A Critical Review Of James Baldwin’s Another Country
James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country, takes place primarily in Harlem, New York, in the late 1950’s, and features the lives and relationships of Rufus, Vivaldo, Ida, Cass, Richard, and Eric. In Book One: Easy Rider, Rufus recounts the events that lead up to his suicide, and the complicated relationships between him, Vivaldo, Cass, and Richard are introduced. Vivaldo enters a relationship with Rufus’ sister, Ida, brought on by their closeness following Rufus’ demise. In Book Two: Any Day Now, Eric is the focus as he makes his way back from Paris, leaving his lover Yves behind, to New York City. He reunites with his old friends, almost a year after Rufus’ untimely death. Tensions in the group of friends grow, as Cass and Richard continually fight, and Vivaldo forces himself into ignorance over Ida’s supposed unfaithfulness. Cass and Eric have an affair, that when discovered by Richard, leads to blows. Book Three: Toward Bethlehem begins with Eric and Vivaldo confessing a love to each other in which they both agree cannot go further than one night. The tension from the last section comes to a head, as Cass decides to stay with her husband after breaking things off with Eric, and Vivaldo finally confronts Ida about her infidelity. The novel comes to a close with Yves stepping off a plane, and joining Eric in New York.
Baldwin’s writing flows smoothly, lending the readers an insight of the character’s inner thoughts. The text is filled with small, obscure details, and can be disorganized and informal, often displaying incorrect grammar. It is truly as if the character’s thoughts have been spilled on the page, offering the purest impression of their experiences, feelings, and reactions. Time is temporarily suspended, as in the middle of a conversation, “Vivaldo’s mind is filled suddenly with the image of a movie he had seen long ago. He saw a bird dog, tense, pointing, absolutely silent, waiting for a covey of quail to surrender to panic and fly upward, where they could be picked off by the guns of the hunters” (Baldwin, 63). Baldwin uses this excerpt from Vivaldo’s mind as a pseudo-metaphor to show how Vivaldo feels like prey in a questioning conversation.
The format of the page adds to Baldwin’s writing style. The text is often in large, uninterrupted blocks, with dialogue imbedded inside, unlike the more common style of separating dialogue with short paragraphs. This composition is more difficult to read than the aforementioned ‘common style’, and encourages the reader’s eyes to skim. However, it augments the focus on the characters inner thoughts. In this way, Baldwin took a risk, and it pays off in it’s effectiveness in supporting his targeted technique.
Although Baldwin’s writing style is intriguing to read, and his underlying topics can be discerned, this novel is not an easy read. As mentioned above, the format alone makes the physical act of reading a monumental task in itself. Additionally, time is dilated throughout the novel by the ample descriptions of inner thought, which makes it difficult to follow the series of events. When out on a short walk, Rufus’ ponderings take up over two pages between the time it takes for someone to approach him to make conversation. Baldwin also employs a convoluted way of describing happenings, leaving the reader digging for tangible details, let alone the themes of the novel.
This novel tackles difficult topics, including racism, gender-roles, and sexuality, and was controversial enough that when it was released, it was banned completely in New Orleans (Field, 202), and from import to Australia (Clarke). Baldwin demonstrates in this novel the complicated relationship between race, sexuality, and gender, and it is present on every page. Every character, whether black or white, deals with one, but often all, of the aforementioned topics. Baldwin offers diverse perspectives, with every character examined in-depth, and none reduced to their stereotypes. Eric, a white man with a sexual history that extends to both genders, and an old, unrequited love for Rufus, contemplates on his relationship with men, love, and sexuality:
“He saw their vulnerability, and they saw his. But they did not love him for this. They used him. He did not love them either, though he dreamed of it. And the encounter took place, at last, between two dreamers, neither of whom could wake the other, except for the bitterest and briefest of seconds” (Baldwin, 212).
Eric struggles with his masculinity, and the effect that society’s ideas of gender has on his relationships. Particularly with men, a love free of the age-old, anglo-perpetuated influence of gender-roles is nothing more than an incomprehensible dream. Rufus did not even consider he would be able to have a relationship with Leona, a southern white girl, despite her meeting his friends, and staying at his house. Baldwin makes the point that the way society has been constructed, it is impossible that anyone can break out of the status-quo cycle, even when aware they are trapped.
Baldwin's ability to effectively communicate sexuality, racism, and love can be attributed to his personal experience with such topics. Baldwin was a black, sexually fluid man who grew up in Harlem, and lived in Paris. He no doubt incorporated elements of his own life within the novel. A activist friend of his had committed suicide by jumping off a bride, the same way Rufus did in Another Country, and according to a close friend of Baldwin’s, Baldwin was considering suicide himself during what seems to have been an arduous writing process (Isler). Baldwin can be taken as a very reliable authority on many of the topics touched on in the novel, simply because he had lived through the story he created for his characters.
Overall, Baldwin has an unconventional approach to writing, and tackles important topics during an important time. This novel is relevant even now, as race, gender, and sexuality, while more accepted in their variety, are still confusing, and have heavy societal influences. This novel is an interesting read, and is even more interesting to analyze, as Baldwin has packed as much content as possible into an already 436 page book. However, it is not a leisure read, and anyone who has it on their to-read list should be forewarned of the bulky writing, and even bulkier content.