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Posts Tagged ‘James Baldwin’

Staff Picks: Local News, Livid Librarians, Loving It All

July 31, 2015 | by


A still from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

When Ingrid Sischy died last week, most obituaries remembered her primarily as the editor of Interview, which she was, for eighteen years. But I’ve always thought of her as an ex-editor of Artforum, which she ran for most of the eighties. That decade saw a profound change in what was considered art, how it would be exhibited, and how it would be discussed in, among other places, the most important art magazine of the day—and Sischy, the first woman editor of Artforum, was the right man for the job. I’m grateful to our publisher, Susannah Hunnewell, for sending me Janet Malcolm’s magnificent “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a two-part article on Sischy and Artforum and the art world that appeared in The New Yorker in 1986. In the process of profiling Sischy, Malcolm provides generous sketches of the magazine’s earlier years as well as the concerns of Sischy’s day, including the “trial” of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the “Primitivism” show at MoMA. Sischy’s fair-mindedness and originality as an art editor come to the fore, but so does the silliness of art-world kerfuffles and the startling differences between generations and modes of thought. Malcolm, for instance, reproduces a very pissy response by the critic Barbara Rose in which she decries Sischy’s Artforum as a “media magazine” and pits her cohorts, who were “all very impressed by Wittgenstein and by Anglo-American philosophy,” against Sontagian cultural permissiveness, in which “you could just love everything that was going on, you could be positive and optimistic and just love it all.” —Nicole Rudick

k10442One of the many perceptive essays in The Meaning of the Library (it doesn’t beg to be taken to the beach, I know) is Laura Marcus’s “The Library in Film: Order and Mystery,” which finds compelling motifs in movie scenes set in libraries. On film, it seems, our libraries are presented with curious regularity as mazes (Hitchcock’s Blackmail), haunted repositories of secrets (Ghostbusters, James Bridges’s The Paper Chase), dusty Egyptological tombs (Alain Resnais’s Toute la mémoire du monde), or utopias of knowledge (Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire). “It is striking,” Marcus writes, “how so many films have taken up these questions of order and of mystery or confusion, as well as ideas of haunting in relationship to the book and the library.” She finds intriguing outliers, too, such as 1932’s Forbidden, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s bitter small-town librarian, having endured insults from local children, says, “I wish I owned this library … I’d get an axe and smash it to a million pieces, then I’d set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burned.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Addy Walker, American Girl

May 28, 2015 | by

The role of black dolls in American culture.


From the cover of Meet Addy.

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.

This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More »

Today’s Defacement Is Tomorrow’s Artifact, and Other News

February 23, 2015 | by


Mark Twain’s annotations to translations by John Dryden. Photo via NYRB

  • The FBI kept a file on James Baldwin that ran to 1,884 pages. What was in it? Reasonably adept criticism, among other things: “The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports … It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers.”
  • A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, “Readers Make Their Mark,” collected annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, thus continuing the culture’s growing fascination with marginalia. “Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books: George Bernard Shaw identifies a printed text of his Too True to be Good as a ‘Provisional Prompt Copy’ for a particular production and calls it ‘Frightfully Private. No Press Agent to be let near it.’ And sometimes—as in the case of an early woman reader who judges the characters in Emma, one by one—they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar.”
  • “Let’s get out of here” is one of the most common lines in film—people in movies just love to leave places. “It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt.” But in more contemporary movies, “getting out of here” faces stiff competition from its longtime nemesis, “staying put.” “This emphasis on staying suits our times: The people writing and watching these movies are all part of an introspective, if not isolationist, culture that’s still licking its wounds after plotless wars and a traumatic recession.”
  • Is there anything more insufferable than our current predilection for all things twee? “Twee is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.”
  • I’ve always dreamed of winning an Oscar—I could put it up for auction, I thought, and make a lot of money, and that would be cool. But it turns out that selling your Oscar trophy is a great way to get sued by the Academy. In fact, the Academy thrills to a good lawsuit; they’ve also brought suits against “television shows that use the name ‘Oscar’ (i.e., ‘The Wine Oscars’); a website that predicts Oscar winners; and a chocolate-maker who produced Oscar-shaped candies.” Next up: people named Oscar, or people related to those people.

Regarding Mystery: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

September 9, 2014 | by


Photo: Timothy Archibald

In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.

I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer? 

Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.

