Ed Pavlic, a poet, Baldwin scholar, and Professor of Creative Writing at The University of Georgia, recently gained access to the personal correspondence of James Baldwin. Most of this correspondence, which is held in trust by Baldwin's sister in Virginia, had not been read or published by anyone other than its sender and recipient prior to Pavlic's reading. Nonfiction Editor, Tareva Johnson, spoke with Pavlic about the encounter and the work and words of Baldwin in a conversation for Mandala Journal that took place in Athens, Georgia in March 2011.
Tareva Johnson: To start with Baldwin and reconciliation, I was really taken by the essay, "The Artist's Struggle for Identity." In it, Baldwin expresses his dislike of the uses of words like "artist" and "integrity" because they always seem to elude him, to elude all of us, not because of any personal lacking, but because they have a mythic abstractness that doesn't serve him as an artist who seeks concrete changes in his lived experience. Mandala Journal's theme this year, "reconciliation," arguably shares the "mythic abstractness" issue.
Ed Pavlic: That's right.
TJ: In some of its prevalent social and political uses, "reconciliation" is a piece of imprecise language. How might you approximate the language of Baldwin or your understanding of his work to construct some definition for the word "reconciliation"?
EP: Reconciliation. A few things come to mind. First of all, Theodor Adorno, a philosopher - I remember reading in his work a term called "reconcilement," which he seemed to use as a philosophical and somewhat skeptical alternative to resolution. So for Adorno, in as much as I remember it correctly, reconcilement was always incomplete resolution, a non-resolving accumulation of tension and harmony, a sophisticated way of understanding a relationship in other words. And an understanding of relationships that doesn't have to synthesize away or airbrush away tension and conflict so that things like reconciliation and whatever its opposite would be, quagmire or something, don't have to be mutually exclusive containers. I think this is something Baldwin would probably insist on because, clearly from the reading of his work over time, you get a pretty consistent impression that he just doesn't believe certain kinds of peace and harmony are really wired into humans in any reliable way. And so, in his insistence on people struggling toward, groping toward, working toward, together, some sense of what the actual situation is between people, at whatever level: political, spiritual, intimate, erotic. I think he'd say reconciliation is never complete and the effort towards reconciliation is constantly producing things that prevent it from achieving whatever kind of closure we might fantasize about. Does that make a certain kind of sense?
TJ: It does.
EP: And for Baldwin, more and more as his work progressed or developed, he insisted on this project of redefining terms. He was constantly taking terms and shifting the assumptions we might be expecting those terms to balance upon in ways to reclaim the term for use in whatever way he had in mind. Certainly, we can be very comfortable with the idea that James Baldwin would not swallow whole whatever definition of reconciliation was offered him. He would say, "No, no, no, we have to jolt it in this way and jolt it in that way." And I think, one way we could have some confidence that he would jolt it would be in this idea of reconciliation as always ongoing, always undoing itself in the process of being itself.
TJ: Bearing Baldwin in mind, what do you think is the ideal role of art and the artist in reconciliation?
EP: Art is simply the most indispensable record of what it's all about: what is there to reconcile in fact, and what is there to reconcile with what else? And that question is absolutely best answered through the arts, answered in maybe the most profound way, obviously it's not the only way these things are answered, but I think it's an indispensable record of the things that we're in fact thinking about reconciling.
TJ: Could you share a little about your current project with Baldwin's letters? Its origins, its intended end, or something in the middle?
EP: Everyone's curious. In my case, having read everything of Baldwin's, everything he wrote, and some of it several times, and some of it a little bit obsessively, one just becomes curious on other levels. Then you read the biographies and you're still curious on other levels. So what else is there? What other record did the man leave and what other vantage point on his work, life, and mission can one come upon? So I had that. At the same time, I had been increasingly interested in correspondence as a genre of writing. I taught a graduate class a couple years ago now, I called it "Writing Behind the Writing." We looked at all kinds of different writing writers do other than in their actual writing that's published - so, poet's writing letters, and keeping journals or daybooks, or diaries. The most interesting aspect of that class was easily, for me, the correspondence between writers. Also, during the time of that class, I became more conscious than ever and more interested than ever in the correspondence I was myself doing with my friends, some of whom are writers and some of whom aren't, and some of whom would write back epigrammatically and some of whom would write back in an engaged way. And there are a couple of writers out there, with whom I've been friends now for years, and we have really substantive and very meaningful correspondence. So I had all of this on my mind. Baldwin is always on my mind, and everything else, and then this idea of letters and correspondence. So the two kind of collided and I got an idea: what about Baldwin as a letter writer?
