The book that rocked a nation: Another Look takes on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, with Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte.

By Cynthia Haven

In the last year, the killings of black youth have sparked protests and violent clashes with police across the nation, putting racial justice in the headlines. Next month, the Another Look book club will reflect on these issues with a public discussion of James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, the author’s scathing, yet compassionate, reflections on the consequences of America’s racial inequities.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating.

The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.

Michele Elam, who will moderate the event on the novelist, playwright, essayist and activist, said that she selected the The Fire Next Time “because its urgent insistence that black lives matter is as poignantly relevant today as it was in the civil rights era.” Elam, whose Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin will be out this month, added that “The Fire Next Time offers some of his most cogent and searing insights into race, power, and love in America.”

Read the full Stanford Report article here or click the link below.

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James Baldwin on writing: “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.”

James Baldwin was an eminent essayist, novelist, and playwright – but he was also a master of the Q&A interview. Here are excerpts from two excellent examples of the form – the first his Paris Review interview, published in 1984, with interviewers Jordan Elgrably and George Plimpton (read the whole thing here); the second is “James Baldwin – Reflections of a Maverick,” Julius Lester’s New York Times Book Review interview of the same year (read the whole thing here).

From The Paris Review

“Claim it all—including Shakespeare.” Photo: Allan Warren

INTERVIEWER: Why did you choose France?

BALDWIN: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.

INTERVIEWER: You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.

BALDWIN: Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.

INTERVIEWER: Has writing been a type of salvation?

“I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

BALDWIN: I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.

INTERVIEWER: Was there an instant you knew you were going to write, to be a writer rather than anything else?

BALDWIN: Yes. The death of my father. Until my father died I thought I could do something else. I had wanted to be a musician, thought of being a painter, thought of being an actor. This was all before I was nineteen. … My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. … He died when his last child was born and I realized I had to make a jump—a leap. I’d been a preacher for three years, from age fourteen to seventeen. Those were three years which probably turned me to writing.

INTERVIEWER: Were the sermons you delivered from the pulpit very carefully prepared, or were they absolutely off the top of your head?

BALDWIN: I would improvise from the texts, like a jazz musician improvises from a theme. I never wrote a sermon—I studied the texts. I’ve never written a speech. I can’t read a speech. It’s kind of give-and-take. You have to sense the people you’re talking to. You have to respond to what they hear.

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The meeting with RFK: “Bobby didn’t understand our urgency,” said Baldwin.

RFK at civil rights rally, June 1963

The encounter was called “intense,” “traumatic,” “excruciating,” three hours of “violent, emotional verbal assaults.” On May 24, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with a group of black writers and artists brought together by James Baldwin. Pulitzer prizewinning author Arthur Schlesinger, special assistant to President John Kennedy, gave the fullest account of the event, which came only weeks after the Birmingham, Alabama, agreement for desegregation triggered bombings and riots. Did this difficult confrontation make a difference? Perhaps.

Birmingham convinced Kennedy that the next great battlefield for racial justice lay in the cities. James Baldwin was born in Harlem. His extraordinary New Yorker piece of November 1962, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” had exposed in searing word the humiliation, despair and rage of Negro Americans. Baldwin and Kennedy had met the year before at the White House dinner for Nobel Prize laureates. They had agreed then that they wanted to talk some more. Now Kennedy invited Baldwin to breakfast at Hickory Hill.

Kenneth Clark

Baldwin was a brilliant, passionate, sensitive, dramatic man imbued with a conviction of utter hopelessness about the black fate in white society. “The Negro’s experience of the white world,” he had written in the New Yorker, “cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards in which the white world claims to live.” His belief, one felt, was that all white by definition hated all blacks and that white liberals were worst of all because they pretended to deny their innermost feelings. Nonetheless he caught an early plane to Washington. “We had a very nice meeting,” Kennedy said later. “I was really quite impressed by him,” said Baldwin. “… He seemed honest and earnest and truthful.” Burke Marshall, who was present, said, “He and Bob Kennedy had a rather good conversation about the cities.” Baldwin’s plane had been late, however, and Kennedy had to leave for another engagement. He therefore proposed that Baldwin assemble a group with thoughts about the northern ghetto.

“This boy just put it like it was.”

