Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

One of my favorite aspects of being a bookworm is the serendipity of book interaction. Since writing down my intense reaction to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom the other day, I’ve been thinking and re-thinking why I got so upset in the first place. I mean, it’s just a book, right?

But then at noon yesterday I went out to the mailbox and got the mail and there waiting for me was a collection of essays published by Graywolf Press in 1988 called Multicultural Literacy, a book I’ve been waiting for from Bookmooch for a couple of weeks.

Being the impatient reader that I am, I opened to the first essay, delighted to see it was by James Baldwin. I was first introduced to Baldwin’s work with his short story, “Sonny’s Blues” which became one of my favorite stories of all time. It is an incredible story—filled with all the subtlety of a difficult sibling relationship and the pain of creative ache. It is also probably one of the most beautiful meditations on how music moves through an individual that I have ever read. To make the excerpt below understandable, you need to know that Sonny is a musician, but also a heroine addict, and the story is told from the perspective of Sonny’s brother, a teacher, who is watching his brother slowly die. The story ends in a nightclub, where Sonny is playing the piano, hitting deep on a blues tune in an attempt to transpose the essence of his entire life into something tangible:

I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. […] And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

I include this excerpt for the simple reason that it’s beautiful, but also because of that sneaky word, freedom. Baldwin’s freedom here is like a little origami figure, the more you pull on the folds, the more it opens itself up, leaving you to contemplate the intricate creases. He’s talking about Sonny, of course, and Sonny’s feeling of being trapped, but he’s also talking about the greater black American experience and how it has shaped Sonny, himself, and everyone in the room at this club.

I’m working a little backwards here, because I read the Baldwin essay first, which then brought me to reread “Sonny’s Blues” just after. What I realized after I had finished both pieces was that I finally understood exactly why my reaction to Franzen’s Freedom was so sharp, so angry. I will try to explain.

The Baldwin essay was written in 1963 and it addresses the extremely topical issue at the time, and the unfortunately ever-pertinent issue now, of racism in American society. There are several really strong quotes I’d like to pull out, on a number of issues, but for what I’m writing about today, this one should suffice:

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower. That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper. Now this is dangerously infantile, and it shows in every level of national life.

So what does this have to do with Freedom? I’m not suggesting that for a book to be worthy, to be considered Serious Literature, it must take up with the very difficult and specific questions of racial identity in American society. No, Baldwin’s overarching lament in his essay is that American society cannot move forward until it recognizes its own inherent fallacies. His particular example is cultural (and still depressingly pertinent) but in the forty-eight years since his essay was published, we’ve added a few more issues into the mix.

This is where I should probably stop and say immediately that none of what I’m saying here is actually a criticism of Freedom the book, the story or the writing. It’s a well-written book, an engaging story, it asks interesting questions about a limited section of American society, it’s even funny at times and it attempts to make some statements about contemporary America.

But it does NOT move America forward by addressing any of those inherent fallacies. If anything it perpetuates them. If the self-indulgent, middle-class notion of ‘freedom’ as examined in Freedom is all that America has to agonize about, then we should consider ourselves pretty damn lucky.

So ultimately my frustration is with the conversation around Freedom, the intense desire to make this the defining book of the century, make it the greatest commentary on American society of the last fifty years. What a load of nonsense.

15 Responses to “James Baldwin clears the issue for me”

  1. whisperinggums

    Great post Michelle … and as you would probably expect, I think you make a good point. I do think Franzen, for whatever reason, backed off from really grasping the issue raised by his title. Either he lost heart or he’s too close to the issue to really tackle it.

    • Michelle

      It’s interesting that you say he might be too close to the issue to really tackle it. I do wonder about that. It isn’t an easy issue to tackle, not by any means.

  2. Steve

    That passage from Baldwin reads like a direct response to Daniel Boorstin’s book THE GENIUS OF AMERICAN POLITICS, which was (if I remember college correctly!) pretty dominant in 1963. It strikes me now, thanks to your thoughts here, that Franzen’s insistence on the possibility of representative “American lives” — whether in FREEDOM (which I haven’t read), or in THE CORRECTIONS and THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY (which I have) — seems like a fictional throwback to Boorstin’s historical “flattening” of national experience.

    Not that I’m an expert in any of this, just thinking aloud. So I look forward to finding out why this is a ridiculous comparison.

    • Michelle

      This is great. I hadn’t heard of Boorstin’s book, but I am familiar with the notion of “flattening” as I think it’s meant here. And using that idea in conjunction with Franzen’s project is really interesting. I’ll have a look for this book – thank you!

  3. Charlotte

    Such a pleasure to read Baldwin always–the clarity of his voice is a delight.
    I have absolutely nothing to add to this post, except for the fact that your “Gary Cooper” quote could not come at a better time as this one, where I’m myself struggling with my feelings about American politics. Serendipity there too!

    • Michelle

      Glad to hear the quote came at a nice time. I understand the idea of struggling with American politics. One of the reasons I am so happily living abroad. Not that Swiss politics are perfect, not by any means, but it helps to have some distance from US politics for me.

      • Charlotte

        Oh, I am not trying to make a special place for American politics here–French politics (especially these days) are nothing to be proud of! But I have a better grasp of them, even when I don’t follow them as closely, and that actually makes it easier for me to keep my distances. I cannot but try to grapple with what I don’t understand… the fault is all mine 🙂

  4. Guilherme

    If I’m not mistaken, you once asked why it is that you like/admire/are attracted to the work of some writers and not others.
    This post answered this one question (several, actually) w/ éclat.
    Just to mention one of those writers and your relationship to her work, Nadine Gordimer addresses those issues you (and other people) consider important, pertinent, probing in every novel or short story and “with a degree of artistic talent that never makes it repetitive” (your words or close to…).

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Guilherme, for reminding me! I do appreciate a novel that can tackle politics artfully.

  5. litlove

    Yes, I see what you mean. It was a book that promised some sort of genuine heartfelt analysis of modern American culture, and what you got was the clever reproduction of contemporary realism. I think that was the real problem with Franzen’s work for me – no heart.

    • Michelle

      Litlove, I loved your review of Freedom. Your frustration with Franzen’s narrative distance is very similar to my thoughts on the book – if I did want to go in and starting talking craft, this is where I’d focus. And the way all of his narrators ultimately sounded the same. I was thinking about something this morning on my bitterly cold walk with my dog – saw lots of birds – and I realized that the one aspect of the novel I don’t think I will quibble with is Franzen’s treatment of the environmental situation in the US. This, I think, he gets nearly perfect. But perhaps he just tried to do too much…

  6. Lilian Nattel

    This reminds me of something I read about professional critics, and that the universal elevation by them of Franzen’s Freedom contrasting with many people’s reactions to the book, as expressed by bloggers. It’s interesting that non-professional critics reacted negatively to a certain superficiality in the book against a backdrop of claims to profundity. Isn’t that ironic? I’d expect it to be the other way around. Well there is hope for us yet when there is a groundswell of demand for depth.

  7. Stefanie

    What a fascinating comparison between Baldwin and Franzen! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this and those of all the commenters too!

  8. Biblibio

    But it does NOT move America forward by addressing any of those inherent fallacies. If anything it perpetuates them.

    Wonderful, wonderful post.

  9. Caroline

    I came here from litlove’s blog and stumbled upon this post. I found it very inetersting and am delighted to find someone else who love’s baldwin’s short story as much as I do. It is one of the bets short stories I have ever reda.
    I didn’t read Freedom but I can undertsand where you are coming from. You are so right. Very well said.

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