A Precise Mind

James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son is in many places marked by the precision of one who sees the connections and disconnections that others often don’t.

His comparisons are vibrant: Lena “Horne’s column made her sound like an embittered Eleanor Roosevelt” (p. 61).

He is careful in his distinctions: Harriet Beecher Stowe “was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer” (p. 14).

And he shows that distinctions matter to him: “Negroes of the professional class (as distinct from professional Negroes) …” (p. 70).

The ability to discern links and distinctions shows in his frequent figures of speech, such as:

Personification: “Causes … are notoriously blood-thirsty.” (p. 15)

Metaphor: “that community of phantoms which is our tenaciously held ideal of the happy social life” ( p. 40)

Synecdoche: “It is out of our reaction to these hewers of wood and drawers of water that our image of Bigger was created.” (p. 37)

His nearly oxymoronic two-word phrases highlight the ironies of the life he chronicles: “bitter expectancy” (p. 57).

He doesn’t write down to the reader but rather assumes a culturally literate readership: “The favorite text of my father … was not “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (pp. 67-68).

He blends high and low diction to make his points resonate: “The aim has now become to reduce all Americans to the compulsive, bloodless dimensions of a guy named Joe.” (p. 20)

His words and phrases are vivid: “one of those energetic, last-minute convolutions of the plot” (p. 17).

He refreshes overused words by employing them for their original meaning: “their stupid … endurance” (p. 39).

However, he is not above attempting to redefine words: “[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment” (p. 15).

Mr. Baldwin writes like one who enjoys his intellect and its pursuits and so values words for their role in concept formation and expects the same of his readers.

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