James Baldwin

After Reading “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1955), I’d like you to relate it to some aspect of the course.  It might be a point of view expressed in another text, or perhaps some part of “Moby-Dick” (or even the novel you are currently reading for your paper).  Please post in 50 words, and reply to each other, too.  Your post is due this Thursday, March 26th, by 3:30 pm.

16 thoughts on “James Baldwin

  1. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” takes me back to the “Borderlands” article written by Gloria Anzaldúa where she described her childhood and the situation going down in Mexico, relating to border patrol and the challenges brought against her community. It could very well be interpreted as a protest novel, discussing how Mexico was wronged by English settlers and the like. In some aspects, despite being understandable, the elements of disconnect mentioned in “Everybody’s Protest Novel” can apply to Gloria’s accounts of those times, even if her community was wronged.

  2. I found that while I was reading this critique of “protest novels” I found myself returning to Bloom and his commentary in regards to the idea that literature and its criticism could lead to societal change. They, of course, differ in that Baldwin doesn’t completely reject the idea of a novel producing social change as Bloom does. Baldwin’s focus on the idea that “protest novels” are “fantasies” and that their failure comes from their “ejection of life” supports the idea that he is not proposing that literature concern social change should be removed from the canon but simply that it needs to be done better.

    • If he is proposing that they need to be done better, how so? He offers a counter-example in the image of Uncle Tom but fails to provide a good example. Critique is one thing, but he advances no proposition in return. Like “Invisible Man” by Ralph Elliot, he posits these issues without offering solutions. Perhaps that is not his role, perhaps he merely intends to provoke discussion, but as someone demanding a better form of protest novel, is that not obligation to hypothesize on the nature of such a novel?

  3. The way Baldwin approaches the framework of the protest novel both appeals and disgusts me. To write a protest novel, if I am reading him right, is to admit to a need of a protest novel, to acknowledge the perceived submissive status of one’s people. To write a protest novel is to state one is not worthy of being acknowledged as an equal. Uncle Tom, by his acquiescence to white standards of docility, renders the black race as subordinate forever and forever. While I agree that a protest novel acknowledges that submissive status, I argue that one must acknowledge it because not doing such ignores the reality of that subordinance. If, for example, “Invisible Man” was never written, would that change the socially-invisible status of the African-American people one iota? No. If “Invisible Man” was never written, would there be as much recognition of that plight, could action be taken against it? No. In a way, this argument is the Booker T. Washington vs. W. E. B. Dubois debate again, with Baldwin falling on Washington’s side. Personally, I would disagree with Baldwin’s disparagement of the protest novel as I feel one must address issues head on, but, as a white male, I cannot say to know better the issues Baldwin raises. I can only supply my opinion, my interpretation, in hopes of furthering the debate.

  4. Pascale Casanova, in “The world republic of letters” makes a good point that if critics enjoined on a global scale, that “looking to the literary world as a whole in trying to account for the interdependence of local phenomena, while respecting his counsel of caution and modesty” (Casanova 5), we may be able to ameliorate the “local” problem of our American concept of categorization.

  5. I disagree with Baldwin, not on the strength of his argument but on its fundamental nature. Perhaps writing a protest novel is an acknowledgement of social submission, but such submission exists regardless or not of the novel’s writing. Better to acknowledge that status than to sweep it under the rug.

  6. Reading this article by James Baldwin, I find a very similar driven view in reading Bloom’s opinions on the literary canon. They both focus on the spirit that lies within individuals within literary works to inspire the reader. What I find interesting is that Baldwin like Bloom negates the idea that literature is impactful regarding society but not as far as Bloom does. I personally think this is wrong because literature educates further through psychological and emotional experiences when reading such works like “Native Son”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.

  7. James Baldwin’s major argument is that protest novels are not profound or different because their main purpose is to throw around “virtuous sentimentality”. While reading this I went back and forth with how I felt about Baldwin’s argument but I always came back to the ideology that while Uncle Tom’s Cabin might seem like just another “protest novel” now, back in 1852, the book was so profound that it was a turning point. This took me back to Pascale Casanova, and her idea that “understanding a work of literature, then, is a matter of challenging the vantage point from which one observes it”, which is the whole point of a “protest novel”.

