The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Adam Shatz on James Baldwin

June 06, 2023 The Point Magazine Season 1 Episode 7
Selected Essays | Adam Shatz on James Baldwin
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Adam Shatz on James Baldwin
Jun 06, 2023 Season 1 Episode 7
The Point Magazine

On this episode of The Point podcast series “Selected Essays,” Jess Swoboda and Zach Fine talk to the writer Adam Shatz about James Baldwin's essay “Alas, Poor Richard” (1961), a eulogy of sorts for Richard Wright, and Adam's new book, Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination (Verso 2023), which gathers a series of intellectual portraits of great thinkers and writers such as Wright, Claude-Levi Strauss, Chester Himes, Jacques Derrida, Fouad Ajami and Edward Said.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of The Point podcast series “Selected Essays,” Jess Swoboda and Zach Fine talk to the writer Adam Shatz about James Baldwin's essay “Alas, Poor Richard” (1961), a eulogy of sorts for Richard Wright, and Adam's new book, Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination (Verso 2023), which gathers a series of intellectual portraits of great thinkers and writers such as Wright, Claude-Levi Strauss, Chester Himes, Jacques Derrida, Fouad Ajami and Edward Said.

Jessica Swoboda  00:05

Hey everyone. Welcome to "Selected Essays," a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine.


Zach Fine  00:23

We're excited to have Adam Shatz on the podcast this week. Adam is the US editor of the London Review of Books and a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. Last month, Verso published Adam's new book Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination, which gathers a series of intellectual portraits of great thinkers and writers such as Claude Levy, Strauss, Chester Himes, Jacques Derrida, Fouad Ajami, and Edward Said.. For this episode, we talked to Adam about James Baldwin's essay "Alas, Poor Richard which is about his fraught relationship, the novelist Richard Wright, and was written a year after Wright died from a heart attack in 1960. We also talked to Adam about his essay on Wright in the new book, which synthesizes a range of material from Wright's fiction and political life as a wonderful introduction to his work.


Jessica Swoboda  01:08

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to selected We'd love to hear from you.


Zach Fine  01:34

Well, Adam, thank you so much for joining us today. And before we dive in, we were wondering if we could just have you tell us a little bit about what the essay is about, and if there's anything noteworthy that's going on in Baldwin's life when he was writing it?


Adam Shatz  01:53

Sure, and thank you for having me. This essay "Alas, Poor Richard" is Baldwin's reflection on Richard Wright and his relationship with Richard Wright, which was a mentorship not quite a friendship and eventually in an estranged relationship. And it was written in three parts. The essay is a triptych of three different pieces, published in Reporter Magazine in encounter. And finally in Nobody Knows My Name, his second essay collection. So the last part was not previously published. And I think it's notable that there are these three attempts to settle accounts with Richard Wright, who was, you know, the most important black American writer of his of his time, and who, you know, was a powerful force in Baldwin's imagination almost for a time, a kind of surrogate father, James Baldwin, met Richard Wright for the first time in 1944. It was about a year after the death of his own father, a preacher with whom he had a kind of love hate relationship. And he'd only recently learned that his father, his late father was not his biological father. And so he was looking for, for a kind of authority figure, beginning to think of himself as a writer. He was working on an early draft of his first novel, very autobiographical novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, and he went to meet Richard ride at his home in Brooklyn, where Wright was living with his wife, Ellen, a Jewish communist and their infant daughter Julia. And he went there and Wright greeted him with what Baldwin remembered was a a mockingly conspiratorial smile. And Wright poured ihmbourbon, and James Baldwin was not in the habit of drinking bourbon and found himself telling Wright much more about his novel than he intended to and Wright helped him to obtain this Eugene F. Saxton grant of $500, which enabled Baldwin to pursue his work on the novel. But, you know, when they met again, in Paris a few years later, when Wright and Baldwin were both living, they've both become expatriates. Their relationship had changed considerably. Baldwin published his first piece in Paris in a magazine in an expat magazine called zero and the piece was called everybody's protest novel. And this was a piece that was largely about Harriet Beecher Stowe but it included tacked on at the end was a very provocative critique of Wright's 1940 novel Native Son and he basically characterized that novel as a latter day Uncle Tom's Cabin, which reduced black humanity to its categorization and even pictured Wright and Harriet Beecher Stowe locked in this this timeless, deadly embrace with with Harriet Beecher Stowe hurling exhortations and, and Wright, shouting invective. And Wright was very hurt, because he'd felt that Baldwin owed a lot to him that he had been a good mentor. And he didn't understand what he was suddenly, the object of, of Baldwin Baldwins critical dissection and Baldwin walked into the Brasserie Lip, on Paris's left bank and Wright was in there. This was the day that the article was published in 1949. And Wright, asked Baldwin to come to his table. Baldwin did, and Wright, accused him of not only betraying him, but attempting to destroy him and I mean Baldwin writes in "Alas, Poor Richard" that it never occurred to him that equally even that he could that he could ever destroy someone of Richard Wright stature. So you know, this, this is a piece very much about the sometimes torturous relationship between between writer and protege. But of course, it was written some 11 years or 12 years after that encounter. And, and at the time that James Baldwin published this essay, he was now you know, an illustrious writer in his own right, I he'd published two novels, Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room. He was a celebrated essays for his book, Notes of a Native Son, He was the most famous black writer, black American writer of his time, and Wright by contrast, had settled into a kind of dignity dignitary status in Paris was close to the existentialist circle. But he was fairly a strain, apparently alienated guy and cut off from America. People weren't reading his recent novels, they, you know, really didn't measure up to his earlier work, although he was publishing some very interesting journalism, which we can talk about later. And so when Richard Wright died in 1960, he left this void. And James Baldwin, I think, felt that he couldn't not write about Richard Wright, about this man who had helped to form him. And and so he sat down three times to write about him and then put these pieces together in "Alas, Poor Richard"—


