On teaching Baldwin & Lethem: two approaches to parental loss. 

James Baldwin 3

[James Baldwin (1924–1987)]

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ”

These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections. But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach. Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Here’s a famous passage, and one of my favorites, the same in both iterations of Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”:

He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know he was beautiful.

Talk about beauty—what gorgeous prose. The paragraph’s halting rhythm signals deep, stoppered feeling and a hard-won effort to speak the truth. This comes early in the long, dense classically three-act essay.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements. Here’s one:

The Collected Works of Judith Lethem—

(1978-present, blah-blah-blah.)

. . . What’s one supposed to say when the mask comes off? Is there an etiquette I’m breaking with? John Lennon recorded a song, for his first album after the breakup of the Beatles (what a grand beard that was, art and companionship blended together, and the worshipping world at his feet!), called “My Mummy’s Dead.” I suppose this is my version of that song. I sing it now in order to quit singing it. Mine has been a paltry beard anyway, the peach-fuzzy kind a fifteen-year-old grows, so you still see the childish face beneath. Each of my novels, antic as they may sometimes be, is fuelled by loss. I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.

jonathan lethem

[Jonathan Lethem: 1964–.]

That’s also from the essay’s book version, in Lethem’s collection The Disappointment Artist. In this example, the book’s and the magazine’s passages are essentially identical, though otherwise the version in the New Yorker has been radically truncated. While I think the lightly edited magazine version of Baldwin’s essay is benign—in fact, the seven space breaks added for Harper’s give welcome resting points for readers—I’m ambivalent about the shortened “The Beards.” However, a coup I scored for my “Classics lite” essay in Assay was an interview with Lethem. He takes a realistic view toward the need by periodicals to shorten long essays. And he’s happy with the shortened one.

So I guess I must be, too. At least for certain audiences. As I explain in Assay, college underclassmen and continuing studies students have seemed overwhelmed by the length, intricacy, density, and cultural references in the originals. I’m eager to try the “lite” versions for beginning readers and writers.

In both essays, I can still show how structure can underscore meaning. That may be even easier to show in Lethem’s shortened “The Beards.” And I’ll be more confident that students will actually finish reading it. Teachers, to a degree, must meet students where they are—or at least this one feels he must. To get students to read what they don’t find “relatable” takes a whale of a lot of fear or charisma.


  • shirleyhs says:

    Fear or charisma. What choices you give us!

    Great teaching strategy. I never tried this. Will you report back please?

  • owen1936 says:

    Congratulations on your Assay essay and thanks for thereby introducing me to another resource. I loved Notes of a Native Son when it was published but have been unaware of Lethem. His cultural references will, I suspect, leave me reeling–I am 30 years distant from them on the other side. I will probably do better with lite.

  • Dear Richard, I have never read either one of the originals, and have library and book problems now. The main parts of my book collection are packed away in wait for new bookshelves, I can’t afford to buy new books, I can’t easily get to the library regularly now, and the library websites I have are hard to search for anything but the fiction I mostly read (at least, someone probably knows how to find other stuff, but so many times even when I look for fiction stuff, the site tells me that that book isn’t owned online. Sometimes, it gives me the opportunity to recommend it, and then I usually do, and after a while, the library gets it, but I’m all backlogged with several hundred works I mean to read!).Still, I always enjoy your thoughts on the works you read and recommend. Sometimes, you can make a guess at the shape of a work at a distance, when the sense of it is conveyed through someone else’s mind. I don’t know if you have to choose whether to be “the mirror or the lamp,” but somehow, I think you are BOTH the mirror and the lamp (to use M.H. Abrams’s famous metaphor).

    • Richard says:

      That’s very kind of you, Victoria. I’ve been trying to reduce my own book-buying, but am spoiled and have trouble getting to the library—even to pick up something from the drive-up window I’ve ordered on line. A real first world problem!

    • P.S. I read and enjoyed your essay in “Assay.” I know you will consider this extremely hidebound and almost anti-literary, but all my reading life, I have felt extremely uncomfortable that there are different versions of the same work. I always feel most comfortable with whatever is accepted by most critics or scholars as the canonical version. I guess that just makes me an insecure individual, but I hope at least not simply a bad reader. Thanks for the excellent essay.

      • Richard says:

        Not at all—thank you for reading. I have been dragging my feet for years toward this decision to try the original essays, with some students. Baldwin’s loses some clauses and digressions; Lethem’s is the one that really is different, and I feel it suffers since I love the book version. But doubtless the New Yorker version, which appeared before the book’s, has been read by many more people.

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