Sylvia Plath’s Tarot Cards (Which Influenced the Poems in Ariel) Were Just Sold for $207,000

We celebrated my birthday yesterday: [Ted] gave me a lovely Tarot pack of cards and a dear rhyme with it, so after the obligations of this term are over your daughter shall start her way on the road to becoming a seeress & will also learn how to do horoscopes, a very difficult art which means reviving my elementary math. 

– Sylvia Plath, in a letter to her mother, 28 October 1956

Sylvia Plath’s Tarot cards, a 24th birthday present from her husband, poet Ted Hughes, just went for £151,200 in an auction at Sotheby’s.

That’s approximately £100,000 more than this lot, a Tarot de Marseille deck printed by playing card manufacturer B.P. Grimaud de Paris, was expected to fetch.

The auction house’s description indicates that a few of the cards were discolored —  evidence of use, as supported by Plath’s numerous references to Tarot in her journals.




Recall Tarot’s appearance in “Daddy,” her most widely known poem, and her identification with the Hanging Man card, in a poem of the same name:

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.

I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard’s eyelid :

A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket.

A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree.

If he were I, he would do what I did.

This century has seen her collection Ariel restored to its author’s intended order.
The original order is said to correspond quite closely to Tarot, with the first twenty-two poems symbolizing the cards of the Major Arcana.

The next ten are aligned with the numbers of the Minor Arcana. Those are followed by four representing the Court cards. The collection’s final four poems can be seen to reference the pentacles, cups, swords and wands that comprise the Tarot’s suits.

Ariel’s manuscript was rearranged by Hughes, who dropped some of the “more lacerating” poems and added others in advance of its 1965 publication, two years after Plath’s death by suicide. (Hear Plath read poems from Ariel here.)

Daughter Frieda defends her father’s actions and describes how damaging they were to his reputation in her Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition.

One wonders if it’s significant that Plath’s Page of Cups, a card associated with positive messages related to family and loved ones, has a rip in it?

We also wonder who paid such a staggering price for those cards.

Will they give the deck a moon bath or salt burial to cleanse it of Plath’s negative energy?

Or is the winning bidder such a diehard fan, the chance to handle something so intimately connecting them to their literary hero neutralizes any occult misgivings?

We rather wish Plath’s Tarot de Marseille had been awarded to Phillip Roberts in Shipley, England, who planned to exhibit them alongside her tarot-influenced poems in a pop up gallery at the Saltaire Festival. To finance this dream, he launched a crowd-funding campaign, pledging that every £100 donor could keep one of the cards, to be drawn at random, with all contributors invited to submit new art or writing to the mini-exhibition: Save Sylvia Plath’s cards from living in the drawers of some wealthy collector, and let’s make some art together!

Alas, Roberts and friends fell  £148,990 short of the winning bid. Better luck next time, mate. We applaud your graciousness in defeat, as well as the spirit in which your project was conceived.

via Lithub

Related Content:

The Artistic & Mystical World of Tarot: See Decks by Salvador Dalí, Aleister Crowley, H.R. Giger & More

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Hear Sylvia Plath Read 18 Poems From Her Final Collection, Ariel, in 1962 Recording

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Oldest-Known Work of Literature in World History

You’re probably familiar with The Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of an overbearing Sumerian king and demi-god who meets his match in wild man Enkidu. Gilgamesh is humbled, the two become best friends, kill the forest guardian Humbaba, and face down spurned goddess Ishtar’s Bull of Heaven. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes looking for the only man to live forever, a survivor of a legendary pre-Biblical flood. The great king then tries, and fails, to gain eternal life himself. The story is packed with episodes of sex and violence, like the modern-day comics that are modeled on ancient mythology. It is also, as you may know, the oldest-known work of literature on Earth, written in cuneiform, the oldest-known form of writing.

This is one version of the story. But Gilgamesh beaks out of the tidy frame usually put around it. It is a “poem that exists in a pile of broken pieces,” Joan Acocella writes at The New Yorker, “in an extremely dead language.”