Zach Fine  08:10

Could we look at the first paragraph and have you read it for us?


Adam Shatz  08:13

Sure. So the first part of this triptych is called "Eight Men," which is a reference to the title of Richard Wright's posthumous collection of stories, "Eight Men." And one of the really interesting things about this, this essay is that Baldwin is revising his own understanding of Richard Wright's work, and developing a much more sympathetic and penetrating understanding of what Richard Wright's actual themes were. He doesn't recant what he said earlier, and everybody's protest now, but but you can tell that that Baldwin is, you know, reconsidering the argument in which he essentially slayed Richard Wright. He writes, unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he's probably become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching. The world has many labels for him, of which the most treacherous is the label of success. But the man behind the label knows defeat far more intimately than he knows triumph. He can never be absolutely certain that he has achieved his intention.


Zach Fine  09:45

So why do you think Baldwin starts the essay there as he is he saying that success was a curse for Wright? What is he kind of suggesting and setting out at the very beginning?


Adam Shatz  09:55

Wright's success had become something of a curse for him. On the one hand, it had opened doors it had allowed him to, to move to France with his family. at the invitation of the French government, the original invitation, I believe, came from Claude Levi Strauss and he visited France in 1946, really liked it. And then came back in 1947. He and Ellen Wright had had terrible problems in the United States, even in I shouldn't perhaps I shouldn't say even in New York, but also in New York City where they could not buy a house together under their own name, because they were a mixed couple. But this success, I think, in Baldwin's view, had led Wright to not just to expatriate himself, but to cut himself off to some extent from from his true literary subject in America and to forge alliances with French intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir and the old [inaudible] circle. Who in in Baldwin's estimation, had really much less interest in people than in ideas, and and Wrights, the novels that Wright published when he was living in France, suffered from that same defect they were they were kind of cerebral confections that were not particularly grounded and lived experience. It was as if Wright wanted to reinvent himself as an existential novelist. Now, I happen to think that some of those novels are interesting, but but I think any bear appraisal would lead one to the conclusion that they they do not rate as highly as works like native son or his birth, short story collection, or his his memoir, which I think is one of the great works of American literature, black boy. And my guess, too, is that Baldwin is thinking perhaps about his own success, and, and thinking about how he is going to forge his next step. There's a point in the first section of this essay, where he writes that violence has tended to fill the space where sex should be in novels by black Americans. And as it happens, Baldwin was writing his great sex novel, another country. It's clear that that Baldwin is, you know, thinking about his own work, his own understanding of the writer's vocation, in relationship to Richard Wright. You know, this is one of the great self and other essays in my view.