    • I suppose when someone has “seen all the protest novels”, their views blend despite what the content has to offer. It’s like how movie critics can sometimes give good reviews on a movie for what it does new and the technical aspects, but not the actual merit of the plot and characters, which is judged by the major audience. Uncle Tom’s Cabin could’ve very well had a strong impact when it was produced, but it could be viewed today as “another protest novel”.

  8. After reading the article by James Baldwin. I thought it was interesting on how he thought, I couldn’t help but find myself disagreeing with his argument. I believe that protest novels bring something new to the table. Everyone deserves their own opinion/expression. It made me think of how Tom’s Cabin could have started originally as a protest novel but not ending as one. Meaning the intention was to draw attention to a topic while then getting swept up in the big picture and not the details.

  9. Like others, I found myself disagreeing with some of Baldwin’s ideas in this text regarding protest novels. Regardless of how you view this type of literature, the opinions will exist and that will never change. I saw similarities in Pascale Casanova’s piece in the idea of success of a text is affirmed through the eye of the beholder. It all comes down to perspective and opinions.

  10. Thank you for all the responses.

    I want to start from Kaitlin’s points about Baldwin’s critique of the protest novel. You might all find it strange that Baldwin, an African American writer who was born in 1924, takes issue with the protest novel. Let us pay attention to his finer points. He begins by using “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as the elder statesman of the genre. So what is wrong with a novel that helped change hearts and minds regarding the most contentious issues in U.S. history? Beyond that, what is wrong with a novel that helped effect real change in society—emancipation.

    For Baldwin, the protest novel is prone to excessive sentimentality. It allows for a kind of purging of feelings (perhaps the term “white guilt” is apropos here), but little else. What it does not do is show life in its full complexity (which is what the novel genre should always do–“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is of bad quality for him).

    The humanity pertaining to Black Americans is never the issue in the protest novel—only their status as problems to be solved by reviving stereotypes and reversing them. Baldwin even goes after Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” Wright was another African American writer, and a mentor to him. “Native Son” is one of the most celebrated novels in the African American canon. What I think Baldwin sees missing here is (again) a full humanity that also belongs to Black people. It’s too angry. It is not that race is unimportant to Baldwin, but I think he sees it as a false essentialism that needs to be combated. There are echoes here of Henry Louis Gates’s argument about the imposition of “race” as a category. We work through race because we have to. It’s imposed. But that is never the full picture.

    To George’s point, what does Baldwin recommend instead? What is the solution to calling out injustice? Baldwin suffered from racism in the United States, which is why he left for Paris. Still, Baldwin’s essay leads African American literature away from the realism of Wright, and toward something else—more abstract, philosophical. One of the landing places is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” That book provides no easy answers as it pertains to African Americans in U.S. society. It sees the political Right and Left as pernicious in their own ways. For Baldwin, protest novels fail to provide an adequate complex expression. They are more about a puritanical moral indignation—a kind of feel-good shaming of others. It is about mob mentality and patronizing attitudes. I think he is wrong about Wright, though. There is nothing reader-friendly about “Native Son,” although the radical youth of the 1960s (much of it middle class) ate it up. So maybe, yes. I think his implicit question regarding what is more powerful—a ready-made Black hero, or a great novel about the full range of a Black character’s life—is worth considering.

  11. This article reminded me of ‘Invisible Man.’ Throughout the first half of the novel, the narrator acts in a way he believes will placate the white society around him. He sees himself as lower and subservient, and this eventually results in him being exiled from his college.

  12. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” can certainly be connected to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that also has an enduring political point (and is in this decade much-discussed as having one). I think there’s some worth to Baldwin’s claim about the easy political distinctions it creates, and the way in which creating a clear victim/oppressor dynamic within a novel might take away some level of necessary humanity from the group one is trying to advocate for. I don’t think that’s an inevitable aspect of protest novels, but I think the phenomenon Baldwin describes can and does happen.

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