This led to the meeting in the Kennedy family apartment at 24 Central Park South in New York. Baldwin, acting on short notice, made an effort to enlist experts on the northern city, like Kenneth B. Clark, the social psychologist, Edwin C. Berry of the Chicago Urban League and Clarence B. Jones, an attorney for Martin Luther King. But what Baldwin called “this sociology and economics jazz” was not his métier. He also invited the playwright Lorraine Hansberry and the singers Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte – artists concerned, like Baldwin himself, less with solutions than with the anguish of the problem. Then he brought along Jerome Smith, a young civil rights worker, who began as a Gandhian pacifist, became a Freedom Rider and a CORE field worker and, according to the historians of CORE, “had probably spent more months in jail and been beaten more often than any other CORE member.” He was now in New York for medical treatment.*

Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall had spent an unpleasant morning urging owners of chain stores to desegregate their lunch counters in the south. The white executives seemed to feel, Kennedy recalled, that “the Devil Incarnate had arrived in New York, and they were asked to meet with him.” They turned out not to be the only people in New York that day who regarded the Attorney General as the devil incarnate.

Listen to him, please.

Clark and Berry arrived armed with statistics and proposals. They never had a chance. Jerome Smith, as Baldwin put it later, “set the tone of the meeting because he stammers when he’s upset and he stammered when he talked to Bobby and said that he was nauseated by the necessity of being in that room. I knew what he meant. It was not personal at all. … Bobby took it personally.” This was perhaps understandable. To say, as the Attorney General heard it, that being in the same room with Robert Kennedy made him feel like throwing up seemed a rough way to begin. “Bobby took it personally,” Baldwin continued, “and turned away from him. That was a mistake because he turned toward us. We were the reasonable, responsible, mature representatives of the black community. Lorraine Hansberry said, ‘You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there.’

Belafonte – one of “the fortunate Negroes”

Smith talked on with vehement emotion. He told what he had been through in the south. He said he was not sure how much longer he could stay nonviolent. He said, “When I pull the trigger, kiss it good-bye.” Baldwin asked him whether he would fight for his country. He said, “Never! Never! Never!” This shocked Kennedy, for whom patriotism was an absolute. “We were shocked that he was shocked,” said Kenneth Clark. “…Bobby got redder and redder and redder, and in a sense accused Jerome of treason, you know, or something of that sort. Well, that made everybody move in to protect Jerome and confirm his feelings. And it became really an attack!”

“No alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos.”

“This boy,” Lena Horne said afterward, “just put it like it was. He communicated the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro. The primeval memory of everyone in that room went to work after that. … He took us back to the common dirt of our existence and rubbed our noses in it. … You could not encompass his anger, his fury, in a set of statistics, nor could Mr. Belafonte and Dr. Clark and Miss Horne, the fortunate Negroes, keep up the pretense of being the mature, responsible spokesmen for the race.” Lorraine Hansberry said to Kennedy, “Look, if you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all because you and your brother are representatives of the best that a white America can offer; and if you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos.” The whites, she said, were castrating the Negroes. She talked wildly about giving guns to Negroes in the street so they could start killing white people.

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How The Fire Next Time changed a life.

Sixteen-year-old Dorinda Palmer leads marchers to City Hall in Greenwood, Mississippi.            (All photographs by Bob Fitch. Copyright Stanford University Libraries.)


Bob Fitch was a graduate student when he read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as a class assignment. At the time, he was attending a Protestant seminary student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Once he started Baldwin’s book, he couldn’t tear himself away, and he spent the night reading the volume that has changed minds and lives. It certainly changed his.

MLK shepherds students on march in Grenada, Miss., 1966

The next day Fitch, who currently has a photography exhibit spotlighting the Civil Rights era at the Stanford University Libraries, bought a second-hand professional camera and began photographing the civil rights movement.

He volunteered as a photographer for The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta from 1965 to 1968. In the South he worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, documenting civil rights activities and serving as a wire service—“from camera click to stamp lick”— for the African American press, which could not risk sending their own correspondents into the field. Along the way, he deepened his commitment to social justice activism and his appreciation of the people who make up movements for change. After a year-and-a-half he was invited to accompany King Jr. to Jamaica, where he was working on a book.

Boycott supporter in Mississippi, 1966

He continued to photograph for the next fifty years, documenting the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, the Vietnam War draft resistance movement, and Ron Dellums’s first congressional campaign, among many other social justice–related subjects. Most recently, Fitch photographed Luis Alejo’s 2010 campaign for California State Assembly.

But one moment, in particular, he remembers: at an informal staff meeting held in Martin Luther King’s bedroom, he saw The Fire Next Time among the leader’s rumpled bedsheets. King told the young photographer that the book had inspired his own 1967 book, which would be his last, Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community?