Jessica Swoboda  12:56

So I noticed that Baldwin doesn't even mention Wright by name until the third paragraph. Why? What kind of foundation is Baldwin laying for his essay and these opening paragraphs?


Adam Shatz 13:10

Well, I do think he's suggesting in the in the opening paragraphs, that the figure of the writer, and in this case, Richard Wright, while the writer is alive, stands in between the reader and the readers understanding of the work. And I think that he's almost I think what he's saying is that Richard Wright, as a man, as a black man, who had survived to tell the tale stood in between Baldwin, and his understanding of what Richard Wright's work was ultimately about. As I said, in everybody's protest novel, he had characterized not just sorry, in, in everybody's protest novel, but also in a subsequent essay that he published a year or so later, many 1000s gone, which appeared in partisan review. He put forward a pretty lacerating critique of Richard Wright as a writer guided by protest, a writer for whom literature was protest and Baldwin. Although he flirted with the with Trotskyism, when he was a teenager, was never unlike Richard Wright, a member of the Communist Party, you know, the Communist Party formed Richard Wright. You can't really understand Richard Wright's work without understanding his relationship with the Communist Party in the 1930s. He was one of the Communist Party's prize intellectuals prize black intellectuals, and even after he left the party, he contends You'd in some in many ways to think of himself as a protest writer, although I think is his understanding what protest writing was was was different from Baldwin Baldwin, on the other hand, was very much an aesthete. You know, his two greatest influences were the King James Bible. And Henry James, he later added a third the blues, which was always there, although we emphasized it more. In you know, in his later work. James Baldwin was also gay. And, and, and I think, you know, Baldwin sexuality is crucial to an understanding of his work. Richard Wright, I think, was in some ways mystified by Baldwin sexuality, and in one case, characterized his prose in a way that was implicitly homophobic. So I think that in those initial graphs, Baldwin is essentially confessing to the fact that in 1949, when he published everybody's protest novel, he could only see Wright, he really couldn't see Wright's writing.


Jessica Swoboda  16:05

So later in the essay, Baldwin expresses that he wants to turn to Wright and suggest that they talk as if white people are not listening. So who is the imagined audience for this essay? And how does it shape the way Baldwin writes it?


Adam Shatz  16:23

You know, my sense of of passages like this is that, you know, Wright was being sorry that my sense of passages like this is that Baldwin was being somewhat mocking of Wright's efforts to remain politically relevant. From his, from what was a comfortable exile in Paris, and, you know, much of this essay is devoted, I think, to a theme that comes up a lot in Baldwin's work, which is, you know, what, you know, he called the price of the ticket, you know, what the costs of acceptance and success and, you know, his judgment is that is that is that Wright, ended up paying too high a price, that Wright had exchanged of one illusion for another, I can find the passage Actually, hold on. I'll rephrase that. In the first section of Alas, poor Richard Baldwin writes, that Wright was fond of referring to Paris as the City of Refuge. That's a reference to an essay that Wright wrote, but did not publish actually, when he first arrived, when he first settled in Paris called I choose exile. He was fond of referring to Paris as the City of Refuge, which certainly was, God knows the likes of us. But it was not a city of refuge for the French, still less for anyone belonging to France. It's an allusion to the colonies, and it would not have been a city of refuge for us, if we had not been armed with American passports, it did not seem worthwhile to me to have fled the native fantasy only to embrace a foreign one. And I think that's, you know, it's a it's a fairly, you know, cutting appraisal of Wright. And, in my view, not not entirely a fair one. But it's probably an authentic reconstruction of how Baldwin and some younger black writers felt when they looked at Wright, being embraced by the whole left bank circle of lay Tom moderne and Wright with someone who by then, had made it and you know, as you know, Baldwin puts it somewhat scathingly had was living like a white man in Paris. Now, that mean, the reason that I think that it's a somewhat unfair judgment is that in fact, in the in Paris, Richard Wright took part in the founding of the Pan African Journal, the Nativity to journal plays on Saturday can with Allien, D up and others ama says there. He launched the first black right black writers and artists conference in 1956, which Baldwin attended and reported on his piece princes and powers. And he also began to travel to, you know, what we now call the global south the continent of the world, which was in the midst of rebellions against colonialism and published two books on the subject, which still bear rereading. So while Wright was quite cautious when it came to the war in Algeria. He was fairly outspoken, and quite perceptive. And yet at the same time saying that At, he has a debt, in a sense, to the damage that he caused that he had to. He had to kill Wright to become James Baldwin.


