In her New Yorker article (Feb. 9, ’09), Another Country, James Baldwin’s Flight from America, Claudia Roth Pierpont describes Baldwin’s 1961 arrival at a party in Istanbul.
“Baldwin’s arrival at his Turkish friend’s door, in the midst of a party, was, as the friend recalled, a great surprise: two rings of the bell, and there stood a small and bedraggled black man with a battered suitcase and enormous eyes.”
I remember the eyes and something similar when Baldwin read at Cornell University in 1963. The Fire Next Time had just been published and Baldwin, I believe, was on tour. I was transfixed by that book and by Go Tell It On The Mountain—and my former wife and I offered to host a reception for Baldwin at our home. I was junior faculty and teaching creative writing. Baldwin accepted and we were somehow, miraculously, able to accommodate 60 – 70 people in our little home.
Something of the man’s amazing presence, strength, vulnerability combined with a readiness to engage… what else to say? I was also moved by Baldwin’s graciousness… ah, how do you describe a too brief encounter with a man whose work has so affected you, whose background and experience is utterly unlike your own and yet, and yet, at some level he’s altogether familiar?
Turned out to be one of those life-changing events, life-changing and not necessarily for the better. For hubris did me in.
How Hubris Did Me In
Successful writers sometimes remark on how fans can’t wait to meet them, have them sign their books… and what they really want to do is talk about themselves.
Unexpectedly the President of the University turned up at our reception and we had a cordial exchange. I don’t know what else you call it. Thereafter I felt myself part of the academic community in a way I hadn’t felt before. And that same year I received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry and in January informed the Chairman of the English Department that I would be taking up the Fellowship in the Fall. He said, “No you won’t. Wait a year… and then you can take up the Fellowship.” “But I’m working on a book,” I said, “I have this opportunity to write full time.” “No. Wait a year…” At last he said, “Well, you’ll never teach on the East Coast again.” It was too late. I couldn’t back down.
And at that time, with book publications, etc., I felt I’d take my chances. Hubris. Hubris. I lived to regret it.