James Baldwin: October 22, 1960

The Poetry Center presents James Baldwin, speaking and in discussion with Philip Roth and John Cheever, the final event of a three-day Esquire Symposium on "Writers and Writing in America Today."

Originally Recorded By:
The Poetry Center
Location:
San Francisco State College
Date:
10/22/1960
Total Run Time:
01:55:35
Contributor:
Philip Roth, John Cheever, Herb Wilner, Arnold Gingrich, Harvey Swados
Views
4832
Downloads
443
  • Opening remarks by Herb Wilner, noting "this is the third and final session in this year's Esquire Symposium on Writers and Writing in America Today"; introduces Arnold Gingrich, publisher of Esquire magazine, "who originated and sponsored the symposium" (00:01)
  • Arnold Gingrich thanks Herb Wilner, Mark Schorer at U.C. Berkeley, and Wallace Stegner at Stanford University; history of the symposium, begun two years ago at Columbia University with Saul Bellow, Wright Morris, Leslie Fiedler, and Dorothy Parker; second year at the University of Iowa with Mark Harris, Dwight MacDonald, Norman Mailer, and Ralph Ellison; notes the symposium, now in its third year, was held at U.C. Berkeley two nights previous (October 20) and featured John Cheever, with Philip Roth featured the subsequent night (October 21) at Stanford; introduces Baldwin (03:02)
  • James Baldwin speaks: "I will be absolutely wreckless tonight, and pretend that I'm writing a novel in your presence'; on one's own past as a subject for fiction; that he is "certain there is something that unites all the Americans in this room...which no other people could conceivably share"; on growing up during the "Negro Renaissance," succeeded by the Great Depression, with the "Noble Savage" succeeded by the militant "New Negro"; on growing up in the church; remembering "the boys and girls in the streets" of Harlem; on the fall from the church and death of a young man, and the madness and institutionalization of a young woman; "I have not known many survivors, I know mainly about disaster"; on his encounter with the "white world," and recognition of the "American personality" as "incoherence" (15:45)
  • gap in original recording (31:49)
  • Baldwin resumes (tape repeats portion of prior remarks); on a hypothetical friend who has killed his mother, the body is in the closet, and we know it, and we can talk about everything except that corpse--"and the incoherence that afflicts America is really analogous to that"; on the challenge to the writer dealing with "this enormous incoherence"; on "the jargon of the Beat Generation" equated with the speech of Eisenhower as "a symptom of the same madness"; on the need "to find the terms of our connection, without which we will perish"; that "there is an illusion of America and a myth of America that doesn't have anything to do with the lives we lead" (31:54)
  • Baldwin's presentation concluded, Wilner resumes, calling for "more drama" in forthcoming comments on Baldwin's speech from Roth, Cheever, and Gingrich; this to be followed by questions from the audience (41:00)
  • Philip Roth speaks, on "American cultural realities" as "stunning, petrifying, and colossal"; that he finds American culture "insane and treacherous" and the character in his writings is one "whose humanity and life is tested by that treachery and insanity" (42:39)
  • Wilner calls on Cheever (44:41)
  • John Cheever speaks, on the call for "more drama" and on the critic as "coroner" (44:49)
  • Wilner calls on Gingrich (46:25)
  • Gingrich speaks, on paradox of hope or horror (46:29)
  • Wilner speaks (49:22)
  • Roth speaks, on the desire to make the writers "dispute with one another," to argue and entertain (49:42)
  • Wilner calls on Cheever (52:02)
  • Cheever addresses Baldwin, remarking "the enormous tragedy between our races has not been adequately handled by literature" (52:03)
  • Baldwin replies, that the tragedy "has never, ever been faced...by the country"; that "to be a Negro in this country is to be a sort of fantasy in the mind of the Republic" and "as long as it's a fantasy, it can't be faced" (52:37)
  • Wilner speaks, on his hope, not for "entertainment" but that the writers "might terrify you" in addressing "the American experience"; calls on Baldwin (54:28)
  • Baldwin speaks, on America as a place in which "most of what has happened here has yet to be faced"; on the "enormous gap" between "what really went on" and "what we believe"; on his desire "that we be better than we are"; that "my function may be to tell you what hit you, and your function to let it hit you" (56:08)
  • Wilner calls on Roth (59:54)
  • Roth speaks, on the "possibilities of moral regeneration in the character" in fiction; that "regeneration" seldom "rings true," e.g., Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King and William Styron's Set This House on Fire (59:55)
  • gap in original recording (01:02:30)
  • Roth resumes (tape repeats portion of prior remarks) (01:02:33)
  • Cheever speaks, on the "critical matter" of the reader, on the "exaltation" of "simply remaining alive" (01:04:13)
  • Wilner calls on Baldwin (01:05:48)
  • Baldwin speaks on "the great cult of nostalgia for adolescence," e.g., in Mark Twain and in Hemingway; "we adore the children, the boys, which is one of the reasons we have two boys to vote for this year"; on the clinging to myths of "the past...Eden...innocence"; on insufficient notions of "what it is to be a person" and "a failure of the masculine sensibility" and an inability of American men and women to know "how to be with each other" (01:05:52)
  • Wilner calls on Roth (01:10:12)
  • Roth addresses Cheever's former remark; on writers opting for their character resorting to "the pleasure of isolation" (01:10:13)
  • Wilner calls on Cheever (01:11:43)
  • Cheever laments being in the middle; "I will pass" [laughter] (01:11:44)
  • Wilner calls on Gingrich (01:12:03)
  • Gingrich opens the floor for questions (01:12:08)