Zach Fine  20:13

Reading the essay, there were moments maybe though where I found it, it was hard to believe that Baldwin actually did revere Wright as a god or as this kind of father figure as he presents them. And I'm wondering if there's any chance that that is a kind of disruption? Infection? Yeah. And I'm wondering what you think about that?


Adam Shatz  20:32

I think that I think that's possible. I think that's possible. I mean, it's occurred to me as well, that that Baldwin's account of this early meeting may be you know, as you were suggesting, a kind of essayistic construction. The biographical evidence suggests that he did revere Wright. question is did he Revere Wright because he revered the work. We know that he admired Blackfoot. But did he revere the work? Or did he rather Revere? The fact that Wright, it made it? And I think that the latter is probably the more powerful fact, Wright was someone who had survived an experience that an experience of of racism and terror that was unlike anything that Baldwin himself had known. Remember, Richard Wright is a he's not like Baldwin, He's not someone who grew up in Harlem. He's a refugee from the south. And he had seen things and heard of things that Baldwin, of course, had learned about, but it never himself witnessed. He knew people who were lynched, who would who had, who had lost their lives to what I think at one point, he calls the the white death. And he had made himself into a writer. And, I mean, remember that Native Son was a book of the month, love choice. That's no small achievement. Now, of course, the price that Richard Wright had to pay for becoming a book of the month, club author, this was a price that Baldwin himself was not aware of at the time, was that key passages in native Sun were deleted. And these were passages I think that would have given Baldwin a very much different picture of what Wright's intentions were because they involved the sexual desire, the current of desire, between beggar Thomas and the white woman he kills those were not in the original edition. And so beggar Thomas ends up seeming like a kind of a monster without motive. Which is one reason of course, why why Baldwin objected to the depiction of bigger Tom Thomas in, in Native Son. But I agree, I think that there's there's a case to be made, that he's amplifying is reverence for ride for the, for the for the, for the purposes of this essay, you know, another I think, interesting aspect of the Wright-Baldwin rivalry, as it were, although it's really a rivalry only on one side, because, you know, Wright regarded Baldwin as a, as an ungrateful, young upstart, he did not regard Baldwin as a competitor. Baldwin raged against, writes, what he took to be Wright's, narrow protests centered conception of the novel. But for one thing, he admits in this essay, that the setting of ball of Wright's fiction is not really the South, it's not really the South Side of Chicago. It's the desolation of the human heart, that these that these these are works of profound human emotion, and that they can't really under be understood in narrower protest terms. And then even even if Wright had understood himself to be a protest writer, some of his effects clearly, some of his, his effects eluded him, you know, and a writer is only aware of so many of his or her intentions. Furthermore, Baldwin ends up For the most part, writing novels that are very much in the vein of protest fiction. His prose style is obviously very different from Wright's. Wright, published in a kind of 30 style social realist, staccato prose that would never even mistaken for the kind of James Ian sentences of, of James Baldwin. But there is not a novel that James Baldwin published after Giovanni's Room, which is not a work of protest against the distorting impact of racism in the lives of both black and white people in America. And you know, this piece that Baldwin wrote in 1949, appeared just a few years after the death of a very close friend of his young black man, whom Baldwin was in love with. I don't think there were lovers but Baldwin was in love with this man, Eugene worth, Eugene worth, threw himself from the George Washington Bridge in the mid 40s. Baldwin writes somewhere that worths worth death was what led him to leave the states for France, he worried that if he stuck around, he'd end up like Eugene worth or he might kill someone. And Eugene worth later inspires the character of Rufus Scott, the the doomed jazz musician in another country who takes up with someone implausibly with a with a white woman from the south, and they have this torrid affair. And anyway, Rufus Scott ends up killing himself. And that's the setting for the the sort of emotive setting for the rest of the novel. But that first section, the novel, which is some 70, or 80 pages, reads, frankly, like protest, like a protest novel, you know, Rufus Scott is as much a symbol of the horror of American racism as bigger Thomas's. So, you know, sometimes it just just as Wright was unaware, perhaps, that his work was about something larger than the American race problem. So so to speak, as it was called them, although I think, Wright actually had much greater ambition. I mean, I do think Wright saw himself as a as an air of writers like this landscape. But just as Wright's work has to be understood beyond protests. So Baldwin's essay has to be understood in relation to protest and, and and of course, today, that's That's hardly a controversial statement. I mean, James Baldwin, owes his current celebrity to his this voice of prophetic criticism. I think that people who encounter Baldwin for the first time when they watch a film, like Raul pecks, I'm Not Your Negro would be rather shocked to learn that Baldwin had it in for protests fiction, you would think that's what that's all the Baldwin was about. But Baldwin, like Wright was, you know, highly contradictory. I mean, he was a, an artist of very deep and intimate and pure aesthetic vision. And at the same time, he was someone who very much wanted to speak His truth about his experience as a black man, they had far more in common they had, you know, in any case, I'll stop there, I'm going on for too long,


