A grab bag of pieces from novelist and firebrand Baldwin (1924–1987), varying in quality but marked by his trademark ferocity.
The author’s best-known and most powerful nonfiction pieces have long been available in book form (The Price of the Ticket, 1985, etc.), so inevitably this book has a B-list feel to it. Most disposable are the book reviews he wrote in the late ’40s, which reveal a writer struggling to find his voice, and in which he takes swipes at Maxim Gorky, Erskine Caldwell and James M. Cain with little subtlety or insight. But by the late ’50s and early ’60s, Baldwin’s thinking about American racism matured, balancing reason and outrage, and many of the pieces are worthy companions to his provocative essay collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” published in 1962, he pleads for an American literature that abandons lost-innocence themes embraced by Hemingway and Faulkner, and throughout his ’60s essays he critiques an American society that had failed to face its hypocrisy head-on. The book is perhaps best read as a showcase for Baldwin’s versatility—he was comfortable covering theater, music and sports through the filter of race. In a long-form reported piece on the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston prizefight in 1962, the author displays an admirable eye for detail of the boxers as well as the reporters and hangers-on. Similarly, a series of letters from Turkey, Israel and France expose his private concerns about his work as he was finishing his controversial novel Another Country (1962), while the transcript of a 1984 panel on blacks and Jews provides evidence of how well Baldwin could think on the fly.
There are too many ephemeral or weakly written pieces to appeal beyond Baldwin’s devoted admirers, but the best of the ’60s essays underscore the reasons his work endures.