The creation of any book is a near-riddle, an avalanche of stops and starts, slowing up or quickening as it comes into being.
The old man had nearly forgotten about the letters. The letters that told of a particular friendship and the riddle behind an enduring book.
Sol Stein moved to this community north of New York three years ago from nearby Scarborough. There were books and boxes, and more books and boxes. A lot of things just went right to the basement. "I had 30 boxes. They hadn't been opened in 35 years," he says.
He has been a publisher and a playwright, an editor and a writer. It has been a life chasing words.
One night, Stein, 77, went down to the basement to open some of those boxes. And there were the letters from James Baldwin. All signed "Jimmy." Carbons of his own letters to Baldwin, all signed "Sol." He had to take a seat. Years had rolled by, like something hurtling down a train track. "I had nearly forgotten about them," Stein says of the letters.
Time had taken Jimmy, the great essayist. Called him home, as the gospel singers like to phrase it.
A lot of words had flowed between the two of them -- about writing, the world, life. A lot about that 1955 book, "Notes of a Native Son," that Stein conceived and stitched together from Baldwin's writings.
. . . I thought I was sick, and indeed I was, but it turned out to be only a breakdown. About breakdowns, baby, there is nothing to say, nothing one can say while it's happening, nothing to be said when it's over. . . .
That letter came in the immediate aftermath of "Notes," when the author was fleeing from the shark in the water -- fame -- and it was coming after him, hard and fast. Born poor and desperate, he was, in his words, "just a black cat from Harlem" and unable to handle the demands of celebrity.
Now comes a new book that Stein put together from that basement cache, a collection of letters and reminiscences: "Native Sons." It is about a friendship, about a black kid and a Jewish kid. About a time when you could eke out a living writing serious pieces for magazines, when magazines were publishing more good literature than naked skin. About a time when a $50 loan -- which Baldwin always seemed to need -- meant another stay from peril for the hungry writer.
They met in a gigantic building in the Bronx, DeWitt Clinton High School. Baldwin had to get there every day from Harlem by bus and subway. They worked together on the school newspaper, the Magpie.
In a subsequent edition of "Notes," Baldwin, who died of cancer in France in 1987, would write: "It was Sol Stein, high school buddy, editor, novelist, playwright, who first suggested this book. My reaction was not enthusiastic: As I remember, I told him that I was too young to publish my memoirs."
Stein knew better.
"In a way," Stein says, "I was jealous of him. I had to have a day job. I had babies and responsibility. He was a writer -- and what a writer does is write."
Stein is remembering first meeting James Baldwin in the early 1940s. He's seated on a sofa, books all over the house. The first-edition Baldwins sit on a table downstairs.
The two boys would read and decipher each other's work. Baldwin's young mind zeroed in, laserlike, on disparate subjects -- war, men, women, race, America. "What I fixed on with Baldwin was that he was very smart," says Stein. "And I wanted to meet all the smart people in the world. Tap them for what they knew that I didn't know."
They shared lunches and talked about movies and the theater. Baldwin was always broke. Stein, whose family had fled Russia, was not much better off. "Movie posters were what you used for your shoes. You just tore 'em down. You cut up the poster and used the cardboard in your shoes."
Baldwin was a 110-pounder as a kid. The eyes, however, were fierce. But at DeWitt Clinton, Baldwin and Stein and their contemporaries on the student newspaper found warmth among one another.
"On Friday afternoons, after classes officially let out," Stein writes in the book, "the Magpie gang would assemble in the tower above the three floors of the school building to hear our faculty adviser read our stories aloud to us in the most boring monotone imaginable."
Stein was keenly aware of the differences between Baldwin and himself: "He was black and I was white, he loved men and I loved women, he assumed his ancestors came to America in chains and I assumed my parents, who slipped over the border separately and illegally, came here because they had nowhere else to go."
After high school graduation in 1942, Baldwin seemed lost. Stein would soon be off to the Army.
The Harlem race riots of 1943 scarred Baldwin. His stepfather -- a cruel man in Baldwin's remembrance -- died that same year. Young Baldwin was broke. A dead-end job in a meatpacking plant embittered him. So did northern segregation.
By the mid-1940s, he was living in Greenwich Village and had found a lover. "That's when he started hanging out in what I like to call an informal salon," Stein says. "There'd always be people popping in and out of this house."
He tried getting jobs on black newspapers. Their black editors laughed at him, a kid without a college degree. (Class distinctions in black newspapering could be harsh.) Baldwin forged ahead, however, and won a couple of writing fellowships.
In the Village, Baldwin fell under the spell of Beauford Delaney, a painter who would become a mentor, sounding board, inspiration. And he started writing for magazines, the New Leader, Commentary, the Nation, Partisan Review. He was edited by the likes of Randall Jarrell, Philip Rahv, Robert Warshow and Saul Levitas. "These men are all dead, now, and they were all very important to my life," Baldwin would come to muse. "It is not too much to say that they helped to save my life."
Still, in 1948 Baldwin determined he couldn't get a fair shake in America. He set sail for Paris, where he kept writing.
Baldwin's essays, published in intellectual magazines, reached only a limited audience. After its initial publication, the essay is often, regrettably, forgotten. Overtaken by later essays.
The novel Baldwin was working on, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," would be published in 1953. It was doubtless a proud moment -- a first novel -- but it did not cause a splash.
Stein, out of the Army and working as an editor, was happy about "Mountain." He read Baldwin's essays with interest and when Baldwin returned to America on one of his intermittent visits, Stein, who had taken a contract job as editor of Beacon Press paperbacks, had an idea.