Zach Fine  28:55

Listening to you compare their prose styles, and then talk about talking about Baldwin as a writer of protest novels. It strikes me that and a lot of the essays and criticism about Baldwin and Wright together there's just this kind of insistent focus on the interpersonal quarrel between them. And I'm curious why you think that is why the the attraction to the drama of the you know, the conflict at outside the Brasserie leap or wherever, you know, it is in Paris at the time, like why, why do we focus on that? interpersonal conflict as opposed to the the differences in their work?


Adam Shatz 29:30

I think there are a number of reasons. One, of course, is that people are drawn to these Father, Son, or for that matter, mother daughter, battles, battles. I mean, why why are people gripped by succession? I mean, essentially, you know, it's a story of parents and children. I think, you know, another reason is that it's easier to talk about, I mean, in retrospect, it becomes clear that Baldwin and Wright didn't really have much of a relationship. They they, they knew each other at a certain point. Baldwin, you know, looked up to Wright as a successful black author followed him to Paris one could one could argue, then they had a rupture. And after that their relations were very distanced. Baldwin did not speak at Richard Wright's funeral. In fact, I don't even think he attended it. So, you know, this is not a case of two writers who know each other intimately and and have a falling out. The relationship was much more alive in Baldwin's imagination than it was in riots. But I think that it's easier to talk about than it is to talk about the work. I mean, just think about people's relationship to Baldwin's work today. On the one hand, it's a remarkable fact that in the last decade or so, Baldwin has been essentially resurrected. I mean, this is I think, you know, this is wonderful, and we owe it of course, to films like Raoul Peck's, I Am Not Your Negro, whatever you think of the film, and I, you know, it's a potent work, which is also, you know, a partial work and incomplete work of work that really never hardly brooches the issue of Baldwin sexuality, which is that said, I think is, you know, Central and any understanding of Baldwin's writing, still, we're in the midst of this, Baldwin revival and sanctification of James Baldwin, but in some cases, it's either led away from his writing, or it's led to a kind of cramped interpretation of the writing, which is either based on cherry picked quotations, and Baldwin, you know, is a treasure trove of quotations and aphorisms, not to mention speeches that you can find on YouTube. No writer, I think, rivaled Baldwin in his flair for public speaking. I mean, the only writer, that era who came close in the States was probably Norman Mailer. And Norman Mailer was a clown by comparison. James Baldwin had a had this impeccable moral authority when he spoke. So you have the quotes, you have the you know, you have the the YouTube speeches. And then you have this shift in focus from the searching and probing and often very ambivalent essays that he wrote in the late 40s. And throughout the 1950s, all the way up to the Fire Next Time, you know, the peak at the very peak of his powers, you know, when he essentially married, you know, weds the civil rights movement, a shift from that work, to the Baldwin have no name in the street published in 1972, which I think is a very fine piece of writing. Not that quite the level of his earlier work. But the most important thing here, I think, for the purpose of our conversation is that no name in the street, has a very, has a very different tone and very different sensibility. It's much more bruised and battered and disillusioned and bleak. And it's almost as if Baldwin in in, in the space of less than a decade, has gone from being a qualified. I mean, I'm using terms that didn't exist then. And I'm being somewhat facetious, but he's gone from being a qualified, Afro optimist, to being a very seasoned Afro pessimist. And and the Baldwin we read about today is really the, the more pessimistic, bleak. Baldwin who is who knows that? You know, the, the, the American Heart is, you know, human made, but is unsure that humans can actually alter it and set the country on a different path. And I think but I think, you know, as as as welcome, as this revival has been, it, it has also led to a somewhat oversimplified understanding of Baldwin's work and the way that that work reflects the journey of his life. And so to get back to your question about about about Baldwin and Wright, Baldwin has been sanctified, Richard Wright has been virtually forgotten. I mean, kids still, you know, if they're lucky, they'll read Black Boy or Native Son, but he's not read very much and very few People are reading his books like white man listen, or the color curtain, which is, you know, fascinating report from the Pentagon conference. They're not aware of Wright, the journalist who, you know, was a precursor to the grant of journalism of the 1980s. So if you have one figure who's sanctified and the other who's forgotten, it's so much easier to get the kind of transAtlantic Netflix version of an older black writer and a younger black writer, one exiting the scene one entering the scene feuding. Right? I mean,