My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid. Read More »


What We’re Loving: Voyeurism, Privacy, the King of the Monkeys

July 18, 2014 | by


An illustration from the Ramayana of Sugriva challenging Vali, ca. 1628–1649

God bless the anonymous German who published, in 1804, The Nightwatches of Bonaventura, a novel full of bizarre comic brio, pitched perfectly and awkwardly between Gothicism and Romanticism. Nightwatches is narrated by Kreuzgang, a poet manqué—and actor manqué, and even puppeteer manqué—who’s taken on a gig as a night watchman for a steady paycheck. He skulks about, muttering to the reader, warding off boredom by staring in people’s windows and riffing on the devil. All the while he seems to suffer from some kind of mood disorder; he’s acerbic where I expect him to be gentle, sententious where I expect him to be forgiving. As he observes, through curtains and windows, a succession of excommunications, thefts, murders, love affairs, and hauntings, Kreuzgang begins to charm with his lyrical cynicism. In his more aphoristic moments, he comments on our era as much as his own: “The character of the times is patched and pieced together like a fool’s coat,” he says, “and worst of all, the fool buttoned in it would like to appear serious…” There’s something perversely irresistible in Nightwatches’s voyeurism and its willful profanity. A new edition is coming in October; its publisher says it’s “one part Poe and one part Beckett,” which is apt, but I thought first of Tom Stoppard at his most playful. If he’d taken some bad LSD in the German countryside, he might’ve written this. —Dan Piepenbring

Some time ago, on their Tumblr, the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora featured a conversation between James Baldwin and the incomparable Audre Lorde. Originally published in Essence in 1984, the conversation, in this iteration, opens with Baldwin’s comment “Du Bois believed in the American dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here”—to which Lorde responds, “I don’t, honey. I’m sorry, I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it.” It’s only the beginning of a vigorous exchange about Baldwin’s experience of being black in America, and Lorde’s of being black and a woman. During the women’s liberation movement in the seventies, black women fought on two fronts for equal rights, and Lorde is gloriously unrelenting on that fact. “Even worse than the nightmare is the blank,” she tells Baldwin. “And Black women are the blank.” —Nicole Rudick

For the first time in almost two hundred years, the Mewar Ramayana can be read and viewed as a complete work, thanks to the British Library’s digital reunification of the beautifully illustrated manuscript. The Mewar version of the great Hindu epic is distinguished by its richly saturated colors and its nonlinear depictions of the Prince Rama story; it was commissioned by Jagat Singh I of the Mewar dynasty in the seventeenth century. Today, the physical pages of the manuscript are divided between the British Library and several different collections in India, but the online project allows the work to be read in full, with a few lovely supplementary materials to boot. It’s that rare digital edition that succeeds by mostly staying out of the way: the focus is on the incredible hi-res images of the paintings and the original Sanskrit script, but there are also unobtrusive English descriptions (text and audio) and commentary from art historians to accompany each page. In one of my favorite illustrations, Rama helps Sugriva overthrow Bali to become king of the monkeys. Sugriva stands outside his brother’s pink confectionary palace, roaring “so that the very birds fall out of the sky in fright.” Rama puts an arrow through Bali, killing him. In the next panel, Rama sits jilted as the enthroned Sugriva, distracted by all the sex and wine that comes with being the monkey king, has forgotten about his greatest ally. So it goes. —Chantal McStay Read More »


The Price of the Ticket

November 14, 2013 | by


Photography credit: Carl Van Vechten.

Back in 1985, on the morning of November 23 (a cold, wet, gray autumn Saturday), I woke up happy. At that time in my life, nothing could have been more unusual.

But I knew that before that day’s sun had set, I was going to meet James Baldwin, whose body of work (the novels and short stories, his plays and all those exquisite essays) had inspired my own burning desire to write.

Baldwin was on an interview-and-autograph tour which would be his last, crisscrossing America after the simultaneous publication of The Evidence of Things Not Seen (a book-length essay on the Atlanta child murders that were then still common knowledge) and The Price of the Ticket. On that Saturday afternoon, Mr. B. (as I privately referred to him) was scheduled to appear at a bookshop on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. For the preceding month, each customer who made a purchase at Guild Books had received a Xeroxed postcard-size printout of an invitation to the event. Baldwin’s appearance had also been touted in a news story printed that week in the Tribune.

I thought of how strange it must be—how truly bizarre—for a great writer who has spent thousands of hours alone in a room, grasping for words, struggling to sculpt just the right image on paper, to be confronted suddenly with hundreds of smiling, book-buying admirers; dozens of them invariably requesting special inscriptions for someone special; others craving a momentary brush with celebrity; still others bearing poems, plays, or stories they’re praying to share, plus the others who want to say a few words. I belonged in the latter category. Or I told myself I did. And what I wanted to tell Mr. B., more than anything else, was something like this: Thank you—for your books, for all of your work, and for being such a formidable mentor. I knew he’d heard some variation of that a thousand times before, but I was determined to say it.

Baldwin’s appearance was set for three P.M., and when I arrived at Guild Books just after two o’clock, a crowd of some three hundred was already crammed inside. A line of people stretched out the door and snaked around the corner and down the block. It may have been the most successfully integrated aggregation ever to peacefully assemble in Chicago (food festivals and ChicagoFest notwithstanding). Blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, Sikhs with turbans and Jews with yarmulkes were all in line, drawn together by the power of the words.

Passersby inquired about the reason for such a gathering. When told that hundreds were ignoring the autumn chill in order to meet James Baldwin, some of them smiled. Others drew a blank: they wanted to know why he was famous. Read More »