If Gilgamesh were based on a real king of Ur, he would have lived around 2700 BC. The first stories written about him come from some 800 years after that time, during the Old Babylonian period, after the last of the Sumerian dynasties had already ended. The version we tend to read in world literature and mythology courses comes from several hundred years later, notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ira Spar:

Some time in the twelfth century B.C., Sin-leqi-unninni, a Babylonian scholar, recorded what was to become a classic version of the Gilgamesh tale. Not content to merely copy an old version of the tale, this scholar most likely assembled various versions of the story from both oral and written sources and updated them in light of the literary concerns of his day, which included questions about human mortality and the nature of wisdom…. Sin-leqi-unninni recast Enkidu as Gilgamesh’s companion and brought to the fore concerns about unbridled heroism, the responsibilities of good governance, and the purpose of life. 

This so-called “Standard Babylonian Version,” as you’ll learn in the TED-Ed video at the top by Soraya Field Fiorio, was itself only discovered in 1849 — very recent by comparison with other ancient texts we regularly read and study. The first archaeologists to discover it were searching not for Sumerian literature but for evidence that proved the Biblical stories. They thought they’d found it in Nineveh, in the excavated library of King Ashurbanipal, the oldest library in the world. Instead, they discovered the broken, incomplete tablets containing the story of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim, who, like Noah from the Hebrew Bible, built an enormous boat in advance of a divinely ordered flood. The first person to translate the passages was so excited, he stripped off his clothes.

The flood story wasn’t the knock-down proof Christian scholars hoped for, but the discovery of the Gilgamesh epic was even more important for our understanding of the ancient world. What we know of the story, however, was already edited and redacted to suit a millennia-old agenda. The Epic of Gilgamesh “explains that Gilgamesh, although he is king of Uruk, acts as an arrogant, impulsive, and irresponsible ruler,” Spar writes. “Only after a frustrating and vain attempt to find eternal life does he emerge from immaturity to realize that one’s achievements, rather than immortality, serve as an enduring legacy.”

Other, much older versions of his story show the mythical king and his exploits in a different light. So how should we read Gilgamesh in the 21st century, a few thousand years after his first stories were composed? You can begin here with the TED-Ed summary and Crash Course in World Mythology video further up. Dig much deeper with the lecture above from Andrew George, Professor of Babylonian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

George has produced one of the most highly respected translations of Gilgamesh, Acocella writes, one that “gives what remains of Sin-leqi-unninni’s text” and appends other fragmentary tablets discovered in Baghdad, showing how the meaning of the cuneiform symbols changed over the course of the millennia between the Old Babylonian stories and the “New Babylonian Version” of the Epic of Gilgamesh we think we know. Hear a full reading of Gilgamesh above, as translated by N.K. Sanders.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Explore Divine Comedy Digital, a New Digital Database That Collects Seven Centuries of Art Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy

The number of artworks inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy in the seven hundred years since the poet completed his epic, vernacular masterwork is so vast that referring to the poem inevitably means referring to its illustrations. These began appearing decades after the poet’s death, and they have not stopped appearing since. Indeed, it might be fair to say that the title Divine Comedy (simply called Comedy before 1555) names not only an epic poem but also its many constellations of artworks and interpretations, which would have filled a modest-sized set of Dante encyclopedias before the internet.

Luckily for art historians and Dante scholars working today, there is now Divine Comedy Digital, a beautifully designed database which brings these artworks — spread out all over the world — together in one virtual place.




The interface requires no special Dante knowledge to navigate, though it helps to be familiar with the poem and/or have a reference copy nearby when looking through the menus. Dividing neatly into the poem’s three books (or cantiche), the menu at the left further breaks down into circles (Inferno), terraces (Purgatorio), and Cantos (all three books).

Toggling between options in a menu on the right allows visitors to see the number of illustrated verses in each Canto or the number of artworks. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be discovering Dante illustrations you never knew existed, from Salvador Dali’s The Delightful Mount (1950, above) to Alessandro Vellutello’s Dante and St. Bernard, Mary and the Trinity (1544) and hundreds of others in the years in-between.

Calling itself a “slow surfing site,” Divine Comedy Digital contains a handy tutorial if you do get lost and allows users “not only to navigate through the collection, but also to suggest missing artworks.” So far, the 17th and 18th centuries are hugely underrepresented, though not for a lack of Dante-inspired artwork made in that two-hundred year period. The gaps mean there is much more Dante art to come.

Released in June of this year, the project is the work of The Visual Agency, “an information design agency specialized in data-visualization based in Milan and Dubai” and was created to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. As he continues to inspire artists for the next few hundred years, perhaps the work based on his epic poem will trend more digital than medieval, creating interpretations the poet never could have dreamt. Enter the Divine Comedy Digital project here.