A Body of Work
Baldwin's essays covered a wide range of subjects. There was "Everybody's Protest Novel," an attack on the work of novelist Richard Wright. "Baldwin was trying to take down the 'father,' " Stein says of Baldwin's essay, which would cause a terrible rift in his friendship with Wright.
There was "Carmen Jones," in which Baldwin critiques the 1954 Dorothy Dandridge-Harry Belafonte movie. "Carmen Jones has moved into a stratosphere rather more interesting and more pernicious, in which even Negro speech is parodied out of its charm and liberalized, if one may so put it, out of its forced precision." "The Harlem Ghetto" painted a raw and searing portrait of life in America's underbelly. "I can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by conditions of his life. All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive."
Stein read those essays, and others about Baldwin's experiences in Paris, and thought Baldwin had accumulated a body of work, which, if "cohered" together, could make an impressive book.
The belief in publishing circles, though, was that collections didn't sell.
"The sales department was dead set against a collection of essays," says Stein. "But I had the notion if the essays propelled you, and kept you reading, then it would be a book." Baldwin himself was initially against the idea. He was 31, "too young," he felt, for memoirs. But Stein persisted, and there was an inducement for Baldwin. "He was broke," Stein knew. "The thing he needed most at the time was money."
Stein wrote some words to himself, which he would share with the sales department in trying to convince them of the marketability of the Baldwin collection: "In the jargon of writers, 'pieces' is the word used to describe articles, essays and the uncategorizable writings that constitute the writer's baggage while he is traveling between major works. Yet of Lord Acton, for instance, such 'pieces' are all we have; fortunately, they inform each other as well as us and constitute a whole. That is also the virtue of James Baldwin's pieces, a frightening virtue in one so young."
Baldwin got a $500 advance for "Notes of a Native Son." He needed every penny.
"A lot of people hadn't heard of Baldwin," recalls Stein. "His novel ["Mountain"] had only sold three to five thousand copies."
On May 23, 1955, Stein wrote a letter -- a bit cocky, to be sure -- to Mel Arnold, director of Beacon Press in Boston:
Add another top seller to your September list:
NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin.
Everybody loves the title. Suggest for cover full page blow-up photo of Baldwin. Shall I get one and mail directly to cover artist, or what? Best photo of Baldwin is one that appears on both paperback and hardcover version of GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN. . . . Have to work fast, Baldwin in town only few days. Essays look terrific. . . .
In fact, American letters had never seen anything like "Notes of a Native Son." It was "the other America," brought up close to the window in a nonfiction format. Published in magazines, the essays had been scattered. Now they were between book covers and packed a singular punch.
The reviews were stunning. "Reveals with brilliance, objectivity and deep emotion the changes in thoughts and attitudes relating to the most disturbing social question of our time," wrote Kay Boyle in the American Scholar. "Written with bitter clarity and uncommon grace," said Time magazine.
Baldwin had written the title essay, "Notes," while in Washington having his play, "The Amen Corner," produced. He was encamped in a room at the Dunbar Hotel. Stein was in New York screaming to get the last revisions from Baldwin.
In the introduction to the book, Baldwin would ponder his influences: "When one begins looking for influences, one finds them by the score. I haven't thought much about my own, not enough anyway: I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech -- and something of Dickens' love for bravura -- have something to do with me today; but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality."
The writing style had something in common with the way Charlie Bird blew his horn, with the way Willie Mays snagged those one-handed catches. That is to say it was singularly its own, imbued with gospel inflections -- the stream of consciousness, the drumbeat of commas, the near-music behind the words.
When Stein saw Baldwin shortly after publication, he was signing autographs. "He was signing napkins for people who hadn't read anything of his -- and he was liking it too much."
The shark was in the water.
A Stamp of Approval
Critics didn't think much of what Baldwin was writing toward the end of his career, particularly a confused book about a series of killings in Atlanta. But his work from the '50s and '60s has a secure plane in the canon. In 1998, the Library of America published two volumes of his collected works, both edited by Toni Morrison. And last month, the U.S. government unveiled its James Baldwin postage stamp. Baldwin is shown from the side as if he's on his way someplace.
"Notes" was the only book of Baldwin's that Stein would edit. The two collaborated in 1957 on a dramatized treatment of Baldwin's story "Equal in Paris" for the Theater Guild in New York. The production, however, was never mounted. "They wanted the protagonist to be changed -- to a white person. It was ridiculous and both Baldwin and I knew it was. So we abandoned it." The treatment is included in Stein's new book.
Stein stayed in touch with Baldwin through the years. He went to Amherst, Mass., for Baldwin's 60th birthday party. Baldwin, who was teaching there, went around the room, introducing the guests. "And this," he said, walking over to Stein, wrapping his arms around him, "is Sol Stein, my buddy from high school."
One of the last letters in the collection was mailed from France by Baldwin to Stein in 1958. Baldwin was in rural France, at work on "Another Country."
. . . I stick to my house, to my typewriter, go out shopping late every afternoon, watch the population of this small town -- which is also watching me -- have a drink, come home, eat, work some more, go to bed. Beautifully dull, beautifully exhausting. No one ever comes to see me, for I'm too far away for a casual visit. I don't have any phone. Don't even drink very much, for I don't like solitary drinking. Go to Paris tomorrow to pick up my mail. And I hope that I can manage to keep this up throughout the summer. If I do, I'll come home with a novel -- which, at this moment, is going quite well. . . .