Iconic Fitch photographs from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s are displayed in Movements for Change: The Bob Fitch Photography Archive at Stanford Libraries; the Green Library exhibit continues through March 18.

All photographs by Bob Fitch. Copyright Stanford University Libraries.

SCLC organizers link hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” in Eutaw, Alabama, 1965.


James Baldwin in conversation

James Baldwin was as eloquent and persuasive a speaker as he was a writer. Below, several film clips of Baldwin in interviews and, finally, at a roundtable following the 1963 March on Washington.

A biographical overview of James Baldwin

James Baldwin and Embracing the “Other”

James  Baldwin asks, “Who is the nigger?”

“Why are you afraid of him?”

The Washington March of 1963: roundtable discussion with James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and Joseph Mankiewicz.

Another Look book club goes out of this world with Calvino’s Cosmicomics

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” So begins the improbable tale of a man in love with the moon, and the woman in love with him, at a time when the moon was so close to the earth you could …

Wait a minute. The moon, at the dawn of time when it was closest to the earth, was still at least 12,000 miles away. Too long for any ladder. Clearly, Italo Calvino (1923-1985,) one of the greatest European writers of the last century, took a mountain of artistic license when he published his science-based fantasies, Cosmicomics, in 1965. But for the generations of readers swept away with the wit and magic of these loosely linked stories, that’s part of the fun.

Cosmicomics will be discussed at the popular “Another Look” book club, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, will moderate the panel, with award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor, and literary journalist and visiting scholar Cynthia Haven, who blogs at The Book Haven.

Harrison hosts the radio talk show “Entitled Opinions” and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. The event launches the third year of “Another Look,” founded by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English.  The event is free and open to the public.


Love, loss, and the first signs in space: Robert Harrison on Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the October 27 “Another Look” discussion on Cosmicomics, a collection of science-inspired fantasies by one of the greatest European writers of the last century, Italo Calvino. Harrison is the author of several acclaimed books – the newest, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age will be published later this year. Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature also hosts the popular and cerebral radio talk show, Entitled Opinions, available on iTunes. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was recently named chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

Another Look”’s Cynthia Haven spoke with him in preparation for the upcoming event.

Haven: Calvino once wrote, “I like telling things in cartoon form,” and even suggested that readers try to visualize his Cosmicomic stories as comic strips. Is this a hint about why he is calling this first 1965 collection of the tales Cosmicomics?

Harrison: Well, there’s a connection with the comic strips, as you mentioned. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Italian literary tradition is so rich in comic genres, broadly understood. Just think of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he called the Commedia. It’s a cosmic comedy that takes Dante through the other world – hell, purgatory, and finally the heavens.

One aspect of Calvino’s title has to do with this literary predecessor, Dante. Another has to do with the role that comedy has played in so much of the history of “serious” Italian literature – Dante, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Goldoni, Pirandello, and many others.

Haven: So why are you drawn to these stories, and why did you pick them for “Another Look”?

Harrison: I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers’ expectations.

In addition, Calvino’s book deals directly with the whole phenomenon of evolution, which is the huge scientific obsession of our own time. I’m not referring to the debates about evolution versus creation. It’s more that in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that’s why I chose it.

Haven: Let’s see. Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb outside Havana in 1923, to Italian parents who were both botanists. That’s why Calvino’s friend Gore Vidal wrote that “he instinctively looks to the natural world for illumination of his own interior” – rather as you do in your own book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. But science, as well as nature, was clearly a powerful legacy from his parents.

Harrison: That’s right. Calvino makes it clear in several of his interviews that he’s been interested in science all along. For him, science and fantasy are not two separate things. There’s nothing more fantastical, in essence, than science. So he’s taking these scientific theses, which he prints at the beginning of each story, and then gives them each a story.

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Translator William Weaver: “Calvino was not a writer of hits; he was a writer of classics.”

I first met ltalo Calvino in Rome, sometime in the early 1960s. Our meeting was unplanned; but, appropriately, it took place in a bookshop, the high-ceilinged yet somehow intimate Libreria Einaudi (now gone), which then stood at the curve in the Via Veneto where the cafes of Dolce Vita memory give way to more sober government buildings and undistinguished middle-range hotels. I was browsing happily when my friend Gian Carlo Roscioni, then an editor for Einaudi, the publishing house, came over to me and said: “Calvino is here and would like to meet you.”

