A Writer's Solitude: James Baldwin

James Baldwin 1965, Photo by Sedat Pakay

James Baldwin 1965, Photo by Sedat Pakay


WNYC hosted a Black and Literary Salon at the Studio Museum of Harlem where they discussed James Baldwin and his famous essay, The Creative Process, printed in 1962's Creative America.

James Baldwin, a prominent African-American writer of the 20th century.  Baldwin was a novelist, essayist, playwright and poet who came to prominence in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Born and raised in Harlem, Baldwin was raised in the church and became a young Pentecostal preacher at the age of 14.  Later he would reject religion in favor of a more secular lifestyle.  He moved to Greenwich Village at the age of 17, studied at the New School and lived openly as a homosexual.  Later he would move to Paris and begin his illustrious career as a novelist while writing and working with other artists on the Left Bank. For most of his life Baldwin lived back and forth between America and Paris, eventually living there permanently in the decade before his death.

Baldwin became famous for his best-selling works, In Another Country, and The Fire Next Time.  His second novel, Giovanni's Room, was controversial for its blatant homo-erotic content. Many of his works explored social and psychological issues and traumas effecting African-American and homosexual characters.  Still, Baldwin did not write exclusively about African-American characters and insisted that his audience be an interracial one.

Baldwin was creative, intellectual and very social.  He was influenced by writers of the Harlem Renaissance and even studied under Countee Cullen (who was his French teacher in high school) and Richard Wright (who adored him and helped him win the Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Award).  He was known for his parties and for friendships with artists, writers, musicians and even a few Hollywood stars.  In the 1960’s, he began publishing his most famous collections of essays, which include The Fire Next Time, and also became heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.

I first learned about James Baldwin as a child, from my mother (an enthusiastic fan of his works) and also at school.  I began reading his works in school, his poetry in junior high, and his novels in high school, and a few of his essays.  While I have not read all of his works, his unique writing style and voice has always remained with me.

I read Baldwin's essay, The Creative Process, for the first time in preparation for this literary salon, and found that this essay completely resonated with me as a writer.  The opening sentence:

"Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone."

As an only child and a writer, I spend lots of time alone.  It is something that I both enjoy and lament, depending on my mood and the occasion.  In the years that I spend working furiously on my novel, I find the amount of time I spend alone increasing.  In one sentence, Baldwin both affirmed this and for me, said that this was okay, which in some ways was something that I may have needed to read/hear.

The essay in its entirety resonated with me as an artist.  It slapped me in the face with truths I had known instinctively but could not articulate.  It challenged me and coaxed me to hold onto the truths, challenges and responsibilities it is to be an artist and to embrace them.

Some of the quotes that resonated most with me include the following:

But the conquest of the physical world is not man's only duty.  He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself.  The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside some silver lake.  The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death.  It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help.  Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control.

The state of birth, suffering, love and death are extreme states----extreme, universal, and inescapable.  We all know this, but we would rather not know it.  The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.

It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace---the artist.  I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better.  The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive.

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society----the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists---by the fact that he is in his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being.  Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen.  A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.  One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted.  The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but most drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

Deep isn't it? Baldwin says that the artist is the "disturber of peace" and that an artists' duty is to reveal the delusions and mysteries of life while also exposing the hidden truths and answers to questions that plague mankind.

For me these statements released a kind of internal pressure that I felt as a writer. In my writing I find that I sometimes wonder if I am being too truthful or if I should somehow back off from being too controversial.  For me, in this essay Baldwin was able to pull about all of the emotions, novelties, chaos, conflict and challenges of the artist and his/her relation to society in one place.  I think every artist or writer, or anyone who aspires to be, can relate to this essay.

If you are interested in reading this essay in its entirety, you can read the essay in its entirety here.

Until next time,