by Clive Fisher
THE position of the writer in the United States has traditionally been uncertain. It is one of America's paradoxes that while it exists to enshrine freedom, it is also a society of conformists. The liberties cherished by the earliest settlers, of religion and democracy, while theoretically honoured by the constitution, rapidly hardened into the one right and hope which still unites Americans: the freedom to make a million.
Writers, almost invariably outsiders anyway, inevitably felt isolated in a society which was for all its variation made militantly homogeneous by financial ambition. Moreover, they missed the traditions and cultural self-confidence which guided and sanctioned their European cousins.
So many went into exile. Henry James and Edith Wharton, loth to believe that all men were born equal, sought a Europe of princes and palaces. Melville lost himself in whales and circumnavigation. Emily Dickinson went into internal exile, to be published only posthumously. Eliot and Pound came to Europe too, there to conceive literary modernism. Even Hart Crane, a celebrant of American industrial might and the majesty of her landscape, flourished only in the tropics and in despair drowned himself.
In the last 50 years, things have changed, if only because an American literary culture has finally been established. But for some writers, a distancing from the American dream is still crucial.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the eldest of nine children. Some writers thrive on the stimulus of disadvantage (one thinks of Alexander Pope, born with a twisted spine, and Catholic, in 1688). Although years later Baldwin was able to joke that in being born poor, black and gay, he had hit the jackpot, at the time he knew that his only escape lay in using his quick mind.
Like many American writers, Baldwin, who died in 1987, is little known here. In her debut as a director of documentaries, Karen Thorsen, in James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket mixes interviews, home movies and readings from his work. There is no narrator; only the witnesses to the man and the writer, left to speak for themselves and guess at his motivation.
The consensus seemed to be that it was anger that drove him, a fury with the divisions man arbitrarily imposed upon mankind. For Baldwin, his sexuality and colour were immaterial. But he was soon to realise that the rest of the world was more fussy. His father with whom relations were always formal was a Baptist preacher. Baldwin discovered that for his father's congregation, the divine was always black, the damned white. The refuge from poverty was the local library, where literature taught him that he was not the first to suffer. The refuge from reality was religion. At 14, he became a preacher and attributes his career to the love of language inculcated by the bible.
But he "left the pulpit to preach the gospel". Sporadic reviewing alternated with menial work until, in 1948, he went to Paris. Thereafter, much of his life was spent outside the United States, either in France, Turkey or Africa. His first stay in Paris saw him in sympathy with France's Algerians.
When he returned to America, it was to participate in the civil rights movement. Although a stranger in the south, he was drawn to its people. He was friendly with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The man we see, parrying the banal questions of journalists, or taking zeal to the chat-show, is engaging: a melancholy face, huge sad eyes, sometimes a full, unguarded smile. He had great personal charm and courage; but while he was articulately laconic, he was also an innocent, because only the innocent preach.