A Friendship That Created One of the
Greatest Works of the Twentieth Century:
Notes of a Native Son
By James Baldwin and Sol Stein. One World. 217 pp. $24.95
"This book is about a friendship," veteran writer and editor Sol Stein writes in Native Sons. Is it about a friendship? Everything about its packaging would lead you to believe this, from the lengthy subtitle to the byline, which explicitly identifies this book as a collaborative effort between James Baldwin and Stein, who edited Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin's outstanding 1955 collection. Native Sons includes correspondence between the men, as well as two versions of a drama they wrote together based on one of Baldwin's essays. Despite this evidence of their cooperation, this is not so much a book about friendship as it is an occasion to consider the labyrinth that friendship can be: the delicate balance between honesty and tact it takes to keep certain kinds of alliances alive; the difficulties of balancing the personal inside the professional and vice versa. Ultimately, Native Sons is about James Baldwin, whose voice, even in this scant and unsatisfying collection, manages to electrify and radiate wisdom, if not to the friend whom he addresses, then to any reader who picks up this book.
If anything, Native Sons is a book at war with itself. Stein's intentions are honorable: He wants his book to stand as a testament to Baldwin and his 1955 classic as well as to honor the 80th anniversary of Baldwin's birth. On the way to these noble objectives, however, Stein has a few axes to grind. For instance, he has a beef with the jacket copy for Notes of a Native Son. He reprints the original jacket copy that he wrote, explaining that "an entirely different and deplorable version was printed on the flaps of the hardcover book." He continues, "In rereading the flaps in 2002, I could not remember worse copy in my long publishing experience."
Stein distances himself from this and other regrettable incidents surrounding the publication of Notes. He agreed to the publisher's request that he write a prefatory note but when he saw it in galleys he "ordered it removed," Stein tells us in the early pages of Native Sons. Later in the book, he gives a much more humble account of this same incident. What Baldwin thought of the prefatory note, Stein doesn't tell us. His lack of interest in representing Baldwin's position here is illuminating. Even Stein's triumphs on behalf of Baldwin end up, finally, as triumphs on behalf of Sol Stein. Native Sons is less a book than an unresolved conflict between its author's desire to reveal something meaningful about this literary friendship and his compulsion to insist on his own importance in the larger story of Baldwin's career.
As the true subject of Native Sons, Stein is both embarrassingly conspicuous and frustratingly elusive. His introductory pages contain a description of his successful revival of Three Who Made a Revolution by Bertram Wolfe. The book was a "near corpse" when Stein arrived on the scene, but he republished it in a new format that went on to sell half a million copies in five years. Here and elsewhere, readers have to peer around Stein to get a glimpse of Baldwin, who returns to us on subsequent pages. At the other extreme, there is Stein's reference to a review he wrote of Baldwin's 1961 collection, Nobody Knows My Name. He published the review in a publication of the now defunct Mid-Century book club. He tells us that "the review had an astonishing consequence," the nature of which he never reveals. Stein and Baldwin disagreed over one paragraph in particular, which Baldwin referred to in his inscription of Stein's copy of the book: "For Sol: In honor of the splendidly disputed passage." But Stein includes not a word from that review, and Native Sons suffers for it. Too often in this book, Sol Stein is in the way. But at moments like this one, we are deprived of the kind of revelations from him that could have made his book the rich and complete collection it intends, in part, to be.
A truly remarkable moment occurs toward the middle of the book, when Baldwin and Stein exchange letters that include discussions of each writer's position on, among other topics, the role of work in his life, and the decision of the State Department to withhold W.E.B. Du Bois's passport in 1952 after Du Bois expressed public sympathy for the Soviet Union. (The passport ban on Du Bois was lifted in 1958.) In a Dec. 7, 1956 letter, Stein responds to Baldwin's earlier musings about work with an admonishment: "Work is what you do when you can, which means when you're not earning a living, or loving a family, or doing the things that come first -- even if work is ultimately more important." In the same letter, he compares Du Bois to a "teenager with an eight year old mentality who likes to go down to a certain neighborhood every Saturday night and almost always comes back either cut up or with a case of VD." In Stein's analogy, the State Department is the parent that "reach[es] the point where you don't let him out anymore." In 1958, Du Bois was 88 years old.
Even more remarkable than Stein's letter is Baldwin's reply. As readers brace themselves for Stein's well-deserved spanking, what they get instead is language that is humane, respectful and forthright: In short, what they get is James Baldwin. He responds to Stein's admonitions about work: "Suppose work is earning a living and also -- faute de mieux, perhaps -- loving a family, suppose work is first, simply because, for a particular life, nothing else can possibly come without it?" And he addresses Stein's characterization of Du Bois: "Your metaphor, the teen-aged kid going out and making scandals every Saturday night so that the family eventually decides to keep him home, simply does not work. Du Bois is not a teenager, but a very old man, quite justly renowned for his role in American Negro history . . . Also, the world is not a block, politics is not VD . . . And anyway, why stop at keeping Du Bois at home? Why not suppress the photographs, tailor the stories -- don't laugh. Whatever has happened to people can happen to people again."
Stein brackets this exchange of letters with a contextualization of his letter's opinions about Du Bois that does little to cushion their effect. Baldwin gets no such chance at revision, but then he doesn't need one. Throughout Native Sons, Baldwin's words are consistently what we expect them to be: powerful, elegant and just.
These moments of tension between Stein and Baldwin provide the richest portrait of the "friendship" between the men that this book promises to reveal. In an Aug. 9, 1958 letter, Stein refers to his perception of Baldwin's "condescension which you have been dropping bit by bit since we picked up being friends again." In the same letter, he tells Baldwin, "I think I depend on our friendship more than on any other." In his introduction to this letter, Stein refers only to his short career at the advertising firm where he was employed at the time. This story is not at all interesting when compared to the complex and fractious dynamic between Stein and Baldwin, which their correspondence makes plain.
If Native Sons is interesting, it is because James Baldwin is always interesting, even here. In the shadows of this book, we can still see him, working toward his ultimate goal of becoming, in his words, "an honest man and a good writer," and perhaps also a compassionate and generous friend. *
Emily Bernard is the editor of "Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten" and the newly published "Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships."