Monthly Archives: September 2012

Impressions of “Notes of a Native Son”

In the first couple of essays in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, it seems as though Baldwin valued his own ideas and opinions over the narrative, where a balance of the two would have been more enjoyable for the reader. The reader’s opinion however, seems to be only an afterthought for Baldwin, a disregard that both strengthens the book by allowing Baldwin to write freely, unencumbered by outside opinions, and weakens the book because at times it neglects the essays narrative. In some parts of the book, Baldwin seems to insert as many of his ideas as possible. As a result, it was harder to grasp Baldwin’s overall intent for some of the first essays. In the later essays however, Baldwin better weaves his ideas into the narrative and because the story line reflects these ideas, they have more impact. Langston Hughes, in a review of Notes of a Native Son, found Baldwin’s writing “thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing, and amusing,” and overall the collection of Baldwin’s essays lives up to this assessment. Baldwin presents unusual observations on society, what it means to be of a certain race, and what it means to be an American. His ideas stand out because they are told from the point of view of a man on the periphery examining a culture that should be his own.

As an author in the late 1950’s, Baldwin is unique in that he “depended on neither the white world nor the black world,” but instead made observations without regard to either (Baldwin, Reflections of a Maverick). In isolating himself from both worlds, he learns more about himself as he also comes closer to his goal of making “the concept of color obsolete (Baldwin, Reflections of a Maverick).” Notes of a Native Son stands out from other literature and documentaries about the same era because Baldwin does not seek the reader’s pity for black people or for himself, nor does he gloss over his less than amiable emotions.  He not only gives the reader insight into the pain of being black during this time, but also illustrates the complexity and depth of emotion within himself. Baldwin admits that a waitress’s refusal to serve him, although stated “with a note of apology in her voice” made him grow “colder and more murderous than ever (Baldwin, 96).”  In relating this story, Baldwin eschews the sentimentality, “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, [which] is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel (Baldwin, 14).” He readily criticizes this sentimentality in “protest novels,” which often reduce the subjects to caricatures comparable to the static characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Baldwin, 13). Baldwin avoids manipulating the reader into pity, sympathy, or guilt, as the author of a protest novel might attempt to do, and instead seeks recognition as a human in his range of emotions and experiences.

Langston Hughes, in his review of Notes of a Native Son suggests “that Baldwin’s viewpoints are half American, half Afro-American, incompletely fused…a hurdle which Baldwin himself realizes he still has to surmount.” Hughes proposes that when Baldwin overcomes the challenge of fusing the two, that Baldwin will become “a straight-from-the-shoulder writer, writing about the troubled problems of this troubled earth with an illuminating intensity that should influence for the better all who ponder on the things books say.” Although Baldwin fails to unite the two worlds, his detachment from both provides insight into what it means to be an American. Baldwin believes assimilation is the true goal of Americans—that the “American ideal…is that everyone should be as much alike as possible (Baldwin, 65).” Norman Mailer partially echoes this view, claiming that society is divided among the conformists and the non-conformists—the hipsters. Mailer however, romanticizes the role of the Negro in society, claiming that they avoid the pressures of a conformist society with the ever pressing threat of death or the oppression of expression. Baldwin disagrees with Mailer, point out that “a Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and … produces it with disarming artlessness” as a result of the dangers of society (Baldwin, 68). Mailer depicts the hipster, who he identifies with, as a product of society as well—“a new breed of adventurer who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts” (Mailer, The White Negro), but makes light of the struggles that Baldwin and other black people at the time faced.

Having never really thought in depth about what it meant to be an American, I always assumed that being an American was about having the right to be an individual, to criticize, to protest, to practice your own beliefs. What Baldwin insists, however, is that much of America would prefer that everyone were the same because differences make us uncomfortable. Baldwin forces the reader to acknowledge that some of the people who consider themselves the most patriotic, the vehement proclaimers of “’Merica,” are more than just a caricature of our society. America was once called a melting pot, a blend of cultures that became something completely original. While this idea, this exchange of cultures, seems ideal, what Baldwin depicts, is more of a forced culture loss—an America in which “any minority identified by the color of its skin and the texture of its hair… eventually grows self-conscious about these attributes and avoids” using products that emphasize their differences, but instead searches for ways to become more like the majority (Baldwin, 65). However, while assimilation is normal, there are many different groups and many cultures that retain their own characteristics and practices while living in America.

