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Sunday Read: Darryl Pinckney On His Lifelong Engagement with the Writing of James Baldwin

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This year The New York Review of Books celebrate its 50th anniversary. As part of the year-long celebrations a whole section on the publication’s website is devoted to the 50th anniversary, and features “talks with longtime contributors, selected reviews from past issues, reminiscences from former staff members, photographs and videos, and documents from the Review archives, as well as an interactive timeline of the Review’s first fifty years”.

Giovanni's RoomAnother CountryIf Beale Street Could TalkGo Tell It on the MountainThe Fire Next Time

One of these talks is by long-time contributor Darryl Pinckney about his lifelong engagement with the writing of James Baldwin. The New York Review of Books not only made this talk, which Pinckney delivered at the Review’s fiftieth anniversary celebration at Town Hall in New York on February 5 this year, available to listen on Soundcloud, but also as an article to read.

In his talk, titled “On James Baldwin”, Pinckney mentions quite a few relevant Review pieces, but he starts off with the memory of reading his first Baldwin book, Giovanni’s Room:

I had no idea why I was so absorbed in James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, but everyone else in the car knew. My father had been driving for so long he gripped the wheel with paper towels. It was 1967 and we were days from Indianapolis on our way to Disney Land. We were actually on Route 66 and I didn’t care. I was thirteen years old and I wasn’t causing trouble, sitting between my two sisters with Baldwin’s novel about a man’s love for another man in my face. I remember my mother glancing back at me. We’d driven through a dust storm a while ago, but I’d missed it.

Pinckney tried to put off reading Baldwin’s essays about the issue of race, “for as long as I could” but in 1971 a teacher of Pinckney’s gave him Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis, which appeared in the Review that January. Pickney says he immediately recognized the speaker in the letter:

November 19, 1970

Dear Sister:

One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.

High CottonOut ThereNotes of a Native SonThe Devil Finds WorkJust Above My Head

In his talk Pinckney mentions a review he wrote on what came to be Baldwin’s last novel, Just Above My Head, and tells that even more that three decades after its publication he’s still embarrassed about it:

James Baldwin, born in Harlem in 1924, became a boy preacher when he was fourteen. He left the church when he was seventeen and transformed himself into a writer of extraordinary rhetorical refinement, but there remained in his style, in his baroque sense of grievance, the atmosphere of the pulpit. In works like The Fire Next Time (1963), an exalted rhetoric rushes out, as in a sermon, to meet the bitterness of American life.

A decade after Baldwin’s death he tried to “make up for the past” by reviewing the Library of America‘s editions of Baldwin’s collected essays and his early novels and stories:

The draining away of James Baldwin’s magic was a drama much discussed in the years leading up to his death in 1987 at the age of sixty-three. There had been the first act of waif in Harlem, literary vagabond in Paris, and avenging angel of the Freedom Summer, when his exalted voice captured the tension of a nation confronted by what looked like a choice between honoring and betraying its ideals of social justice. The essays, novels, and short stories had come with all the authority of purpose and brilliance of language any young writer could hope for. Then followed the last act of weary old believer riding the transcontinental winds, when the social strife to which he had committed himself as a witness seemed to frustrate his gift for describing what was going on in mad America and in his midnight self.

Pinckney ended his talk by remembering editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein and mentioning that he has ”received so much from this noble intellectual enterprise”.

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