Brutal Things Must Be Said: James Baldwin on Huckleberry Finn

James Baldwin said surprisingly little about Mark Twain. I say “surprising” because Baldwin was a renowned analyst of U.S. literary history. Many of the contemporaneous writers with whom he associated, both personally and professionally, published commentaries on Twain’s works, especially Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In many cases, these commentaries were subsumed into persistent public debates about the “N-word” and the appropriateness of Twain’s most famous novel in public school classrooms, where it was then a staple. Baldwin, one of the most sought-after public intellectuals of midcentury America, frequently discussed the N-word, black dialect, and public education, both in his published writings and public appearances.

Those appearances have, thanks to documentaries like Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2017), nominated for an Academy Award, and Karen Thorsen’s The Price of the Ticket (1989), as well as countless digital archivists and YouTubers, justly taken their place at the center of Baldwin’s legacy. J. Quentin Miller suggests that Baldwin, like Twain, “is a great writer who never wrote a great book.” While I disagree with this diagnosis in both cases, it does implicitly acknowledge that the cultural relevance and influence of Baldwin and Twain went well beyond their published works. The line between their ample literary talents and their massive cultural celebrities is not easily drawn. While Twain’s infamous public persona survives primarily through secondhand accounts and Hal Holbrook performances, voluminous recordings capture Baldwin’s rhetorical dexterity, biting wit, and unique charisma. His improvisatory interactions with interviewers and live audiences reveal a rare capacity for simultaneously betraying endearing humility and mesmerizing self-assurance. He frequently responds to questions by deprecating the relevance of his own expertise, then, with a pause and a “but if,” launches into startlingly incisive spontaneous analyses.

One of the rare occasions Baldwin did directly allude to Twain was in a 1979 Los Angeles Time editorial titled “On Language, Race and the Black Writer.” Filled with what Baldwin admits are “brutal things” that nonetheless “must be said,” the editorial is doubly frightening, both because Baldwin felt the need to say these “brutal things” as late as 1979, and, moreover, because 38 years later many of them still “must be said” with equal urgency.