Although Baldwin has been criticized for writing about black culture after fleeing to Europe, the new perspective he attains while in France allows him to further understand himself and the differing worlds back in America. It also reduces the temptation to write sentimentally. “From the vantage point of Europe, he [discovered] his own country (Baldwin, 137).” While in France, Baldwin points out the paradoxical role of Americans in the world. In the United States Americans seem to wish to be a part of the same culture, to fit into society. While they are abroad, Baldwin suggests that Americans are resistant to being lumped together with American ideas and stereotypes such as the “Marshall Plan, Hollywood, the Yankee dollar, television, or Senator McCarthy (Baldwin, 129).” What Baldwin seems to be referring back to is the problem of historical background the “depthless alienation from one’s self and one’s people [which] is, in sum, the American experience (Baldwin, 123).” He implies that Americans have separated themselves from their history and therefore attempt to become a part of whichever society they live in.

Baldwin also makes some striking if not merely cynical observations about America politics. He proposes that while most of America is said to distrust politicians,

“of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them;[because] more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives. It is true that the promises excite them, but this is not because they are taken as proof of good intentions. They are the proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occurred and are occurring, and will occur (Baldwin, 73).”

He expands upon this idea by noting that “in the struggle for mastery, the Negro is the pawn (Baldwin, 74).” Baldwin points out an idea that holds true for today’s politics. The minority groups, the people who are in need, the people who have a specific goal, are often used as pawns because they are the people with the most to lose or to gain. Politicians can decide whether to take a possibly profitable risk and endorse the goals of a minority group or to make them promises—or—they can withhold their views and refrain from action in order to hold onto the votes of a different group. This happens in politics every day, and while I would like to believe that Baldwin is wrong, that all politicians sincerely believe in the groups they make promises to, it would be naïve to believe that strategy never affects politicians’ decisions in regard to minority groups.

Through his writing Baldwin began to find his identity—who he is in relation to society, as an American, and as a human. Baldwin believed that “when you’re writing you’re trying to find out something you don’t know…what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out (Baldwin, Paris Review).”  In the autobiographical essays of Notes of a Native Son Baldwin reluctantly finds his identity and his past. The essays are powerful because as Baldwin states in an interview with the Paris Review, he did not allow himself “to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath [him] to blame anybody for what happened to [him]. What happened to [Baldwin] was [his] responsibility (Paris review, Baldwin).”


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September 26, 2012 · 4:26 pm

In Cold Blood:Both Sensationalistic and Meaningful

In Cold Blood, a journalistic novel, written by Truman Capote in the early 1960’s, captures the murder of a respected family of four and the murder’s impact on an idyllic Kansas town and its residents. Capote takes advantage of his readers’ morbid curiosity, creating suspense within the novel by withholding the gruesome details for as long as possible. While some people, such as Tom Wolfe, have criticized Capote for his exploitation of violent tragedy, Capote actually capitalizes on his readers’ interest in the murders to comment on the way humanity enjoys gawking at tragedies, to force the reader to sympathize with the murderers, and to relate his opinion on capital punishment. Overall the book is more forceful because Capote contrasts this illusion-shattering violence with a calm Americana town and a relatable middle-class family, and because he uses characters and their dialogue to represent his own opinions and overarching truths about mortality.

Writer Tom Wolfe, a well-known member of the “New Journalism” movement, criticized In Cold Blood, in an essay entitled “Porno-violence,” for exploiting the same morbid interest which Capote depicts several times within the book. Wolfe suggests that Capote’s work is a part of a new genre of sensationalistic literature and film that draws in readers with the promise of a cheap thrill. While Capote undoubtedly exploits the audience’s interest in the deaths to make the novel more successful and to heighten suspense, he also explores themes regarding the darker sides of humanity, occasionally even making light of the sensationalism which popularized the book. The universal themes which Capote addresses, albeit addressed partially through the use of graphic scenes, ultimately make In Cold Blood more meaningful than the violent films and flashy headlines which Wolfe disgustedly compares the book to.

Wolfe argues that what makes a work “porno-violence…is that in almost every case the camera angle, therefore the viewer, is with the gun, the fist, the rock (Wolfe, 184).” What Wolfe accusingly points out—about Capote’s unusual use of perspective—actually increases  the impact of the book overall.  Capote intends for the reader to understand the murderers, to see what they saw, to experience their emotions during the murder. While we follow Perry, one of the two murderers, into the house and witness the murder, we also experience Perry’s shame, his lack of intention, and the mental disturbances which caused him to murder the Clutters. Wolfe notes that in this narrative style, “no matter whose side you may be on consciously, you are in fact with the muscle, and it is you who disintegrate all comers, villains, lawmen, women, anybody(Wolfe, 184).” Capote uses this style partially to build suspense but largely to force the readers to empathize with the characters, who might—under the direction of Kansas newspapers and local opinion—usually be considered villains.

