James / Baldwin (Professor Stephen Best, English 190)

Baldwin & James

Professor's Welcome

Stephen BestWelcome:

Thank you for joining this seminar. My hope is that you’ll be inspired to think more deeply about the American canon–about how race informs our sense of “American” literature, and why some works of literature are classified as “political” while others are not.

–Stephen Best

Course Description

James Baldwin made little secret of the importance of Henry James to his creative life, paying debt in complex, archly poetic sentences that drew snide dismissals from friends and rivals alike (Mailer: “even the best of his paragraphs are sprayed with perfume”). Baldwin and James certainly shared a great deal in life and art, having chosen European exile and then turned that exile into a major theme within their art.  Our contemporary bias for self-disclosure might predispose us to the view that Baldwin felt he found a fellow queer writer in James; however, James’s reticence on such matters means that “queer” (if it should signify anything) names the moment when the relationship gets awkward. This class will thus explore aesthetic and political concerns these writers shared as well as queer “sensibilities” that, always deniable if not always denied, may or may not be there—the many effects, both dramatic and formal, that keep us at a loss for knowledge of our subject, i.e., reticence, renunciation, opacity, bewilderment, and belated recognition.

Monthly Readings



Please order a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, or you can borrow a copy from the Internet Archive.  I would ask that you read the following essays in preparation for our September meeting:

“Autobiographical Notes”

“Everybody’s Protest Novel”

“Notes of a Native Son”

“Stranger in the Village”

Also, read this interview with Baldwin (conducted with his biographer, David Leeming):   interview JBaldwin on Henry James copy

Discussion questions:
  • How would you describe Baldwin’s essay style? Be precise. What are the elements of his style that caught your attention?
  • Does the style affect the content of what he is saying, does it inform your understanding of the political positions he takes?
  • Baldwin celebrates James for his ability to draw characters who embody a “‘general failure’–the failure to touch, to see.” In each of James’s novels, the younger author avers, his predecessor “was describing a certain inability (like a frozen place somewhere), a certain inability to perceive the reality of others.” Why do you think Baldwin would see James’s greatest achievement as involving a “failure”

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