Life never bribed him to look at anything but the soul, Henry James said of Emerson, and one could say the same of James Baldwin, with a similar suggestion that the price for his purity was blindness about some other things in life. Baldwin possessed to an extraordinary degree what James called Emerson’s “special capacity for moral experience.” He, too, is persuasive in his antimaterialism. Baldwin, like Emerson, renounced the pulpit—he had been a fiery boy preacher in Harlem—and readers have found in the writings of each the atmosphere of church.
It’s not that Emerson and Baldwin have much in common as writers. Harlem was not Concord. Except for his visits to England, Emerson stayed put for fifty years and Baldwin spent his adult life in search of a home. He left Harlem for Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, left Greenwich Village for Paris in 1948, and spent much time in Paris, Turkey, and the South of France between the 1950s and the 1980s. Yet Baldwin and Emerson both can speak directly to another person’s soul, as James would have it, in a way that “seems to go back to the roots of our feelings, to where conduct and manhood begin.”