Savoring James Baldwin’s “Native Son” for style & content.

 There’s only two kinds of truth.

Let’s get it straight from the start.

It’s all what you believe

in your head and your heart.—Van Morrison, “Little Village

James Baldwin

[James Baldwin: master of style & substance.]

Thankfully teaching impels me to reread and study great literature. I’ve just reread, for a class I’m teaching, “Notes of a Native Son,” America’s greatest essay—greatest because its content deals with our nation’s great topic, race, and because of its artistry—and I’ve seen something new in James Baldwin’s famous prose style.

Of course his sentences work within a framed structure, opening with his father’s funeral and returning to it to close, and the essay is classically broken into three acts as well. Then there’s Baldwin’s thundering Old Testament condemnation of racism. He shows and explains his own bewildering, maddening experiences with discrimination in the 1950s. And he sees at last how the racism of America’s long apartheid era warped his father. But Baldwin, then 19, has returned too late to his father’s deathbed for them to talk, let alone to discuss how to live with this burden of bitterness.

The essay’s rounded sentences, gravid with clauses and commas, convey a deep and subtle mind groping toward personal and universal truths. Baldwin’s prose itself ruminates. He can be as halting as Henry James. At the same time, conversely, he speeds up his orotund sentences. The combination of lingering and racing ahead creates an interesting rhythm, which is part of the essay’s powerful effect. In both content and style, “Notes of a Native Son” is at once chewy and flowing.

This time through, I saw clearer why that is. Many of the commas that truncate the essay’s sentences are unnecessary, strictly speaking, but lend the essay its thoughtful air. Yet Baldwin usually omits commas at a key juncture. He consistently breaks the rule-of-thumb that commas should assist conjunctions when joining independent clauses. Here’s how I show students this guideline:

The brown dog barked, and the black cat ran.

Without the comma, the “and” seems to set up another action by the dog. Maybe it barked and bit. Without a comma’s cue to slow up, the reader can stumble into that cat. I follow the comma-with-conjunction rule obediently myself, sometimes daring to delete a few commas later. Breaking this convention, however, has a distinguished history. Ernest Hemingway famously linked successive independent clauses only with “and.” Such writers make us to do the work of mentally inserting the commas that traditionally demarcate such clauses, teaching us finally to let go and savor the lilt of sentences without them. Cormac McCarthy loves to omit even more commas, and trains us to his rhythm.

Baldwin-Native Son

As for Baldwin, he appears to eschew commas with conjunctions in order to impart urgency to otherwise leisurely prose. Note in the example below from “Notes of a Native Son” how, in the first sentence, he omits the called-for comma and then uses a highly optional one, a New Yorker comma, as I think of it. In the second sentence, he declines to set off the introductory clause with a comma but then uses another New Yorker comma. The third sentence restores Baldwin’s thoughtful self-interrupting rhythm. I’ve inserted in brackets where the missing commas might go in the first and second sentences:

When planning a birthday celebration one naturally does not expect that it will be up against competition from a funeral [,] and this girl had anticipated take me out that night, for a big dinner and nightclub afterwards. Sometime during the course of that long day [,] we decided that we would go out anyway, when my father’s funeral service was over. I imagine I decided it, since, as the funeral hour approached, it became clearer and clearer to me that I would not know what to do with myself when it was over.

Here’s another example in which Baldwin eschews the called-for comma-with-conjunction three times in a row. The first sentence in this scene, at his father’s funeral, simply declines the comma. The second declines the comma twice and then employs two commas at the close.

The casket now was opened [,] and the mourners were being led up the aisle to look for the last time on the deceased. The assumption was that the family was too overcome with grief to be allowed to make this journey alone [,] and I watched while my aunt was led to the casket [,] and, muffled in black, and shaking, led back to her seat.

Note how after three rushing independent clauses, Baldwin makes us tap our brakes at the end of the last clause by using two commas. The second of those commas seems, again, very optional, a poet’s usage—most would’ve written “muffled in black and shaking”—but thereby Baldwin makes us see his elderly aunt’s helpless grief for his fractious father. Here again, Baldwin’s doing two things at once, achieving a reasoning manner alongside expressing the raw truth of his heart.

Art, as it will, announces itself first in form in Baldwin’s eloquent memoir essay. But what ultimately makes “Notes of a Native Son” great literature is what it shares with almost all great literature—its illumination of the everlasting and apparently innate human hunger for justice.


  • Hi, Richard. Yes, I think your final assessment is true: Baldwin uses commas in prose the way a poet would in poetry. But htat only makes his angry indictment easier to read. What I mean is, it’s a matter of great clarity and artistry to get people to read anger, because if handled inartistically or lazily, anger can get wearing to read, and people give up on it. But I think the things you point out with Baldwin are his way of making sure that his audience sticks with him to the end, among other considerations. Thanks for your excellent and insightful essay!

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Victoria. Yes, he’s successful on the content side too! To me, it’s because he makes us feel his plight. An older student of mine who read it said it’s so much LESS angry than she remembered from her first reading back in college. She’d been shocked by it years ago.

  • Fascinating study, Richard. I have a shelf full of Baldwin’s books and now I need to go and take a look at them for how he uses his commas. I would love to take some time to study his comma usage throughout his work, to see if there are trends over time, and to determine if he was, in fact, using them at least in part to achieve this rushing effect you’ve noted.

    In the manuscripts I critique for writers, I have seen that many, many writers overlook the comma that separates two independent clauses joined by conjunctions. Ordinarily, these writers omit the comma because they’re not yet comfortably schooled in the rule. But sometimes I do see writers who seem to have omitted the commas to achieve that same rushing effect, to varying degrees of success. Often I recommend creating that rushing effect by actually shortening the sentences; the choppy rhythm lends itself to a fast pace.

    Now, I’m wondering about my advice! I suppose, as is always the case, that what works well depends heavily on the skillfulness of the writer.

    Great food for thought. Thanks!

    • Richard says:

      I love your advice, Joan. I personally am going for more short sentences. But, as I say, I obediently follow the rule regarding commas with conjunctions. And then go back in and see if I can remove some. A student asked me if Baldwin REALLY did that on purpose. Of course he did! He chose every punctuation mark carefully. Any writer worth the name does. Here’s the start of Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country”:

      In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows.

      Note how he obeys the rule, breaks the rule, and then obeys the rule. Here’s his famous opening to A Farewell to Arms:

      In the later summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

      He obeys and breaks the rule, and uses other constructions for rhythm. All carefully considered.

      • Thanks for the Hemingway examples. Really interesting to consider his possible reasons for when to use, and not to use, a comma. Rhythm, certainly, and perhaps also something to do with the relationship of one clause to another. Looking at the “In Another Country” opening, the two clauses in the second sentence seem more related to each other than the clauses in the first and third. The second sentence describes an entire scene: early fall evenings in Milan are cold and dark.

        In the “A Farewell to Arms” opening, he seems to be showing us the difference between the scene without the marching soldiers (commas slow us down to see the pastoral view) and the scene once the soldiers arrive (commas largely unused, creating movement and an uneasy feeling).

        I just pulled out Baldwin’s famous, spectacular short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, and in that long, brilliant final scene in the bar, when the narrator is listening to Sonny play the blues, Baldwin uses commas and uses commas and uses commas, page after page, until the moment when the band’s leader, Creole, steps back and lets “Sonny speak for himself.” At that moment, Baldwin writes, “Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played.”

        And that sentence leads the story into its final passage, which is all about the deep, human connection between all of us, between generations, between souls.

        What a powerful thing, the small comma.

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