How James Baldwin Created ‘That Order Which is Art’
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
“I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
—James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Twenty-one years ago, when I was nineteen, I was given James Baldwin’s first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955), by a senior reporter at The Princeton Packet, where I was interning as an obituary writer. Holding the spine of the paperback with my left hand, I flipped through the pages with the thumb of my right, feeling my face twist in embarrassment. I had never read Baldwin.
“You don’t have to get all the stuff in here right away,” the reporter told me. I kept my head down and scanned the fevered underlinings and manic marginalia, avoiding eye contact with both him and Baldwin’s black-and-white likeness on the cover. “But you will begin to understand,” the reporter went on, letting the word hang in the air a moment. “And you will begin to understand what good writing is.”
Later that night, I started reading Baldwin for the first time in my life. One yellow-highlighted passage toward the end of Baldwin’s “Autobiographical Notes” compelled me to read the entire book over the course of the next several days:
“… One writes out of one thing only — one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
That order which is art.
I was strangely stirred, euphoric, by these five words, their crude muscularity and their poetry.
That order which is art.
That order. Which. Is. Art.
Before You Can Recreate Order, You Must First Understand the Disorder
As I would come to understand after many readings and re-readings and making underlines of my own, James Baldwin did not necessarily embrace or even eschew the role of civil-rights spokesman so much as he found purpose in exploding the history that twisted itself around black America like a python. Baldwin’s examination of racism and social injustice, even as he struggled against it in his own life, was erudite, stately, and philosophical — and yet always intensely personal. On one hand he committed himself to the journalistic task of researching, analyzing, and synthesizing, not just the current events and history pertaining to black America but the entire story of America. On the other, he wrote fearlessly from the vantage point of his own life, mining his personal experiences in search of new meanings and perspectives. He was equal parts reporter and memoirist, and he used the conventions of both disciplines to reorder his own his universe and that of all Americans—forever.
But the real question I keep coming back to is, how? How did he do this? After diagramming Baldwin’s sentences, one other theory emerged: To recreate order out of disorder, the writer must first understand the disorder; the machine must be taken apart and analyzed. To put the machine back together again in a different way—to create that order which is art—the writer must focus on one part at a time.
“The hardest thing in the world is simplicity,” Baldwin explained in an interview with The Paris Review in 1984. “And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.”
Baldwin’s writing, particularly his essays, might seem dense and impenetrable and excessively complex. But when you break down his sentences—component part by component part—you begin to see the simplicity he was striving for and that he more often than not achieved. Baldwin always started with one basic idea—and then added depth and texture to that idea using his unique snytactical style. Take this particular passage in “Many Thousands Gone”:
“… And there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred, who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust in which he himself has been and is being tramped; no Negro, finally, who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment to the ‘nigger’ who surrounds him and to the ‘nigger’ in himself.”
At 115 words, this sentence might feel disorderly—like the outrush of anger and resentment transmuted into prose by a twitching, unrestrained hand. But Baldwin is in absolute control from beginning to end. What might seem like a violent stream of consciousness is, in fact, a skillfully constructed sentence that starts with a simple yet powerful idea:
“There is no Negro living in America who has not felt … hatred" [and who has not respond to that hatred with violence]
This is the main clause—and the main idea—of the sentence. Every other element in the sentence contains adjectival information modifying just two words: “Negro” and “hatred.” Baldwin, in essence, took this one thought—“There is no Negro living in America who has not felt … hatred”—and then created sequences of elements to extend the clarity and gravity and originality of that thought.
Consider his first sequence. Three phrases, then a string of three adjectives modifying only one word: “hatred”:
… And there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt…
[First phrase] … Briefly or for long periods,
[Second phrase] With anguish sharp or dull,
[Third phrase] In varying degrees and to varying effect,
[First adjective] Simple, [second adjective] naked, and [third adjective] unanswerable ... hatred…
The literal definition of rhythm is a movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions. Here Baldwin creates rhythm with tactical precision. His first two phrases are five words each, the third is seven; the first two adjectives each have two syllables, the third has five. He uses parallelism by repeating the word “varying” and mirroring the syllables of his elements: “sharp” and “dull” are each one-syllable words; “degrees” and “effect” are two-syllable words.
I can almost see Baldwin rocking the metal ball of a pendulum from one side to another, (“briefly” > “long periods”; “sharp” > “dull”; “to varying degrees” > “to varying effect”), a cigerette placed between his lips as he works to bring some order to the disorder. There is this, and there is that. Stay with me now. There is this; there is that. Follow the rhythm with me.
But this part of the sentence serves another important role: to establish a calming, measured pace at the beginning of what very quickly becomes a breathless sentence. Note how Baldwin sets off each phrase with a comma so the reader never gets out of breath:
with anguish sharp or dull, [beat]
in varying degrees and to varying effect, [beat]
and unanswerable hatred.
