Unnameable Objects

In Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors published not long before World War I, and not long before his death, he recounts the story of a middle-aged New Englander, assigned by his middle-aged bride-to-be-a widow-the task of rescuing from the flesh-pots of Paris her only son. She wants him to come home to take over the direction of the family factory. In the event, it is the middle-aged New Englander-The Ambassador-who is seduced, not so much by Paris, as by a new and less utilitarian view of life. He counsels the young man to “live. Live all you can. It is a mistake not to.” Which I translate as meaning “Trust life, and it will teach you, in joy and sorrow, all you need to know.”

Jazz musicians know this. Those old men and women who waved and sang and wept as we marched in Montgomery know this. White Americans, in the main, do not know this. They are still trapped in that factory to which, in Henry James’ novel, the son returns. We never know what this factory produces, for James never tells us. He only conveys to us that the factory, at an unbelievable human expense, produces unnameable objects.

-James Baldwin

Rehearsal by Beauford Delaney

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