Tuesday, June 28, 2016
The importance and the failure of Sonnie's Blues
Good decision by Partisan Review in 1958 to publish James Baldwin's long story Sonnie's Blues and good decision by Lorrie Moore to include it in 100 Years of the best american short stories - Baldwin definitely brought a new voice and a new world view to american letters probably the first New York born black intellectual to tell of his life struggles and ideas. His first novel the semi- or maybe the very autobiographical go tell it on the mountain was and is a classic coming of age in Harlem, with the struggle between the ambitious and worldly son and the religious fundamentalism of the storefront preacher father. What is striking tho in looking back at baldwin's early fiction is that he never wrote about his homosexuality - that was a taboo that he couldn't break until later in life - and I think Sonnie's Blues suffers from baldwin's inability at that point in his career to be completely honest. It's obvious that he establishes a narrator quite unlike himself. - an algebra teacher w wife and kids one of whom died young of polio - who bears some guilt as the older brother of drug addicted sonnie who finds salvation, maybe, in jazz (as did Baldwin in writing). It's a powerful narrative that at times feels like it ought to be on stage - but it also feels for all its length a bit compressed and generic, like notes for a novel that never happened. Neither the narrator nor his brother feel fully developed and the other characters are peripheral. The story is important because it touches on baldwin's central themes and those of many writers to follow but it's more like a note toward a supreme fiction than the thing itself.