There was one book of his letters published by a friend of his, Sol Stein, of very early letters from the early fifties. So, I read it. I thought Baldwin's letters were absolutely brilliant, and moving, and shocking, and also confirming of things that I imagined that they'd be. So that even further ignited my interest in what was out there. At the same time I'd had this sparse but well felt correspondence with James Baldwin's sister, Gloria, who is also his executor, and she's in control of his estate, literary-wise and so forth. Speaking of correspondence, we were writing back and forth, she and I, and - well, at the same time I'm thinking, in Baldwin's work brothers are so very important, all through the work, from the beginning to the end. So I had all this on my mind, and I'm thinking, if Baldwin was writing letters, and of course he was, what would be the crux of it, what would be the most interesting dimension of that mode of his writing? - so, I wrote Gloria and I said, "I'm up here and I'm wondering about this and that, and I wonder, did James and David write each other? And if they did, did someone save those letters? And if they did, you think I could read them? Do they exist, and could I read them?"
She wrote me back and long story short, we went back and forth about it and finally she said, "Yeah, it's fine if you would read these letters."
I remember very clearly when she lent them to me. The agreement was I would read them, she hadn't read them, and I would see what they said, I would see what kind of story was told in these letters.
TJ: Wow. Why didn't she read them? Did she say?
EP: She said, "I don't have the soul stamina for it right now," that's a quote. And, you know, she's in charge of a whole lot of stuff. She's got six kids for one thing. I mean, they are grown children, but children are never grown. So, six kids out in the world she's dealing with, she's in her mid-seventies, and now she's in charge of this massive literary estate, which is not only massive but also very, very polemical and controversial, and kind of embattled, frankly. So, you know, it's a lot. And then, I think she knew, and I think in some ways she's scared, of how powerful and probably personal this correspondence between those guys was. So, I think she was just like, "Can't do it." And I remember when she handed me the box, she was like: "I don't know. I haven't read it. Don't know what's in it. You can handle it." (laughs) So, I kind of wondered if she was right, I really didn't know if I could handle it or not. So that's the way it started, that's the origins of the project.
I just started reading. Well, they weren't exactly in order so the first thing I did was try to get them in order as much as I could before reading them, and then while reading them, certain adjustments had to made because it was clear from the texts in the letters what was what. Then, quickly, within the first couple days, I realized I was right, that this is important stuff, and stuff unlike I had ever read, anywhere really, but knowing his life, knowing his work like I do, I certainly recognize things these letters were touching upon, but I'd never seen them at eye level, in the first person, in real time, like these letters were portraying. It was a very, very powerful experience for me to read them. I finally decided I would type them all and then...
TJ: So, you had the original copies of the letters?
EP: Notes, telegrams, and some of them are typed, some of them are handwritten, some of them are originals and some of them are copies of originals. It's the only set of them as such that she knew of. So, you know, history is a messy thing and as far as I know, as far as she knows, no one knows where any of these other letters are, this was it. So it was a mix of things. A lot of them were handwritten and they were on all kinds of different paper, in all kinds of different shape and size: blurred or colored, or ripped, folded, torn, everything. And the whole thing was a pretty beastly and chaotic mess in a way, and if one already had some trepidation about dealing with the content, that certainly was no kind of form in which to deliver it to somebody. So I thought to myself, I'll make a very neat and tidy transcription of these, and each one will start on the very same place on the page with a number, and a title, and a date, time, place as far as we could know it. And then, I'll just type them in Garamond font, and I'll underline what he underlined and I'll put space between parentheticals like he did on the typewriter, and I'll just conserve, as he put it, the way he wrote this stuff. Obviously not replicating typos and so forth, of which there were very few strangely enough, but nonetheless, just trying to - with fidelity - reproduce, but absolutely as organized and neat and uniform as I could do and make a transcript, bind it, and send it back to her.
TJ: So that relates to having a usable past, the way you completed the formatting?
EP: Well yeah, a way that she could engage, yes, absolutely. And because it was our agreement that I kind of figure out what's the story here, I wrote a little introduction saying this is what I see being said here, kind of beyond the page but also beneath the page, you know, 'what's this about?' So, I sent it back to her, and she read it. We talked about it, over several occasions.
TJ: You've alluded to this, but can you think of a few specific examples of information shared in the letters that is not apparent to readers of his published works?