Zach Fine  35:35

do you feel like that's changing right now? Do you feel like there is a resurgence of interest in Wright, and not only marked by, you know, things like your essay, but, you know, there's a lot of interest now these days and existentialism again. And so I'm wondering if Wright's novels like the outsider, will come back into vogue in some way or his work on colonialism? Do you think things are going to kind of turn in terms of


Adam Shatz  35:57

I think that that one, one example of that would be the republication of I think it's the first full length publication of his novella. The man who went underground. I do see a growing interest among scholars, one of the, I think, one of the pioneers of, of a, you know, let's hope let's hope it will be a Richard Wright revival is the, the scholar Paul Gilroy, who's probably best known for his book, The Black Atlantic, he's written quite brilliantly about Richard Wright. And, and I think that that you're onto something that the fascination of figures, like Simone de Beauvoir might end up rubbing off on, on on Richard Wright as well. You know, Wright's work. And I leave aside black boy, because I think black boy is as an immediately accessible work, and, and really one of the most enchanting and powerful autobiographies that I know of Wright's work is more difficult to access than Baldwin. And it's not simply because Wright's prose is less seductive in Baldwin. So whose writing is whose writing is as seductive as Baldwin's anyway. I mean, not there aren't many American essays who can, who can, who can equal him. It's more difficult to access because I think in some ways, it's more tethered to a certain period in American life, especially the depression years, the hungry theories. Now, it's quite possible that the revival of interest in that period, you know, because of, you know, economic precarity today, because of increasing interest in Marxism, that may also lead people back to Wright. But when you read Wright, and I do admire, wright, you don't have the same feeling that you do when you when you open Notes of a Native Son, or nobody knows my name, or a novel like Giovanni's Room that the writer is speaking to you. And that that's, I mean, very few writers can create that immediate intimacy of address that one flat finds in Baldwin's essays, which feel sort of seductively I keep using that word confessional even when he's not really telling you much about himself. Regret Baldwin doesn't really own up that much about himself. And some of the stories that he tells he repeats in numerous essays, I think to really get the novel. You know, it's, but nevertheless, there's some very strong writing in that book, and how fascinating it is. That even published a book like that. I mean, it's, it's, it's, it's an utterly weird and surreal book.


Jessica Swoboda  39:17

You mentioned the intimacy of address. And I wanted to ask about the title of this essay, "Alas, Poor Richard." What do you make of the Alas? an expression of grief, pity, concern? Is Baldwin directing that at himself or Wright or at both of them? And then how about the poor as well?


