“It was Sol Stein, high school buddy, editor, novelist, playwright, who first suggested this book.” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) wrote in the 1984 edition of his literary masterpiece, Notes of a Native Son.
“My reaction was not enthusiastic: as I remember, I told him that I was too young to publish my memoirs. […] Sol’s suggestion had the startling and unkind effect of causing me to realize that time had passed. It was as though he dashed cold water in my face.”
Baldwin had only written fiction before his childhood friend Sol Stein (October 13, 1926 – September 19, 2019) pushed him to consolidate a few essays into a sort of memoir. “I had never thought of myself as an essayist: the idea had never entered my mind” Baldwin admits.
“I don’t remember Baldwin’s resistance to doing the book.” counters Stein humbly, “I do remember the editorial process, helped by recently finding my line-by-line editorial notes and Baldwin’s responses, which are included in the correspondence section of the book. Writers can be wary of editors they don’t know well. By the time Baldwin and I had to deal with Notes of the Native Son, the overlay of a friendship of a dozen years made the process easier.”
Baldwin died in 1987 and in 2003, Stein cobbled together their editing notes, correspondence, and personal letters in Native Sons. It is a precious read brimming with personal voice from Stein and Baldwin – “When you read James Baldwin’s letters, he will speak to you too” writes Stein.
The two became friends at a DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx when Stein was thirteen and Baldwin was fifteen. “Clinton was a garden in which black and white teenagers could become fast friends” wrote Stein. The two talented and aspiring writers connected while working on the school’s literary publication The Magpie.
A friendship that endures might reasonable be defined as a house in which disagreements are confined to an attic that can be opened for memoirs but never for continuation of a former argument. Baldwin and I came to our friendship with differences. He was black and I was white, he loved men and I loved women, he assumed his ancestors came to America in chains and i assumed my parents, who slipped over the border separately and illegally, came here because they had nowhere else to go. Despite the differences – we lived many miles apart – because of our friendship our families took a liking to each other.
Although Baldwin and Stein disagree how the creative endeavor came about and who was more eager, both men agree that without the elastic sinews of friendship Notes of a Native Son would never have been published.
Like so many who have written about the duality of writing, Baldwin struggled with being misunderstood, unseen, “Because of what I had become in the minds of the people, I had ceased to belong to me.” 1
Toward the end of his life, Baldwin said Notes of a Native Son was of crucial importance in his struggle to define himself in relation to his society, “I was trying to decipher my own situation, to spring my trap, and it seemed to me the only way I could address was not take the tone of the victim. As long as I saw myself as a victim, complaining about my wretched state as a black man in a white’s man’s country, it was hopeless. Everybody knows who the victim is as long as he’s howling. So I shifted the point of view to ‘we.’ Who is the ‘we’? I am talking about we, the American people.2
Through their mutual trust and creative partnership, Stein consoled Baldwin through his struggle of self-discovery. Stein also addressed the rather pressing issue that “in the world of publishing and bookselling, it was believed that essays did not sell.”
Part of the problem was that putting a binding around random essays made for a random reading experience. A book demanded cohesiveness. The reader had to feel he was on a discernible path from the first page to the last, which meant a lot of attention had to be paid to the order of the essays. In addition, the first and last essays had to be chosen carefully, for the mission of the first was to get the reader to read on, and the mission of the last was to leave the reader with a strong impression of the book.
Stein wrote that he “wanted every possible reinforcement for my friend’s first book of essays to succeed” like this Prefatory Note which connected the disparate essays and argued they were pieces of a critical whole.
Later, when a publisher was brought on board, Stein wrote the jacket copy to the book, although it was later rejected by the publisher in favor of a much-less adequate copy (according to Stein).
The two friends worked very closely on the edits as well, “Baldwin and I…seemed to weather our editorial exchanges remarkably well.” wrote Stein.
Before the publication, Stein had been pushing the editors at New York Times Review of Books for a favorable review (I imagine him being quite pushy) so they sent a supportive note.
Stein’s Native Sons offers “a stage view” for how Baldwin’s absolutely critical Notes of a Native Son came to take its place in the world.
After the exceedingly warm reception Notes of a Native Son, and Baldwin’s granted prominence as an essay writer, Stein and Baldwin’s friendship did not wane as shown in this very personal letter from Baldwin about a mental breakdown.
The rich, vital themes of brotherhood, of the connectedness to be found in grief and trauma and of our shared responsibility to care and to dismantle false realities of what it means to be Black or white in America are the backbone of Baldwin’s essays. It is clear that it was his dear friendships underlined these beliefs and made such hope of unity possible.3
Sit in Baldwin’s company a while longer with this loving, soul-opening letter to his nephew James and read Stein’s own generous advice to writers gleaned from a long career of helping so many find their voice.