By Joyce Carol Oates
Review of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk originally published in The New York Times Book Review, May 19, 1974, pp. 1-2
Though our turbulent era has certainly dismayed and overwhelmed many writers, forcing upon some the role of propagandist or, paradoxically, the role of the indifferent esthete, it is really the best possible time for most writers—the sheer variety of stances, the multiplicity of “styles” available to the serious writer, is amazing. Those who are bewildered by so many ostensibly warring points of view and who wish, naively, for a single code by which literature can be judged, must be reminded of the fact that whenever any reigning theory of esthetics subdues the others (as in the Augustan period), literature simply becomes less and less interesting to write.
James Baldwin’s career has not been an even one, and his life as a writer cannot have been, so far, very placid. He has been both praised and, in recent years, denounced for the wrong reasons. The black writer, if he is not being patronized simply for being black, is in danger of being attacked for not being black enough. Or he is forced to represent a mass of people, his unique vision assumed to be symbolic of a collective vision. In some circles he cannot lose—his work will be praised without being read, which must be the worst possible fate for a serious writer. And, of course, there are circles, perhaps those nearest home, in which he cannot ever win—for there will be people who resent the mere fact of his speaking for them, whether he intends to speak for them or not.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is Baldwin’s 13th book and it might have been written, if not revised for publication, in the 1950’s. Its suffering, bewildered people, trapped in what is referred to as the “garbage dump” of New York City—blacks constantly at the mercy of whites—have not even the psychological benefit of the Black Power and other radical movements to sustain them. Though their story should seem dated, it does not. And the peculiar fact of their being so politically helpless seems to have strengthened, in Baldwin’s imagination at least, the deep, powerful bonds of emotion between them. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a quite moving and very traditional celebration of love. It affirms not only love between a man and a woman, but love of a type that is dealt with only rarely in contemporary fiction—that between members of a family, which may involve extremes of sacrifice.
A sparse, slender narrative, told first-person by a 19-year-old named Tish, “If Beale Street Could Talk” manages to be many things at the same time. It is economically, almost poetically constructed, and may certainly be read as a kind of allegory, which refuses conventional outbursts of violence, preferring to stress the provisional, tentative nature of our lives. A 22-year-old black man, a sculptor, is arrested and booked for a crime—rape of a Puerto Rican woman—which he did not commit. The only black man in a police line-up, he is “identified” by the distraught, confused woman, whose testimony is partly shaped by a white policeman. Fonny, the sculptor, is innocent, yet it is up to the accused and his family to prove “and to pay for proving” this simple fact.
His fiancee, Tish, is pregnant; the fact of her pregnancy is, at times, all that keeps them from utter despair. The baby—the prospect of a new life—is connected with blacks’ “determination to be free.” At the novel’s end, Fonny is out on bail, his trial postponed indefinitely, neither free nor imprisoned but at least returned to the world of the living. As a parable stressing the irresolute nature of our destinies, white as well as black, the novel is quietly powerful, never straining or exaggerating for effect.
Baldwin certainly risked a great deal by putting his complex narrative, which involves a number of important characters, into the mouth of a young girl. Yet Tish’s voice comes to seem absolutely natural and we learn to know her from the inside out. Even her flights of poetic fancy—involving rather subtle speculations upon the nature of male-female relationships, or black-white relationships, as well as her articulation of what it feels like to be pregnant—are convincing. Also convincing is Baldwin’s insistence upon the primacy of emotions like love, hate, or terror: it is not sentimentality, but basic psychology, to acknowledge the fact that one person will die, and another survive simply because one has not the guarantee of a fundamental human bond, like love, while the other has. Fonny is saved from the psychic destruction experienced by other imprisoned blacks, because of Tish, his unborn baby and the desperate, heroic struggle of his family and Tish’s to get him free. Even so, his father cannot endure the strain. Caught stealing on his job, he commits suicide almost at the very time his son is released on bail.
The novel progresses swiftly and suspensefully, but its dynamic movement is interior. Baldwin constantly understates the horror of his characters’ situation in order to present them as human beings whom disaster has struck, rather than as blacks who have, typically, been victimized by whites and are therefore likely subjects for a novel. The work contains many sympathetic portraits of white people, especially Fonny’s harassed white lawyer, whose position is hardly better than the blacks he defends. And, in a masterly stroke, Tish’s mother travels to Puerto Rico in an attempt to reason with the woman who has accused her prospective son-in-law of rape, only to realize, there, a poverty and helplessness more extreme that that endured by the blacks of New York City. While Tish is able to give birth to her baby, despite the misery of her situation, the assaulted woman suffers a miscarriage and is taken away, evidently insane. Nearly everyone has been manipulated. The white policeman, Bell, seems a little crazy, driven by his own racism rather than reason. He is a villain, of course (he has even shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy, some time earlier), but his villainy is made possible only by a system of oppression closely tied up with the mind-boggling stupidities of the law.
For Baldwin, the injustice of Fonny’s situation is self-evident, and by no means unique: “Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die,” Tish’s mother declares near the conclusion of the novel. Fonny’s friend, Daniel, has also been falsely arrested and falsely convicted of a crime, years before, and his spirit broken by the humiliation of jail and the fact—which Baldwin stresses, and which cannot be stressed too emphatically—that the most devastating weapon of the oppressor is that of psychological terror. Physical punishment, even death, may at times be preferable to an existence in which men are denied their manhood and any genuine prospects of controlling their own lives. Fonny’s love for Tish can be undermined by the fact that, as a black man, he cannot always protect her from the random insults of whites.
Yet the novel is ultimately optimistic. It stresses the communal bond between members of an oppressed minority, especially between members of a family, which would probably not be experienced in happier times. As society disintegrates in a collective sense, smaller human unity will become more and more important. Those who are without them, like Fonny’s friend Daniel, will probably not survive. Certainly they will not reproduce themselves. Fonny’s real crime is “having his center inside him,” but this is, ultimately, the means by which he survives. Others are less fortunate.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a moving, painful story. It is so vividly human and so obviously based upon reality, that it strikes us as timeless—an art that has not the slightest need of esthetic tricks, and even less need of fashionable apocalyptic excesses.