July 31, 2014
Baldwin’s voice: on editing a collection of interviews with James Baldwin
by Sal Robinson
These late days of July I’ve spent partly in putting together a collection of interviews with James Baldwin, which will be the next installment of Melville House’s Last Interviews series. This is an undertaking that has involved a couple of visits to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture uptown, to read interviews and essays in their collection and watch footage of Baldwin from old talk shows, panels, lectures, the occasional cocktail party.
One of the great pleasures for me in working on the books in this series is that it’s a chance to learn and think about the course of a writer’s whole life — how they started out, what happened along the way, and where they ended up. It’s like a very junior version of being a biographer, of spending time with an individual through all the many forms in which their voice and presence have been preserved.
In Baldwin’s case, there’s a lot: in a 2011 review in the Nation of a volume of Baldwin’s previously uncollected work, The Cross of Redemption, Elias Altman notes that 1963 — the heart of Baldwin’s involvement with the civil rights movement — marked the first year that more interviews with Baldwin were published than essays by him. And that’s just 1963. There’s footage all over YouTube, stacks of DVDs at the Schomburg Center, and I haven’t even been to the Baldwin collection at the Beinecke Library. But you have to start somewhere, so I’ve been watching and reading and taking as much as I can of it in.
And it turns out I’m not the only one listening to Baldwin’s voice these past weeks: David L. Ulin, longtime book critic for the Los Angeles Times, has been doing the same thing, by way of the Calliope Author Readings, a series of CDs of recordings of mid-20th century authors, among them William Styron, John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Baldwin. (Originally, they were LPs that looked like this.)
Baldwin was recorded reading from his novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room in 1962 by novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz and her husband Harry. In Ulin’s telling, Malamud et al are great and so on, but:
[T]hen, there’s Baldwin, who burns down the house.
“But suppose something, somewhere, failed,” he cries out, describing the New York subway, “and the yellow lights went out and no one could see, any longer, the platform’s edge? Suppose these beams fell down? He saw the train in the tunnel, rushing under water, the motor-man gone mad, gone blind, unable to decipher the lights, and the tracks gleaming and snarling senselessly upward forever, the train never stopping and the people screaming at windows and doors and turning on each other with all the accumulated fury of their blasphemed lives, everything gone out of them but murder, breaking limb from limb and splashing in blood, with joy — for the first time, joy, joy, after such a long sentence in chains, leaping out to astound the world, to astound the world again.”
That’s the kind of headlong moment meant for a public reading — which is, of course, only enhanced by the textured pacing, the preacher’s resonance, of Baldwin’s magnificent voice.
Baldwin had his own experiences with voices and listening to them closely: one of the interviews I’ve come across in my research is Studs Terkel’s 1961 interview with Baldwin for the WFMT show “Studs Terkel Almanac,” which begins with Baldwin and Terkel listening to somebody else’s voice, a recording of Bessie Smith singing “Back Water Blues.” It was Smith’s records, which he brought with him to France the first time he moved abroad, to work on Go Tell It On the Mountain, that helped Baldwin start to confront the shame he’d felt about being black, how he’d distanced himself from his childhood and the elements of it that coincided with stereotypes of blackness (growing up in Harlem, his early life in the church). It was Smith’s voice that gave him an anchor in his reckoning with identity, and his first work as a novelist.
Excerpts of a recording of the interview are available here in a bootleg version, though it will soon be up officially on the Stud Terkel Radio Archive. Baldwin’s voice is precise, insistent, sure of itself. It echoes on.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.