Then, suddenly, the sentence explodes to life with four consecutive, parallel, complex infinitive phrases:
… Who has not wanted
(1) To smash any white face he may encounter in a day,
(2) To violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance, their women,
(3) To break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust in which he himself has been and is being trampled; no Negro, finally, who has not had
(4) To make his own precarious adjustment to the “nigger” who surrounds him and to the “nigger” in himself.
Note the subtle parallelism here: In each of these phrases, there is an implied subject (“Negro living in America”), the infinitive form of a verb (to smash, to violate, to break, to make adjustment to), and a direct object (respectively, “white face,” “women,” “the bodies of all white people,” and “the ‘nigger’ who surrounds him and to the ‘nigger’ in himself”). Each sentence has the same structure, just with different accompanying adjectival and adverbial material.
The sentence concludes not with histronics but with a gentle, plaintive ebbing. In himself. Herelin lies an unheralded Baldwin style trademark: A 100-plus-word sentence mounts through clearly articulated stages to a resounding and clarifying climax and then gracefully subsides. Like the tide.
Building Strong Foundations
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He attended the DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school magazine and began writing short stories. At age 14, he joined the Pentecostal Church and became a Pentecostal preacher like his father. When he was 17 years old, he left the church and moved to Greenwich Village, then a fledgling community of artists, writers, and musicians. It was here, in this cultural epicenter, where Baldwin attended the New School and began writing many of the essays featured Notes of a Native Son. In these early years, he also worked as a book and film critic; his essays and reviews appeared in The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary, and Partisan Review. He published his three most important collections of essays—Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963)—during the years when the Civil Rights movement was exploding across the American South.
Though Baldwin wrote these essays for a secular mainstream audience, he borrowed liberally from the Bible—for tone, sentence structure, and imagery—to help him render more vivid, complete, and memorable panoramas of ideas. Consider this passage in “Many Thousands Gone”:
The making of an American begins at that point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land. This problem has been faced by all Americans throughout our history—in a way it is our history—and it baffles the immigrant and sets on edge the second generation until today. In the case of the Negro the past was taken from him whether he would or no; yet to forswear it was meaningless and availed him nothing, since his shameful history was carried, quite literally, on his brow. Shameful; for he was heathen as well as black and would never have discovered the healing blood of Christ had not we braved the jungles to bring these glad tidings. Shameful; for, since our role as missionary had not been wholly disinterested, it was necessary to recall the shame from which we had delivered him in order more easily to escape our own. As he accepted the alabaster Christ and the bloody cross—in the bearing of which he would find his redemption, as, indeed, to our outraged astonishment, he sometimes did—he must, henceforth, accept that image we then gave him of himself: having no other and standing, moreover, in danger of death should he fail to accept the dazzling light thus brought into such darkness. It is this quite simple dilemma that must be borne in mind if we wish to comprehend his psychology.
Just as in the earlier passage, Baldwin starts with a strong foundation of a simple idea and then carefully adds depth and texture and complexity to that idea, but here he draws on biblical imagery to punctuate his points. And in doing so he manages to convey an important truth: the immigrant experience for black Americans is entirely different than that of other immigrants, and this must be understood if we are ever to make progress. Much like in the previous passage, he takes apart his subject and begins again with a stronger, more basic foundation—and then builds. And builds. And builds.
Take this passage in “Notes of a Native Son,” in which Baldwin describes his father:
He was, I think, very handsome. I gather this from photographs and from own memories of him, dressed in his Sunday best and on his way to preach a sermon somewhere, when I was little. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, 'like a toenail,' somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with war-paint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else in him, buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful. He claimed to be proud of his blackness but it had also been the cause of much humiliation and it had fixed bleak boundaries to his life.
Baldwin is, in some ways, like a master watchmaker fighting against the pull of entropy. Expert watchmakers will often “explode” a watch’s movement, taking it apart piece by piece and then putting it all back together again, cleaned and oiled and adjusted for better timing accuracy. These master watchmakers are craftsmen as much as they are artists. In the actual world, Baldwin’s father is a broken watch; to the non-artist, this man might appear unsolvable, a collection of rusty and nonworking gears and springs, a jumble of cruel tendencies and unexplained habits. But Baldwin sets about the difficult work of taking his father apart piece by piece—separating every shade and aspect and dimension on the page—and then puts him all back together again, in a more honest and revealing and ordered way. And by doing so he has created enduring art.
In passages like these and in so much of his work, Baldwin is acknowledging both his losing battle with entropy and his unwavering commitment to the fight. He knows everything all the time is sliding toward disorder, and yet he also knows he must work hard to create stablity, structure, and simplicity. For himself. For black America. For the future of a nation. He knows there will always be chaos and pain and confusion and disorder in his world, but he understands that the one thing he can do—the thing he must do—is to be there with his pen to make sense of it. He knows this is his most important job: To recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.