In his 1956 New York Times review of Baldwin's novel, Giovanni's Room, Granville Hicks wrote:
"Mr. Baldwin writes of these matters with an unusual degree of candor and yet with such dignity and intensity that he is saved from sensationalism."
The 'matters' he was talking about were the romantic entanglement of the main character, Giovanni, a marginally & seedily employed bartender in Paris, who falls in love with an American tourist, David, who happens to be on vacation with his girlfriend/almost fiance. Hick's review was both generous and cautious. Given the period and this culture's erotophobia in general and homophobia specifically this novel was not what was expected from the nation's preeminent young essayist on the Black Civil Rights movement.
But it's Hicks' writing I started thinking about after my play, 'Waiting for Giovanni, opened. I've written a lot of literary and film reviews and in the review I can feel Hicks shaping his words carefully so that his appreciation of Baldwin's work is clear. He compares him to Proust and admires his very particular style; at the same time Hicks quite restrained. I haven't read other work by him so I can't honestly say if this is he usual writing style or if it was a special tone for the New York Times and the anticipated backlash.
Although many people think I use Baldwin's words in the play--I don't. A monologue with the Granville Hicks quote is the only time I use any words other than those of my imagination. As I prepare to go to NYC to see the reading of the updated version of the play I reread the full review Hicks wrote. When I did I realized I had fallen in love with the quote and used it to help set up a monologue but I hadn't really taken in the full review. I had also not thought about what it probably took for him to write (in the 1950s) favorably about a "homosexual novel" featuring all white characters written by a young African American.
Their New York City was a very different one from the one I'll visit next week. In 1956 people still spoke in full sentences with words of more than one syllable. (I mean that as a simple observation rather than being snarky, sorry.) And they wore shapely clothes and admired philosophy and ideas. Okay, yes, it was also segregated, run by robber barons and who knows what other degrading history I've glossed over in my glowy look back!
But it is still NYC and theatre and actors and directors and audiences...and (even though the publishing world has evaporated...anyone want to buy my novel?) it is still about words. So I am going to read some more Granville Hicks to find out who he was, how he came to understand Baldwin's novel and be brave enough speak kindly of it in print. Despite the censorious nature of the culture in which he made his writing career Granville Hicks understood that Baldwin was writing about "the rareness and difficulty of love" and wasn't afraid to say so. That's what "Waiting for Giovanni" is about too and I hope someone will say that about it back east.
It will be fun to be back in Baldwin's...and Hicks' town!