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The Poet And The Prophet

James Baldwin (Photo: MDCArchives)

Honesty time: As a writer, I’m really envious of novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin. If only I could write like that.  These guys, they seem to write so effortlessly, like poetry and prose just flows from their fingertips.

I’ve known about Fitzgerald for a long time, but Baldwin is one of my new favorites. This guy, wow, is a powerful writer. The rhythm and cadence of his writing–I’ve never read anything like it.

Take this passage from Go Tell It On The Mountain, for instance, which occurs after Gabriel, a “God-fearing” pastor and father, spends the night with a prostitute:

The silence was the silence of the early morning, and he was returning from the harlot’s house. Yet all around him were the sounds of the morning: of birds, invisible, praising God; of crickets in the vines, frogs in the swamp, or dogs miles away and close at hand, roosters on the porch. The sun was not yet half awake; only the utmost tops of the trees had begun to tremble at his turning; and the mist moved sullenly, before Gabriel and all around him, falling back before the light that rules the day. Later, he said of that morning that his sin was on him; then he knew only that he carried a burden and that he longed to lay it down. This burden was heavier than the heaviest mountain and he carried it in his heart. With each step that he took his burden grew heavier, and his breath became slow and harsh, and, of a sudden, cold sweat stood out on his brow and drenched his back.

I could read writing like that all day. Reminds me a little of Harper Lee’s writing in the early pages of To Kill A Mockingbird, when she is setting the scene in Maycomb.

If you haven’t read James Baldwin, maybe you should–especially if you enjoy prose writers who are borderline poets.

My review of Go Tell It On The Mountain comes tomorrow.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sounds amazing!
    While there will always be writers whose abilities I would love to procure for myself, our voices are meant to be uniquely our own. Maybe that is part of the fascination with outstanding poetry or prose — the clarity with which the author expresses the essence of a particular viewpoint at a particular time in a particular place.
    Who else could duplicate the singular work of Hemingway without having his extraordinary experiences in Europe and the Caribbean or his struggles with injuries and depression? How would Fitzgerald have written had he not lived durting the Jazz Age? How would Jane Austen’s style have developed if she were not an English spinster daughter of a minister living on the edge of gentility?
    Perhaps this is what we need to understand as writers: what is distinctive about our experience that has formed us and made us individuals? This will not only impact the subject matter of our writing, but the actual style of how we write. By appreciating the unique quality of our own voices, being self-aware as well as observationally aware, I wonder if we might not become better writers than we are today.


    June 14, 2011
    • Great thoughts as always, Jodi. Thanks for the great insight.


      June 14, 2011
  2. B Day #

    Sounds great! That’s one of the things I love about great writing – how much fun it is to read and reflect on the words themselves.

    Like you said, Fidzgerald is another good one; but another off the Time list that I really loved was The Bridge of San Luis Rey – beautiful prose.


    June 14, 2011
  3. Teresa #

    That verse jumped out at me, too. Beautiful. And I’ll chime in also for Jack Kerouac’s short story, Railroad Earth. His prose transports me.


    June 14, 2011
    • I haven’t read Keroauc in years, but On The Road is one of my all time favorite books. I’m looking forward to rereading it for this list. It’s been a long time.


      June 14, 2011

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  1. Book #19: Go Tell It On The Mountain | 101 Books

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