EP: Yes, many, many, many things, but the central thing that one learns is the unbelievable level of cooperation within the family. We think of Baldwin as flying all over the world by himself or with some partner, some person, but usually not his family. And that's the truth. But the other truth, and the letters demonstrate this truth with great rigor and in great relief, is that he was in constant contact with his family, and they were helping him in all kinds of ways, at every level, from spiritual accompaniment and strength, to absolutely the most literal, logistical buying of plane tickets, scheduling appearances, lending him money when he needed money, and dealing with all kind of stuff like that, making records of correspondence, making records of contracts, and making records of all this stuff. Pretty quickly into the late 1950s he had a home office with his brother, or sister or mother, or more than one of those people, and they really, really rode with him, as it were, through all this, and he depended on them a great deal on all these different kinds of levels.
Finally, as one knows about James Baldwin, the person in history, he was absolutely in confrontation with all kinds of things from nations, to individuals, to publishers, to conceptual paradigms, to history, to the church. Humans can never totally achieve this state of bliss and reconciliation and certainly that didn't obtain to the family either. There was tension and strife of course, but nothing that compares to his confrontations with the rest of the world. There was a state of peace and trust and mutual assent, a kind of mutually, always-already-agreed-upon foundation with his family that just didn't exist anywhere else in the world for him, just important in the most fundamental of ways. I've never seen anything like it, [except] from some of his books and certainly from Just Above My Head. That's sort of the theme of Just Above My Head. And also starting with If Beale Street Could Talk and this family thing. And the great strength of family. It's almost absent from the early work and that comes through very, very profoundly in the letters.
I really think Baldwin wrote his final novel, Just Above My Head, which I consider his greatest novel, almost as settling a certain debt he had with his family, that, 'what we were to each other throughout this experience of this interval of American history in our lives be explored and be finally documented, that there be a record of what we did.' And it strikes me, having read these letters, that till then, there were a lot of scattered sentences but no record of that, that he produced, and that book really does that.
TJ: Are your personal glimpses of Baldwin in the correspondence easily reconciled with his authorial voice in published texts?
EP: I think they are easily reconciled if we just leave space for tension and torsion in a reconciled state. It's the same guy. Let's face it, all of his work, all the genres, are very autobiographical. They're all autobiographical in various oblique and accumulating ways. They're also all fictional. But autobiography is a fiction. All self-consciousness is at some level, a fiction. His were in that mix. So the letters are absolutely an autobiography. It's just one brother telling the other, 'this is my life,' week by week. So it all does fit into a whole of a certain kind.
TJ: Does the epistolary form add anything to Baldwin's message?
EP: I think the epistolary does add something, but I think more importantly than that, in these letters I have read, is simply the fact that he is writing to this brother of his who he trusts like nobody else on Earth, really, and he says this in the letters repeatedly, and who he loves like nobody else on Earth, and who knows him like nobody else on Earth. So, there are all kind of defenses that don't have to be up, there are all kinds of assumptions that can be assumed, and there are all kinds of things that can be said and not explained. It is a different voice. Same guy, like I said, certainly the same man, same writer, same brilliance, but a different voice and a great voice.
TJ: As a student in your current Baldwin seminar, I am interested in an aspect of the class's course listing - "making words do something." Reconciliation points to the work done before reaching it. It marks an assumption of the absence of prevalent disharmony; yet it is also just a word and in several ways passive. Can you speak a little about how you envision words as active in Baldwin's body of work and how the way Baldwin lends agency to language might relate to an understanding of reconciliation, one that points to action?
EP: "Making words do something," comes directly out of those letters and the "do" is underlined in the original, that wasn't me. I'm not sure Baldwin really believed in words. I don't think he wanted to stop there. I know several times, he says we're interested in language only insofar as it can reveal the reality behind it, which is life. If Baldwin's saying the effort of writers is to make words do something, not just cover pages with ink, he's saying writing should get involved in life at various levels. I think [this effort] should be involved in the life of the writer. That's the autobiographical impulse in it. It should also be involved in the life of the reader, and therefore I think he thought of words themselves as a vehicle, almost like a spell cast in a certain way to produce that action in life and to provoke the action in life. I know that structurally in his work, from the novels to the essays, he's designed things exactly to produce certain effects. He's very much on top of this thing, engaged in the writing but also standing back and putting pieces together so readers will end up in collisions with certain things. So, I know that much.
As far as the rest of the question, I guess the wisdom, the prompt, or the cue coming from Baldwin's work, the effort is to get as much of the self involved in any effort at reconciliation as one can, to not leave anything out. You might as well not even attempt it unless you're not willing to come correct about it. This was his problem with all kinds of people: the black Muslims, the academics, even the feminists and famously, especially in the sixties and seventies, the liberals.