I recognized the tall, enviably thin and handsome Calvino from his photographs. Actually, I think I had even seen him once or maybe twice, at some large Roman literary bashes, which he attended infrequently, partly because he was never a bash sort of person and, more to the point, because he had never been a Rome resident for any length of time.

But now he was living in the capital, associated in some way with the Rome office of Einaudi, who had just recently brought out his latest book Le cosmicomiche. A few minutes after our introduction, Calvino asked me if I would be willing to translate this new book; and—though I hadn’t read it (a fact about which I remained cautiously silent)—I immediately said yes.

This was the simple beginning of a complex relationship and of my long journey through the world of Calvino, which was to last until his death. Only this beginning was simple; after that, things quickly became complicated. The American publisher who had accepted the book and then commissioned the translation committed suicide; his successor rejected the book; and Cosmicomics, as it was now called, was sent to an embarrassingly large number of New York houses before Helen Wolff, at Harcourt Brace, read it and enthusiastically offered to bring it out. Another beginning, another long and exciting association.

After Cosmicomics Calvino produced a kind of sequel in the same vein: Ti con zero, which I also translated. As I worked on these books, I met Calvino now and then, to discuss this or that little problem of translation. Though we were almost exactly coeval (both born in 1923, that year that also produced Maria Callas), we were in many respects quite different. The son of scientists, Calvino had a scientific and technical vocabulary that I lacked almost completely; in my family, of writers and lawyers, the emphasis was solely humanistic: even the task of replacing a blown fuse would require the assistance of an outside technician (fortunately both of my older sisters married engineers).

But Calvino and I shared a consuming passion for words and for using them, deploying them, stretching and tightening them. And our conversations were always a pleasure for me, though Calvino was anything but a conversationalist. In literary circles, hostesses exchanged horrified stories of his agonizing silences, which could freeze an entire dinner table. Calvino—it seemed to me—did not enjoy talking with me about his writing except at the basic, dictionary level of our working encounters. During one of these, a meeting at his house in Square du Chatillon in Paris, I unwittingly overstepped the bounds; I casually asked him if he was working on something new. Calvino froze, cleared his throat nervously, hemmed, hawed, then finally muttered, almost growling: “I’m thinking about some cities.” I quickly redirected the talk to the problems at hand.

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Calvino’s letter on Cosmicomics: “I manage to let them think themselves…”

To writer Gian Carlo Ferretti in Milan from I.C. in Turin, Feb. 15, 1966. (Ferretti had written to Calvino, conveying his impressions of Cosmicomics, on December 29, 1965.)

Dear Ferretti,

I have been meaning for some time now to reply to your letter. It gave me enormous pleasure for the very intelligent things you say about my book and it also requires a certain commitment from me in replying because of the questions you ask. Yes, in the kind of stories one finds in Cosmicomics, I would like to succeed in distilling the results of my ideal form of research, and of my comments on reality; but I would like to do so not solely using symbolic or rather allegorical words with a range of meanings. I would like to be able to express everything by thinking in images, or in word-images, but word-images which have the rigor almost of abstraction which in the Cosmicomic stories happens only in “A Sign in Space” and “The Spiral” (and perhaps also in “The Light Years”), and from there to succeed in articulating a discourse that is my discourse, without it having other layers of meanings. For the time being, at the point where I at just now, I manage to let the stories organize themselves, on the basis of their own material, to let them think themselves, become a discourse of which I take note. However, this business of the objectivity of the story which takes shape by itself is for me only a partial, provisional hypothesis. I am well aware that even this question of proposing signs and following them through their potential organization is a way of thinking, and so the point of arrival must be the abolition of this opposition between the organization of signs and the organizations of meanings.

Naturally the emphasis on the abstract component in Cosmicomics must be accompanied by the constant presence of representation, through linguistic and figurative materials which provide the texture of real life. That is what defines the Cosmicomics for me.

As you can see, I am still too much taken up with characterizing this work, the Cosmicomics, from its inside to try to define it in the context of the rest of my work. The things you say on this topic, looking to parallels with The Watcher, are highly suggestive (and I hope you have the chance to develop this argument) and it seems to me that Ferrata [who had written a review for Rinascita the month before] too has gone down the same road, also with a certain finesse. But for each book I would like to create first of all a void around it, see it how it is on its own, and then put it in context.

I am very grateful for your reading of the book and for the stimulus for discussion and clarification that you have given me.

Best wishes.


Italo Calvino