Adam Shatz  39:40

It's a good question. And I I would agree with you that it's, it's directed at himself, I think, to some degree, but I do think it's mostly directed at Wright. And I think that and the reason I think that has to do with the the conclusion of the piece Um, it's a it's a, it's in this conclusion, he characterizes Richard Wright, as a victim of a war and the victim of the war between whiteness and blackness. And, and he is, essentially, he is historicizing Richard Wright. He's saying that Richard Wright was this remarkably brilliant, but ultimately tragic figure who reflects an era that is about to pass I mean, I if you don't mind, I'm going to read the read short passage from the conclusion of that of that essay. So after characterizing Wright as one of the most illustrious victims of the war between blackness and whiteness, a man who is Baldwin eventually found himself wandering in a no man's land between the black world and the white world. Baldwin writes, it is no longer important to the white, thank heaven, the white face is no longer invested with the power of this world. And it is devoutly to be hoped that it will soon no longer be important to be black. The experience of the American Negro, if it is ever faced and assessed, makes it possible to hope for such a reconciliation. The hope and effect of this fusion in the breast of the American Negro is one of the few hopes we have of surviving the wilderness which lies before us now. So I do think that the alas poor is mostly directed at Wright. I mean, he's, I guess you could say that he's consigning Richar Wright to a history which he has decided, is coming to an end. Now, I wonder what Baldwin would have to say now, of course, because clearly, we have not reached that point where whiteness has ceased to matter. And I think very few black writers would imagine or hope, for a time when, when, when being black would cease to matter. Baldwin is expressing, I think, an optimism that grows out of not just the civil rights movement in the states in which he'd become, you know, an increasingly influential participant, you know, with his friendships with Medgar Evers and, and Martin Luther King Jr, and his friendship of Malcolm X, but it also grows out of the excitement of decolonization in Africa. And, and it's notable that the last section of this piece, Alas, poor Richard, which he wrote, For, nobody knows my name. He takes up the question of Richard Wright's relations with Africans in France, Africans whose relationship to blackness to their identity is very different from that of black Americans, Africans who do not have the same kind of privileges that black Americans were the beneficiary beneficiaries of in Paris.


Jessica Swoboda  43:21

So you have this book of essays coming out, it's forthcoming, Writers and Missionaries. And you write in the introduction to that, about being attracted to start for his, quote, riveting portraits of other writers. And this book that you have coming out is this collection of portraits of writers. And I'm wondering I guess we'll leave it up to our listeners to—


Adam Shatz  43:48

The last I want is to bore people but yeah.


Jessica Swoboda  43:54

So but what does a riveting portrait contain?


Adam Shatz  43:58

Well, you know, the thing about those you know, I don't know whether you're familiar with with with with Sauron was essays on people like Paul Nizami who was a classmate of his, at the Colome LCpl. Er or, or, or have Merleau Ponty? Who is a very close friend of his and a participant in the existentialist movement, great philosopher, or, or, I mean, or his essays on, you know, his great at his essay on Janay, or, you know, these, these are portraits. They really are quite remarkable. It's almost as if to write about these people. Sartre would place himself in their shoes and almost will himself to be them. I mean, he writes about them with this, this almost fictionalized and certainly magisterial authority, so when he's writing about someone like Nizami, you feel that he has this this Um, magical access to measles determination his drive is, is his rebelliousness. At the same time, I mean, in the case of Newsong SARS is also very aware of the ways in which he fell short as a human being, compared to, to the zone. So I guess it's that it's that it's that immersion in the imagination of another writer, that that, that I find gripping in in the best kind of literary portraits.


Zach Fine  45:44

In the introduction you talk about, in addition to portraits, you talk about the essay form, and you even compare it to your early interest in jazz. Not early on it risks Oh, sorry, not early interest was that a?


Adam Shatz  45:56

Jazz is like my lifelong interest. I'm interested in jazz more than I'm in anything.


Zach Fine  46:03

More than seven second to jazz essays? Tell us a little bit more, tell us more. But in terms of your interest in in essays, and the essay form, what was the the early appeal of that, as opposed to say, novels or short stories? Why why essays? What spoke to you about essays?