  • Wilner reiterates Gingrich's request (01:12:54)
  • audience (low volume) (01:13:28)
  • Wilner restates question, addressed to Baldwin (01:13:34)
  • Baldwin responds (01:13:43)
  • audience (low volume) (01:14:08)
  • Baldwin responds, re the drunkard in his hypothetical novel; "I am haunted by him, and I don't really know why"; that a particular "order of experience" shapes each writer's work (01:14:44)
  • audience (low volume) (01:16:32)
  • Wilner restates question, "Does the ugliness of our country represent the mythical notion that is there to write about?" (01:16:47)
  • audience (low volume) (01:17:01)
  • Wilner, continues restating question (01:17:09)
  • Baldwin responds, on "ugliness" as "anonymous, impersonal, empty, without passion, without authority"; on "perpetual denial" as the American malaise (01:17:18)
  • Wilner calls on panel (01:20:12)
  • Cheever responds, on "adolescence of the country" linked to "heartbreaking ugliness of my country"; its landscapes "debased and destroyed" as "the utter image of adolescence" (01:20:17)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:21:00)
  • audience (low volume) (01:21:04)
  • Wilner restates question, addressed to Baldwin (01:21:20)
  • Baldwin responds, on "problems of self-realization" and "this chaos...as a tremendous opportunity"; on the particularity of American problem "that is ours to deal with," with "the possibility to discover something that has not been discovered before" (01:21:46)
  • Wilner calls on Roth and Gingrich (01:24:04)
  • Roth demurs (01:24:27)
  • Gingrich responds, on "homogeneity" of professionalized writing community in Britain, viz recent articles by C. P. Snow and Stephen Spender; that the American writer is "much freer" (01:24:40)
  • Wilner remarks (01:26:23)
  • Gingrich responds, on Roth's talk the prior evening (01:26:33)
  • Roth responds, on "edginess and impatience" of American novelist as desire for "profound imaginative approach to the situation" (01:27:46)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:29:37)
  • audience (low volume) (01:29:51)
  • Wilner restates question for Cheever (01:30:10)
  • Cheever responds, on critics; Leslie Fiedler and James [sic] Aldridge cited as critics whose remarks are "in no way applicable to the 'contactual' [sic] aspects of writing, putting things together, making sense of it" (01:30:20)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:31:47)
  • audience (low volume) (01:31:50)
  • Wilner restates question for Baldwin (01:32:06)
  • Baldwin responds, on difficulties of Go Tell It on the Mountain, as his first novel, viz Giovanni's Room (01:32:20)
  • gap in original recording (01:33:33)
  • Baldwin resumes (tape repeats portion of prior remarks); on Giovanni's Room, and the "very valuable" problems that book presented for him (01:33:37)
  • audience (low volume) (01:35:24)
  • Baldwin responds (01:35:36)
  • audience (low volume) (01:35:56)
  • Baldwin responds, on "color" and "sex" as "the only two things that have ever happened in this country...that have really yet to be dealt with"; on Giovanni's Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain as "the beginning of an attempt of mine to one day...fuse these two concerns together" (01:36:04)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:36:44)
  • audience (low volume) (01:36:49)
  • Wilner restates question, on "bad production in literature" overlooked in favor of blaming radio and television (01:38:00)
  • Gingrich responds, on "coming of age" of "new arts" in mass media (01:38:26)
  • audience (low volume) (01:41:16)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:41:40)
  • audience (low volume) (01:41:46)
  • Wilner restates question, calls on Roth (01:42:01)
  • Roth responds, on laughter viz truth (01:42:19)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:42:38)
  • audience (Harvey Swados, low volume) (01:42:43)
  • Wilner restates question, on "self-deception" and unprecedented possibility of "total annihilation" (01:43:40)
  • Baldwin responds, on need for writer to "recreate" society (01:44:47)
  • Wilner calls on Cheever (01:45:52)
  • Cheever responds, on possibilities of "total annihilation" via hydrogen bomb (01:45:53)
  • Wilner calls on Roth (01:46:43)
  • Roth responds, "the duty seems to me the same as it has always been...one feels more dutiful, but not more powerful" (01:46:44)
  • Wilner calls on Gingrich (01:47:06)
  • Gingrich demurs (01:47:09)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:47:23)
  • audience (low volume) (01:47:26)
  • Wilner restates question, on role of religion viz "delusion of our society" (01:47:45)
  • Baldwin responds, on U.S. as "among the most irreligious countries in the world...it's among the most pious"; that it is "a Puritan country"; and on the need to re-define religion (01:48:06)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:50:00)
  • audience (low volume) (01:50:01)
  • Wilner restates question, on a need to look beyond America "to get a fuller picture of what we confront as a total circumstance" (01:51:28)
  • Roth responds, viz his critique above of Bellow's Henderson...; that these writers are no more a victim than is the audience member; that his own experience is largely limited to America (01:52:06)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:53:07)
  • Gingrich responds, citing by paraphrase Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (01:53:11)
  • Wilner calls on audience (01:53:37)
  • audience (low volume) (01:53:40)
  • Wilner restates question (01:53:52)
  • Cheever responds, on "the writer's responsibility" being "to make sense of my life" and, viz "the purpose of writing," that "this is the only coherent record we have of man's struggle to be illustrious" (01:54:15)
  • Baldwin agrees (01:54:55)
  • Wilner thanks members of the panel [applause] (01:54:58)

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