Notes of a Native American: Chronicle of a Collaboration

Sol Stein

Laymen speak of a writer’s style. Writers and editors speak of a writer’s voice, a distinguishing way with words that is recognizable and consistent. As an editor I was attracted to Baldwin’s writing both because of his voice and his writerly intelligence, his use of visual particularity to make us see the places and people he was writing about. Once his reader was lured into experiencing the events Baldwin was picturing, he would let candid insights loose that were sometimes startling in their originality. At the behest of the publisher, I wrote a Prefatory Note for Notes of a Native Son, in which I said, “In the jargon of writers, pieces is the word used to describe articles, essays, and the uncategorizable writings that constitute the writer’s baggage while he is traveling between major works. Yet of Lord Acton, for instance, such pieces are all we have; fortunately, they inform each other as well as us and constitute a whole. That is also the virtue of James Baldwin’s pieces, a frightening virtue in one so young.” (I was two years younger than Baldwin.) When I saw the Prefatory Note in galley proof, I ordered it stricken on the grounds that Baldwin’s work didn’t need my introduction.

Toward the end of his life, Baldwin said Notes of a Native Son was of crucial importance in his struggle to define himself in relation to his society. “I was trying to decipher my own situation, to spring my trap, and it seemed to me the only way I could address it was not take the tone of the victim. As long as I saw myself as a victim, complaining about my wretched state as a black man in a white man’s country, it was hopeless. Everybody knows who the victim is as long as he’s howling. So I shifted the point of view to ‘we.’ Who is the ‘we’? I’m talking about we, the American people.”

In the world of publishing and bookselling, it was believed that books of essays did not sell. Part of the problem was that putting a binding around random essays made for a random reading experience. A book demanded cohesiveness. The reader had to feel he was on a discernible path from the first page to the last, which meant a lot of attention had to be paid to the order of the essays. In addition, the first and last essays had to be chosen carefully, for the mission of the first was to get the reader to read on, and the mission of the last was to leave the reader with a strong impression of the book.

If memory serves me, the autobiographical and justly famous first chapter of Notes had its origin in Knopf’s publicity department’s asking Baldwin to fill in a lengthy questionnaire in connection with the publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin was less than comfortable with the idea of any questionnaire, much less one about his life. He turned the questionnaire over and on its blank sides wrote, “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read.” That became the first essay in Notes of a Native Son.

For the last chapter we settled on “Stranger in the Village,” which has lost none of its power in the half-century since its publication. The village was in Switzerland, high up, detached from the world, “mountains towering on all four sides, ice and snow as far as the eye can reach. A white wilderness.” The inhabitants had never seen a typewriter or a Negro. Everyone knew Baldwin came from America but didn’t believe it because they’d long ago learned that black men came from Africa. Baldwin was seen as a living wonder and not a human being. The children who shouted Neger—German for black—at him had no way of knowing how that word echoed. On a second visit, while some of the children made overtures of friendship, those who had been taught that the devil is a black man screamed in fear as Baldwin approached. In that essay Baldwin purposefully creates unease in the reader, just as the experience he is relating created unease in him. In doing that, Baldwin differentiated himself from writers who produce essays to get something off their chests. Baldwin, especially in his early work, concentrated on evoking emotion in the reader, the novelist’s aim and the essayist’s forte. Baldwin’s imagination devises a mirror. When the Swiss villagers are astonished at his color, Baldwin thinks of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, and tries to imagine the astounded populace touching the white men’s hair as the children in the Swiss village touched his. He imagines the Africans marveling at the color of the white man’s skin as the Swiss villagers gape at his. It is Baldwin’s ability to imagine such mirror images, his insight as a writer into the visions that people have of others and otherness, that enables readers who are not black to experience momentarily what a black man feels, and that invites the black reader to grasp the origins of the white man’s desperate clinging to a prejudice that drains both white and black of some of their humanity.

Baldwin was early on a master of resonance. The Swiss village becomes the West to which Baldwin feels so strangely grafted. He says the most illiterate among the villagers is related in a way that he is not to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine. The resonance of that sentence charms the reader to gloss over its falsity. Baldwin in his first book was already part of what we now so reluctantly call Western culture. And many of the Swiss villagers would have had a hard time even identifying Dante or Aeschylus. Baldwin’s theme then was the relatedness of the ingredients in the American bouillabaisse, how interdependent we are. My role as an editor was to help realize his intentions, and in the case of Notes, to make certain that Baldwin’s occasional essays for magazines were not abandoned to wastebaskets but preserved as a book, as they have been now for half a century.

Young and intolerant, I spoke against any essays that fell below a high standard. Baldwin wanted to include some pieces he had written for the New Leader that did not meet that standard. I was fighting on two fronts at the time because I was also editing Leslie Fiedler’s first book of essays, An End to Innocence, and applied the same standards to Fiedler’s very different voice. Friendly arguments with Baldwin ensued mainly when he was traveling somewhere in the world, and I was trying to calm the publisher’s demand for his money back because Baldwin was so late delivering expected material. Lateness was a conspicuous feature in Baldwin’s life, and one had to get used to it. Finally, the book was ready and I arranged to get reviews from Time and Newsweek. The Associated Press chose Notes as its “Book of the Week,” and I was eager to get this news to Baldwin. I ended one letter—probably sent to him c/o American Express somewhere—“I tried to pray for you, but God said he didn’t know where to find you.” I added a P.S. saying my wife sends her love “because women are always forgiving.”

Notes of a Native Son was published in 1955, seven years before I was to have my own imprint in Stein and Day. Publication of Notes came about as a result of the publishing evolution that brought trade paperbacks into prominence. The publisher of Notes was the Beacon Press in Boston, with which I had a strange contract. It designated me pretentiously as the “Originator and General Editor of Beacon Paperbacks.” The director of the press at the time was one of the remarkable publishers of the century, Melvin Arnold, who later became the president of Harper & Row. The license I received from Melvin Arnold to put writing I admired into a new format, the book-size paperback, turned out to be an advantage to a new essayist like Baldwin. With Notes of a Native Son the young James Baldwin stepped into distinguished company on a small list that included Andre Malraux, Eric Bentley, Leslie Fiedler, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Simone Weil, and Bertram D. Wolfe, which likely reinforced Baldwin’s debut as an essayist.

It is commonly agreed that Baldwin’s essays were more successful in their achievement than his fiction, and his first book of essays is certainly the most honored of his accomplishments. His fiction never again attained the level of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. In both his fiction and nonfiction, as time went on Baldwin allowed the preacher in him to overtake the writer. His most popular work at the time of its publication, The Fire Next Time, allowed the intrusion of hyperbole: “...blacks simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.” I heard this as the language of soapbox speech, and thought, “Give me back Baldwin the writer.”

None of this diminishes Baldwin’s accomplishment. Neither Hemingway nor Fitzgerald got better with every book. Notes of a Native Son has not dated the way so many books of its period have. Its insights are relevant today, when separatism sometimes threatens the image of America as harbor and sanctuary. Baldwin the ex-preacher taught best when he preached least.

Sol Stein was publisher and editor in chief of Stein and Day for 27 years. Two of the books he edited and published were chosen for inclusion in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the century. He is the author of nine novels, Stein on Writing, and, forthcoming from Random House next month, the book Native Sons.

“Notes of a Native American,” © 2004 by Sol Stein. Posted here with the author’s permission.