Adam Shatz  46:24

Well, I mean, I suppose that, you know, the, the, you know, one of the things that I always liked about essays, is the fact that they are, you know, an essay, by definition is an effort, right? It's an attempt, it's a, it's an attempt to think through a set of issues or a problem. It's not always, I mean, of course, there are some essays which set out to be, you know, definitive statements, but the most essays aren't like that. They're more searching more ruminative, they, they, they they often leave us with more questions than than answers and I think that's what you know, what interested me about essays I was always interested in criticism too. I mean, I I I like debating ideas and and you know, when to you know, to read an essay really is to enter into some kind of well enter into a debate into a conversation with a writer about one in some cases another work that's what I think also that there were certain practitioners I, I found to be, you know, just enormously compelling. I you know, Joan Didion, Jana Malka, Malcolm, Pauline Kael. I fell in love with Walter Benjamin's work when I was in college. Essays like is, well, his essays on Kafka and Bruce certainly, but also his great piece on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. And and it's, you know, it occurs to me that often, you know, essays, maybe because of their provisional quality, are, are more often more daring than then full fledged books. That they, you know, I do think that writers often take chances in essays that they don't necessarily take elsewhere.


Jessica Swoboda  48:26

So in this in writers and missionaries, again, in the introduction, Zack and I were very taken by it, as you can probably assume from so many of our questions right now, you write. And while I write extensively about their political choices, I'm just as interested in their aesthetic commitments, the sensibilities and obsessions that give their work, its power, its character, and what Bart's would have called at screen, without which their work would not be worth considering today. And the relationship between aesthetics and politics is something heavily debated and criticism. And I'm wondering, why do you think it's important to capture both the aesthetic and the political? And what do we lose if we prioritize or focus on only one over the other?


Adam Shatz  49:09

Well, for one thing, why would we read a writer who did not in some way, move or unsettle or affect us? If that work, could be reduced to its political utterances? Why not just read a summary of the person's positions? I mean, Baldwin had a set of views. You know, which are, you know, certainly illuminating in some ways. I mean, you know, he was a, you know, he was a far reaching, you know, and I think that's one reason why people are still reading him, but I don't think he's just read for his views. You know, I think he will I Think and frankly, I think that a writer like Baldwin will be read, even if, you know, in the, you know, even in the unlikely event, let's say in our lifetime, that the problems he addressed are solved. You know, because there is something in that writing, which which which touches us in in a deeper way. There's a music in that prose, you know, which is ineffable. That's what Baldwin is his sentences. It's not just his pronouncements. And and, you know, I often feel like I'm, you know, like a moralist among aesthetes and an aesthete among moralists. Just, you know, and I think that's one of the reasons why, you know, Susan sontag's work so interesting, because she's constantly toggling between formalism and moralism. It's obviously very important for us to understand how writers responded to the political crises of their time. I mean, for for a number of reasons. You know, in some ways, it's quite humbling. I mean, we see now you see writers, making what today we think of as, you know, terrible mistakes, you know, and I don't hesitate to, you know, to spot those, I mean, today, we would say, call them out, well, that's a phrase I hate to identify those, those, those mistakes. But I think it's also humbling, I mean, we are today making mistakes of our own. I'm not even saying what they are, I'm just, we don't even know what they are, we'll find out later, you know, a new generation of writers will read us and call us out. But, you know, so, to me, it's the it's that struggle in the dark. That's interesting. You know, I mean, you know, as they say, you know, you know, we think backwards and we can only live forwards. And, and even writers who are guided by a by a blazing and an admirable political vision of, you know, social justice and so on, you know, like Baldwin, make mistakes, make moral mistakes, too. So, you know, I think we, you know, I'm interested in their politics for both because they can potentially be, you know, a beacon as it were, but also because they're reminder that, you know, making choices in what are invariably challenging times is not easy. With respect to the aesthetic. You know, a writer is his or her music. And if we don't hear that music, we're not reading them.


Jessica Swoboda  52:53

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this episode of selected essays. We'd like to thank Joe Coleman for editing the podcast and make Duffy of hand habits for contributing the original music. We hope you'll tune into our next episode, where we'll be talking with Leslie Jamison about Charles D'Ambrosio's essay "Documents." As always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and if you have any questions or comments, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners

What is "Alas, Poor Richard" about?
Adam reads a passage from "Alas, Poor Richard"
Is success a curse?
The foundation for the essay
Who is the imagined audience?
God or father figure?
Wright and Baldwin's interpersonal conflict
Resurgence of interest in Wright?
Dissecting the title
A riveting portrait
Why Adam likes the essay form
Aesthetics and politics