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Rape and Marriage in Go Tell It on the Mountain
Porter Nenon

To consider how James Baldwin resisted racialized notions of sexuality in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, I employ a number of black feminist critics—including Saidiya Hartman, Patricia Williams, Hortense Spillers, and Patricia Hill Collins—to analyze three under-studied minor characters: Deborah, Esther, and Richard. Those three characters are best understood as figures of heterosexual nonconformity who articulate sophisticated and important critiques of rape and marriage in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Baldwin thus wrote subversive theories of race and sexuality into the margins of the novel, making its style inextricable from its politics. Baldwin’s use of marginal voices was a deft and intentional artistic choice that was emancipatory for his characters and that remains enduringly relevant to American sexual politics. In this particularly polarizing transition from the Obama era to the Donald J. Trump presidency, I revisit Baldwin’s ability to subtly translate political ideas across fault lines like race, nationality, and sex.

James Baldwin Review
Jay Garcia

The intellectual connection between James Baldwin and Lionel Trilling, and the resonances across their criticism, are more substantial than scholarly and biographical treatments have disclosed. For Trilling, Baldwin’s writings were notable for their deviation from most humanistic inquiry, which he considered insufficiently alert to the harms and depredations of culture. Baldwin’s work became for Trilling a promising indication that American criticism could be remade along the lines of a tragic conception of culture deriving from Freud. This essay concentrates on a relevant but neglected dynamic in American letters—the mid-twentieth-century tension between Freudian thought and American humanistic inquiry evident in fields like American Studies—to explain the intellectual coordinates within which Trilling developed an affinity for Baldwin’s work. The essay concludes by suggesting that the twilight of Freud’s tragic conception of culture, which figured centrally in the modernist critical environment in which Baldwin and Trilling encountered one another, contributed to an estrangement whereby the two came to be seen as unrelated and different kinds of critics, despite the consonance of their critical idioms during the 1940s and 1950s.

James Baldwin Review
Ordinary Intimacies in Emerson, Du Bois, and Baldwin
Prentiss Clark

This essay reads James Baldwin in conversation with two unexpected interlocutors from the American nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Ralph Waldo Emerson and W. E. B. Du Bois. What draws these historically distant and intellectually different thinkers together, their differences making their convergences all the more resonant and provocative, is a shared mode of attention they bring to the social crises of their eras. It is a mode of attention foregrounding how the often unobserved particulars and emotional registers of human life vitally shape civic existence; more specifically, a mode of attention provoking us to see how “a larger, juster, and fuller future,” in Du Bois’s words, is a matter of the ordinary intimacies and estrangements in which we exist, human connections in all their expressions and suppressions. Emerson names them “facts [. . .] harder to read.” They are “the finer manifestations,” in Du Bois’s terms, “of social life, which history can but mention and which statistics can not count”; “All these things,” Baldwin says, “[. . .] which no chart can tell us.” In effect, from the 1830s to the 1980s these thinkers bear witness to what politics, legislation, and even all our knowledges can address only partially, and to the potentially transformative compensations we might realize in the way we conduct our daily lives. The immediate relevance and urgency this essay finds in their work exists not in proposed political actions, programs for reform, or systematic theories of social justice but in the way their words revitalize the ethical question “How shall I live?” Accumulative and suggestive rather than systematically comparative or polemical, this essay attempts to engage with Emerson, Du Bois, and Baldwin intimately, to proceed in the spirit of their commitment to questioning received disciplines, languages, and ways of inhabiting the world.

James Baldwin Review