The Cross of Redemption was conceived as a “companion volume” to the Library of Congress’ James Baldwin: Collected Essays. It’s composed of Baldwin’s uncollected writings and is a sweeping up of the scraps, so to speak, made up of essays, magazine articles, newspaper reviews, forewords and afterwords, and transcripts of speeches. Baldwin was a fiercely disciplined stylist, so none of the pieces included have the written to be forgotten mien that might be expected.
Most of the work is masterly and it is surprising that the Library of Congress hasn’t anthologized it. Yet this ragtag assemblage is definitely not a greatest hits book either and it provides a service in revealing the range and frayed ends in his writing, from the classic New Journalism of “The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston” (1963) to the transcript of a contentious lecture and student discussion at UMass Amherst [“Blacks and Jews” (1984)] to a series of letters written to his agent in 1963 while trying to travel to Africa (“Letters From A Journey”).
The book is broken up into six sections defined by a genre of writing. The pieces within each section are sequenced from the earliest to latest date of publication. “Essays and Speeches” and “Book Reviews” are the longest sections, at twenty-eight and fifteen pieces respectively, and give the longest scope on Baldwin’s career.
The categories can create some confusion. “Essays” opens the book and starts in 1959, after Baldwin’s first two novels (Go Tell It On The Mountain and Giovanni’s Room) and an essay collection (Notes on a Native Son) had been published and he was firmly established as prominent writer and intellectual. “Book Reviews” closes the book and starts in 1947 with Baldwin’s first published writings in his early twenties. The reader might be startled by the swerving in style and thought in between.
“Book Reviews” might be the best place to start. Eleven of the book reviews were written between 1947-1949 and show Baldwin’s voice firmly established yet straining for authority. His scathing review of Maxim Gorky’s Best Short Stories might also apply to himself at this period: “He is almost always painfully verbose and frequently threatens to degenerate into simple propaganda.” In these short reviews Baldwin tries to close with big ideas and can be pompously abstract. Yet his great skill with winding sentences and mannered wit is already evident: “since we have discovered that art does not belong to what was once the aristocracy, it does not therefore follow that it has become the exclusive property of the common man—which abstraction, by the way, I have yet to meet.” The wit can border on snobbishness, as in his putdown of James M. Cain, and the overall tone is of a young writer attempting to clear space for himself.
The book reviews then jump to 1959 and the tone changes markedly; Baldwin is open to the promise of the writing being reviewed and not so much on guard against its perfection. This sympathy towards his compatriots is shown in a review of The Arrangement by theater and film director Elia Kazan, where he is discreet yet compassionate about Kazan’s notoriety for “naming names” before HUAC.
The book reviews are most interesting in showing Baldwin as a young writer. The essays and speeches show a more mature writer at work and more strongly concern themselves with the Civil Rights era of the ‘50s onward, with which Baldwin was an early and vociferous voice. Throughout his career he was uncompromising in his calls for white America to undergo rigorous self-examination of their role in a racist society. Baldwin’s strident individualism made him a useful intellectual leading edge for the nonviolent activists of the Martin Luther King Jr. era and appealed him to the more militant Black Panther Party that followed. Eventually he became to be seen as bitter and irritatingly preachy in his insistence that America would never move past its “emotional kindergarten” without undergoing a reckoning of Biblical proportions, what he in “Anti-Semitism and Black Power” (1967) calls “a mortal storm” that “America will not survive”. Having anticipated the tumult of the sixties and then despaired of it, he appeared unable to envision the possibility for positive change or accept that some evils may go unpunished.
These essays show that Baldwin thoughts and writing do not so easily fit into commonly held broad outline of his career. While sticking to his core convictions, he continually wrestled with his thoughts and questioned what he believed.
The earlier essays show how Baldwin first tackled issues of civil rights through writing about what it means to be a writer and an African American artist. In “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” (1963), he writes about his realization of his artistic gift and its curse: “The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not.” This leads him to consider his larger role in this country and of America’s awareness of itself and its racism and its history of slavery, concluding “…being an American Negro artist in 1963 in this most peculiar of countries begins to be a very frightening assignment.” He writes about Billie Holiday and the blues and profiles Sidney Poitier and delves deeper into the relationship between white America and black artists. He tries to be as honest with himself as he expects as others. In “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” (1964) he struggles with the great writer and how he associated him with the English language: “I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all.”
Gradually he becomes more and more insistent that white America examine itself and comes to believe that this either will not happen or that it will not happen without violence. This idea is endlessly repeated, particularly in the shorter, blunter, and more polemical articles. Rather than become tiresome, one gets a visceral sense of the urgency of the times and the frustration that Baldwin felt with the messy progress of the era and one begins to question the still complacent assumptions about our own societal failings, racial and otherwise.
Baldwin’s gradual disillusionment with America in the sixties becomes more understandable. In 1963 he wrote an essay titled “We Can Change the Country”; in 1969 he wrote “The Price May be Too High”: “I will state flatly that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation.”
This pessimism can become frustrating and could lead Baldwin to slacken in his thoughts. By “A Letter to Prisoners” (1982) he seems to lose track of physical realities in saying that artists are prisoners of the state on a par with actual prisoners, writing in the sort of polarized tenor that mars too much public debate today. Yet to chart the tenor of his thoughts and his writing on a line is a condescending simplicity. “To Crush a Serpent” (1987), published in the last year of his life, is as thrillingly Byzantine on religion, his teenage ministry, and his homosexuality as any of his earlier works.
As Baldwin writes in “A Much Truth As One Can Bear” (1962), “Writers are extremely important people in a country, whether or not the country knows it. The multiple truths about a people are revealed by that people’s artists – that is what the artists are for.” The Cross of Redemption contains multiple truths; it is a portrait of an artist and a country during the era when he worked. It shows how Baldwin appropriated the responsibility of being a true American artist and the struggles he had vocalizing the multiple truths of a mad society and attempting to hold onto one’s artistic clarity and sanity in order to get the job done.