In an interview with George Plimpton, Capote admits that he believes “that capital crimes should all be handled by Federal Courts, and that those convicted should be imprisoned in a special Federal prison where, conceivably, a life-sentence could mean, as it does not in state courts, just that.” His opinion on capital punishment, that the death penalty is morally wrong, becomes a theme within the book. For instance, Capote paints Perry as a victim of circumstance, someone to be pitied rather than reviled—an unusual take on developing a murderer’s character—and through Perry’s experiences and dialogue, Capote relates the injustice of capital punishment, a theme present in the dialogue of other characters as well. Perry’s inner dialogue allows the reader to see that he never really intended to murder any of the Clutters, but that as detective Dewey notes, “the crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act,” a fact that induces sympathy for Perry who—in today’s society—might be labeled criminally insane, and would thus be immune from the death penalty (Capote, 245). Capote further builds on the theme of the injustice of capital punishment through the dialogue of one of the townspeople, who points out the hypocrisy of the death penalty. You can practically hear Capote speaking through the words of defense attorney, Harrison Smith who summarizes Capote’s view that “[Capital punishment] is a relic of human barbarism. The law tells us that the taking of human life is wrong, then goes ahead and sets the example. Which is almost as wicked as the crime it punished…[It] merely cheapens human life and gives rise to more murders (Capote, 303 ).” By choosing to elaborate on the diagnosis of a court appointed psychologist near the end of the book, Capote further illustrates the injustice of the process in determining Perry’s sentence to death. Perry demonstrates that he never intended to kill Mr. Clutter, in fact Perry seemed to respect Mr. Clutter until the very moment Perry slit Mr. Clutter’s throat. Instead, both Perry Smith’s mental illness and his turbulent upbringing cause him to murder Mr. Clutter without even realizing what he is doing. Ultimately Capote wants the reader to conclude that,

“Perry wasn’t an evil person, [and that] if he’d had any chance in life, things would have been different. But every illusion he’d ever had, well, they all evaporated, so that on that night he was so full of self-hatred and self-pity that…he would have killed somebody—perhaps not that night, or the next. You can’t go through life without ever getting anything you want, ever (Plimpton, 19).”

Dick Hickock, the other murder, contrasts sharply in personality and background with Perry.  Whereas “Perry Smith’s life had been… an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another,” Dick’s life seems to have contained fewer influences on his criminal history (Capote, 246). Of the two men, Dick is the cold, insensitive one, whereas Perry is delicate, and emotionally vulnerable. Perry grew up in a violent family, which he watched fall apart, and with a father he eventually isolated himself from.  Dick however, had a relatively stable family which he goes to visit on occasion and he grew up with reasonable opportunities. He mentions that while he was tougher than Perry, Perry was mentally unstable enough to kill someone, whereas Dick, under most circumstances, would be unable to actually commit murder.  By contrasting the two men, Capote garners more sympathy for Perry.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly intriguing was Capote’s exploration of the darkness of the human mind, the desire to “see a man get his head blown off,” and to talk endlessly about and relive tragedy (Wolfe, 184).  Capote illustrates this morbid interest by depicting the gossips that gather around the local restaurants greedy for information and the crowd that eagerly waits in the square for the delivery of the two murderers to the jail, awaiting their arrival as if “expecting a parade or attending a political rally (Capote, 247).” The more they discuss the murders, the less real the events seem, and when the crowd finally sees the murderers, it falls “silent, as though amazed to find them humanly shaped (Capote, 248).” While Capote remains more observant than critical about human nature at this point, he does make light of the sensationalistic atmosphere and the resulting headlines which “raised rounds of laughter” among the townspeople due to over-dramatic titles such as “Fear Lynch Mob Awaiting Return of Suspects (Capote, 247).”

Capote explores other themes in the book as well which create lasting impact, unlike works which—to Wolfe’s disdain—momentarily entertain, but are readily forgotten.  Perry’s search for normalcy, his desire to attain something meaningful for the first time, ends in the “collision of two worlds” in which “someone had to pay,” a theme present throughout the book. While Capote suggests in an interview with George Plimpton that many readers thought “of the book as a reflection on American life, this collision between the desperate, ruthless, wandering, savage part of American life, and the other, which is insular and safe(Plimpton, 19).” He believes In Cold Blood “has struck them because there is something so awfully inevitable about what is going to happen: the people in the book are completely beyond their own control (Plimpton, 19).” However, the book has an even greater effect because–although Capote does not admit this in the interview–his audience is Middle America, a group which the iconic Clutter family represents. The book is so striking to most readers because it attacks their sheltered world. It is not so much that the Clutters are out of the readers’ control, but that the readers must realize that their own mortality is beyond their own control as well, a fact that Capote emphasizes several times throughout the book.

Capote writes well throughout the book and uses suspense masterfully, making the book interesting and fast paced. Although some details, such as the scene with Perry carefully watching the two feral cats, seem too convenient, too aptly metaphorical to be completely factual, I believe Capote did his best to remain true to the original story. However, I would consider In Cold Blood more artistic and subjective than objective and journalistic because of the opinion-influenced choices that Capote makes about which details to include and what to include about characters and within dialogue.

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