertiveness again, the persona of the literary traveler who had a grand time hanging out with literary elites, even if he was secretly cataloging their foibles. Does James Baldwin come off badly in the book? Yes. Did James Baldwin write the introduction to the book anyway? That too.

Judge for yourself. Below are a few excerpts from the book on some of the more prominent authors that Norse hung out with.

James Baldwin:

When some young men displayed interest in me Jimmy thrust himself frantically between them and me. Finally, seizing me by the arm, he positioned us before a mirror. “Look at me! Just look! What do you see? I’m queer, ugly, and black! What future can I possibly have?” His desperation was so intense that I felt guilty for being annoyed. “Jimmy, ” I said consolingly, “you’re only twenty-one, you’re very gifted and have lots of friends.” “Friends!” he exploded. “But no lover! And no money! What good it talent without recognition?” “I’m in the same boat,” I said. “Oh, no, baby, we’re in different boats! he cried. “You’re white!” I longed to leave with one of the handsome young men, but after his outburst I felt his situation so keenly that I left with Jimmy. It was like taking care of a sick friend. Besides, he had ruined the party.

William S. Burroughs

He raved, ranted, raged, retched, and groaned. He thrashed about in fits and convulsions. It was a bit much for a rational eighteen-year-old British math student, used to the clositered walls of Corpus Christi College. Yet Ian Sommerville had proven equal to the task of bringing about the junk cure of perhaps the most haunted American literary genius since Poe. Ian became his nurse and companion, lover and collaborator. And so it happened that I was the agent of not only Burroughs’s cure but also the first lasting love affair of his life….

We saw each other more often and he kept urging me to move into the hotel at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur. “For a dollar a day you get a room, gas ring, linen, and cleaning service if you want it,” he drawled. “And you can bring in tricks. Can’t beat it, man.” He passed me a joint. “If Madame likes you,” he added, expelling the smoke.

Jane Bowles:

What was Jane like when I knew her? Certainly unlike anything this post mortem adulation would suggest. I saw not a glamorous legend but a disturbed, ailing woman, desperately unsure of herself. As for wit, there was little evidence of it. She was petulant, fussy, irritable. Bohemian? Suburban seemed a far more apt description.

Charles Bukowski:

We had established a mutual admiration and rapport in our letters. His were explosive with pain and humor, an amazing amalgam of wordplay, ripe, earthy, vulgar,; his language leapt from the page like a van Gogh, galvanic, whirling, immediate, full of raw violence, color, and light; he was an American Dylan Thomas but bolder, cruder, meaner, more daring, not stuck in tradition. He was more savage than Celine, Miller, or Jan Cremer…but he was also gentle.

The man, the drunken writer, would not wear well. He never tired of bragging and boasting, of clamoring for attention. His competitive spirit, arrogance, and macho pose were irritating. When drunk, which was after 5:00 p.m., he had an insulting mockery in his voice; his aim was to crush others. Before fie he was a lamb, literally sheepish with shame and guilt. I believe his hurt eyes got their color from envy and jealousy. He’d shout, “I’m Charles Bukowski. Watch my steam, baby. I’m the king, I’m the greatest!”

Links: Attendance and Participation

My post earlier this week about the college course on 9/11 literature was mentioned in a discussion thread on LibraryThing on the same topic. That thread is worth a read—the participants are working toward a comprehensive reading list of post-9/11 fiction.

One complaint on the thread is that there are no women on the main reading list. (The complete syllabus does include numerous essays by women, including excerpts from Susan Faludi‘s The Terror Dream.) I confess that without the LibraryThing list I would’ve been hard-pressed to think of an American female fiction writer who explicitly addressed Age of Terror themes, though I’d argue that Susan Choi‘s A Person of Interest would count, as would Martha McPhee‘s L’America. At any rate, whether all this reflects an inherent disrespect among critics for women writers is an open question, but Elaine Showalter sets the record straight.

Garrison Keillor is busy: four books of his come out this year, including two novels.

Construction begins next month on a replica of the cabin in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Andrew Seal on Giovanni’s Room: “One of the truly remarkable things about James Baldwin‘s writing is his ability to represent repression convincingly.”

Tayari Jones finds the connection between Yellow Tail wine and the intermingling of street lit with other fiction by black writers on bookstore shelves.

And an executive at Penguin Books UK is, to say the least, very excited to work on David Foster Wallace‘s final novel, The Pale King.