in the new South Africa
How we conceptualise future directions of culturalstudies depends on
how we have conceptualised the origins and genealogy of that discipline.
In the UK, two stories of origins have emerged, the textual and the sociological. The future theorisation and analysis of South African culturalstudies may follow either story. The textual version is probably dominant within British academia. It locates three texts, Richard Hoggart’s
The Uses of Literacy, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the
James Baldwin might be imagined as reaching his greatest level of popularity within this current decade. With the growth of social media activist movements like Black Lives Matter, which captures and catalyzes off a Baldwinian rage, and the publishing of works directly evoking Baldwin, his voice appears more pronounced between the years of 2013 and 2015. Scholars in Baldwin studies, along with strangers who were turned into witnesses of his literary oeuvre, have contributed to this renewed interest in Baldwin, or at least have been able to sharpen the significance of the phenomenon. Publications and performances highlight Baldwin’s work and how it prefigured developments in critical race and queer theories, while also demonstrating Baldwin’s critique as both prophetic and “disturbingly” contemporary. Emerging largely from Baldwin’s timelessness in social and political discourse, and from the need to conjure a figure to demystify the absurd American landscape, these interventions in Baldwin studies follow distinct trends. This essay examines the 2013–15 trends from four vantages: an examination of a return, with revision, to popular work by Baldwin; identifying Baldwin’s work as a contributor to theoretical and critical methodology; Baldwin and intertextuality or intervocality; and a new frontier in Baldwin studies.
For several years now, James Baldwin’s life, portrait, and work have
enjoyed a central place in the public eye. Although social and audiovisual media
have made significant contributions to Baldwin’s return to the cultural
and political limelight, the circulation of his published writings remains a
vital part of the author’s ubiquity. Moreover, since Baldwin’s
omnipresence in bookstores transcends an American or even Anglophone context,
this international and multilingual circulation contributes to Baldwin’s
world literary standing, as befits the self-described
“transatlantic commuter.” This article moves beyond the customary
approach to Baldwin’s published success by tracing presently circulating
European translations of his work. The article examines the historical
developments in Baldwin’s European circulation-through-translation from
the time of his death (1987) up until the present, including brief discussions
of the French, Italian, and West German translations from the 1960s onward. Of
special interest are the pioneering and dominant roles that French and Italian
publishers have played since the late 1990s, and the acceleration in circulation
that took place across the continent in the wake of the films I Am Not
Your Negro and If Beale Street Could Talk. The
article concludes with a few remarks on the translation strategies of several
key publishers in France, Italy, Germany, and Romania.
James Baldwin criticism from 2001 through 2010 is marked by an increased appreciation for
Baldwin’s entire oeuvre including his writing after the mid 1960s. The question of his
artistic decline remains debated, but more scholars find a greater consistency and power
in Baldwin’s later work than previous scholars had found. A group of dedicated Baldwin
scholars emerged during this period and have continued to host regular international
conferences. The application of new and diverse critical lenses—including cultural
studies, political theory, religious studies, and black queer theory—contributed to more
complex readings of Baldwin’s texts. Historical and legal approaches re-assessed Baldwin’s
relationship to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and new material emerged on
Baldwin’s decade in Turkey. Some historical perspective gave many critics a more nuanced
approach to the old “art” vs. “politics” debate as it surfaced in Baldwin’s initial
reception, many now finding Baldwin’s “angry” work to be more “relevant” than “out of
touch” as it was thought of during his lifetime. In the first decade of the new
millennium, three books of new primary source material, a new biography, four books of
literary criticism, three edited collections of critical essays, two special issues of
journals and numerous book chapters and articles were published, marking a significant
increase not only in the quantity, but the quality of Baldwin criticism.
Readers and critics alike, for the past sixty years, generally agree that Baldwin is a
major African-American writer. What they do not agree on is why. Because of his artistic
and intellectual complexity, Baldwin’s work resists easy categorization and Baldwin
scholarship, consequently, spans the critical horizon. This essay provides an overview of
the three major periods of Baldwin scholarship. 1963–73 is a period that begins with the
publication of The Fire Next Time and sees Baldwin grace the cover of Time magazine. This
period ends with Time declaring Baldwin too passé to publish an interview with him and
with critics questioning his relevance. The second period, 1974–87, finds critics
attempting to rehabilitate Baldwin’s reputation and work, especially as scholars begin to
codify the African-American literary canon in anthologies and American universities.
Finally, scholarship in the period after Baldwin’s death takes the opportunity to
challenge common assumptions and silences surrounding Baldwin’s work. Armed with the
methodologies of cultural studies and the critical insights of queer theory, critics set
the stage for the current Baldwin renaissance.
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