James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

Philip Roth and Writing for One’s ‘Community’

In reviewing Claudia Roth Pierpont‘s Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, Adam Mars-Jones writes:

Letting Go…hadn’t yet been published when Roth was given a hostile reception at a symposium organised by Yeshiva University….The topic was ‘The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction’, and the idea seemed to be, if he didn’t already have such a crisis, to lay one on for him. The first question he was asked was: ‘Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?’….

There might have been places where Pietro di Donato, author of Christ in Concrete, would be grilled in fine detail about his depiction of Italian immigrants. There were certainly places where Ralph Ellison would be called out for Invisible Man’s representation of the Negro and for his views on the race question. But at Yeshiva University Philip Roth was always going to be the main dish. By accepting a Jewish university’s invitation…Roth was also implicitly accepting that he had responsibilities towards his community.

Even if the hostile questioning lasted half an hour…The profound effect it had seems to combine a rejection of the forces that held him to account and a rejection of the elements of his personality that led him to expect anything different….Roth’s idealism…was certainly transformed, not poisoned but pickled, perhaps, by the bitter juices of experience.

The immediate effect of the Yeshiva confrontation…was that Roth resolved never to write about Jews again. Of course he did, but from that point on he took pleasure in defying any party line.

Writing for a community while informed by some supposed responsibility to it feels like an impossible burden to bear. This is not because the writer (or some other artist) is a magically autonomous entity outside the realm of moral judgment; rather, it is because the supposed community is not easily defined. A ‘community’ is as nebulous an entity as ‘nation’, as problematic in the way it is invoked and used for chastisement and censure.That old slogan “no entity without identity” seems particularly apropos in this situation: Who and what are included in the community? What are its origins and extents? Who occupies its margins, who its center?

This problem of demarcation and definition immediately renders the writer’s fulfillment of his supposed ‘responsibilities’ to his ‘community’ intractable: Who should she write for? Whom should she represent? Whose voice should she articulate? Which agendas should be hers?

Those who demand responsibilities toward a community from those who write, all the while bearing the nominal identity of this supposed group, are very often a privileged group, comfortably ensconced in a dominant position. When they make their demands for fidelity, they are all too often seeking a commitment to their ideologically inflected vision of the community, their positions of privilege and power, their roles as community story-tellers.

The writer who is accused of having abdicated his responsibilities to the community has, more often than not, complicated this comfortable picture. In those cases, such accusations should be worn like badges of honor.