His thing about liberals, who are all about reconciliation, I mean, reconciliation is a tremendously liberal concept in a certain way, his charge to them was, "Look, until you're willing to really be a person and to really come correct about or confess in some way what this really means to you, there's no point. And we can't come together at the March on Washington in 1963." Baldwin thought that that was a fine media event and a benign thing in history, certainly it was doing nobody any harm, but he didn't trust it until night fell. He knew that there just wasn't anything on the table there. Those good people came there out of a certain duty that had, debatably, very little to do with their lives back home and they were always in that conundrum. Can you come up with enough of yourself to put in play to make this thing worthwhile?
And that's true in every arena of life, from marriage to school, to anything. But, when you put a thing like race or gender into that universal conundrum it ups the ante and makes everything harder. This stuff frustrates the conceptual apparatus of reconciliation, but that doesn't make my translation of what he might say about this kind of thing anything but more important because as it gets harder, the ante is upped in such a way, the burden of presence is still the same. You have to risk more, and there's a hell of a lot more to outwit before you get anything useful up on the table for discussion.
TJ: The demand for confession or personal investment and risk relates to a previous question of what art offers reconciliation or those attempting reconciliation. Baldwin's writing as confessional and infused with testimony sets an example.
EP: Totally, it sets an example and it's almost a sort of trap. Once you get in there, if your eyes are open and you're alive at all, you can't help but feel put on the spot in ways that will make you come with things to think about and finally things to say that you wouldn't have done without the book. In order for things to come into existence in the world there has to be a formation for it to come from the unnamed ether [and] into action or into reality in a way that we can correspond with it in life. Baldwin's work is exactly that kind of formation. It takes a bunch of stuff you barely know you're conscious of, and through reading it, brings all that stuff up somehow and then has a certain structure that if you're willing to go with him on it, I think you can make some headway. After doing some work with his work, in other words, you might do somebody some good towards reconciliation. Because otherwise you can always agree to disagree. [But,] I always hated that. We don't go away to neutral corners. We go back to American history, which is a loaded deck obviously.
TJ: The chronology of your current seminar is an interesting aspect of its set up. It shows us how different thoughts and ideas are reconciled within the mind of Baldwin as he tests, then discredits or affirms their value to his identity. What role does time play in reconciling different ideals, especially for Baldwin?
EP: Well, it helps to have some sense of time and how ideas have played through time. In some ways it's impossible to come up with any meaningful present discussion without some sort of usable past of that discussion, the meaning of the ideas in play. You have to have that. Obviously, as a culture we don't want that. As an American culture, we want nothing, less (laughs), than that kind of thing. No one wants to be in that spot. At the same time, communities within American culture have gone after, vigorously, a sense of such a usable past. In some ways, the whole thing called the Civil Rights Movement was basically black culture's, with some help and some assistance and also a lot of frustration coming from outside of it and a lot of fucking frustration coming from within it (laughs), but nonetheless, it was the effort on behalf of a culture to produce another form of usable access to its past. And that was an absolute victory. That recovery on behalf of black culture didn't become American history, but it engaged with American history writ large, and through that engagement, every American now has a different access, at least if they want it, to that past than any American had in 1955. It's crucial. That kind of reckoning with how things moved through time is fantastically important, and very difficult but also very fascinating.
TJ: Do you have any final comments to add to our conversation, today?
EP: In this whole arena of reconciliation, I think a lot of the important discoveries that come out of such an endeavor have a lot to do with ambiguities, things you're not quite sure are reconciled or not in the end, and also contradiction. Reconciliation and an operative reality writ large have to have a tolerance for contradiction. We're talking about human life. This is not a problem of linguistics, and it's not a problem of a systematic logic. It's not legal reasoning even. It's a deeper, and bigger, and messier arena of endeavor than that; so any worthwhile state of reconciliation, I think, has to have a certain tolerance for ambiguity, a certain toughness, and a sophistication level that can handle the fact of contradiction in human life.
TJ: Baldwin's writing demands we think of reconciliation as uneasy and active because his words, being ambiguous and contradictory, make us act in our reading experiences to reconcile them and often gives the call to action to do the same in our lived lives.
EP: Yes, [his writing] becomes active in your mind and in your life.
TJ: Well, thank you.
EP: Yeah, alright. It's a wrap.
Tareva Johnson is a first year masters student in the English department at UGA. Her interests include early American and African American literature. In these areas of study she explores trans-Atlantic movement, early strains of black nationalism, criminal narratives, powerful personal essays and whatever else moves her to address it on the page. This is Tareva's first semester on the Mandala Journal staff.