You can also see some of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1487-1568), courtesy of Columbia University, here.

Related Content:

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Visualizing Dante’s Hell: See Maps & Drawings of Dante’s Inferno from the Renaissance Through Today

Hear Dante’s Inferno Read Aloud by Influential Poet & Translator John Ciardi (1954)

A Digital Archive of the Earliest Illustrated Editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1487-1568)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Haruki Murakami’s Daily Routine: Up at 4:00 a.m., 5-6 Hours of Writing, Then a 10K Run

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Haruki Murakami has been famous as a novelist since the 1980s. But for a decade or two now, he’s become increasingly well known around the world as a novelist who runs. The English-speaking world’s awareness of Murakami’s roadwork habit goes back at least as far as 2004, when the Paris Review published an Art of Fiction interview with him. Asked by interviewer John Ray to describe the structure of his typical workday, Murakami replied as follows:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

This stark physical departure from the popular notion of literary work drew attention. Truer to writerly stereotype was the Murakami of the early 1980s, when he turned pro as a novelist after closing the jazz bar he’d owned in Tokyo. “Once I was sitting at a desk writing all day I started putting on the pounds,” he remembers in The New Yorker. “I was also smoking too much — sixty cigarettes a day. My fingers were yellow, and my body reeked of smoke.” Aware that something had to change, Murakami performed an experiment on himself: “I decided to start running every day because I wanted to see what would happen. I think life is a kind of laboratory where you can try anything. And in the end I think it was good for me, because I became tough.”




Adherence to such a lifestyle, as Murakami tells it, has enabled him to write all his novels since, including hits like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. (On some level, it also reflects his protagonists’ tendency to make transformative leaps from one version of reality into another.) Its rigor has surely contributed to the discipline necessary for the rest of his output as well: translation into his native Japanese of works including The Great Gatsby, but also large quantities of first-person writing on his own interests and everyday life. Protective of his reputation in English, Murakami has allowed almost none of the latter to be published in this language.

But in light of the voracious consumption of self-improvement literature in the English-speaking world, and especially in America, translation of his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running must have been an irresistible proposition. “I’ve never recommended running to others,” Murakami writes in The New Yorker piece, which is drawn from the book. “If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference.” For some, Murakami’s example has been enough: take the writer-vlogger Mel Torrefranca, who documented her attempt to follow his example for a week. For her, a week was enough; for Murakami, who’s been running-while-writing for nearly forty years now, there could be no other way.

Related Content:

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Haruki Murakami Translates The Great Gatsby, the Novel That Influenced Him Most

Haruki Murakami’s Passion for Jazz: Discover the Novelist’s Jazz Playlist, Jazz Essay & Jazz Bar

Why Should You Read Haruki Murakami? An Animated Video on His “Epic Literary Puzzle” Kafka on the Shore Makes the Case

Read 12 Stories By Haruki Murakami Free Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Umberto Eco’s 36 Rules for Writing Well (in English or Italian)

Creative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

Umberto Eco knew a great many things. Indeed too many things, at least according to his critics: “Eco knows everything there is to know and spews it in your face in the most blasé manner,” declared Pier Paolo Pasolini, “as if you were listening to a robot.” That line appears quoted in Tim Parks’ review of Pape Satàn Aleppe, a posthumous collection of essays from La Bustina di Minerva, the magazine column Eco had written since 1985. “This phrase means ‘Minerva’s Matchbook,'” Parks explains. “Minerva is a brand of matches, and, being a pipe smoker, Eco used to jot down notes on the inside flap of their packaging. His columns were to be equally extemporaneous, compulsive and incisive, each as illuminating and explosive as a struck match.”

At the same time, “the reference to the Roman goddess Minerva is important; it warns us that in the modern world we may struggle to distinguish between divinities and bric-a-brac.” This was as true, and remains as true, in the realm of letters as in any other. And of all the things Eco knew, he surely knew best how to use words; hence his La Bustina di Minerva column laying out 40 rules for speaking and writing.




This meant, of course, speaking and writing in Italian, his native tongue and the language of which he spent his career demonstrating complete mastery. But as translator Gio Clairval shows in her English rendition of Eco’s rules, most of them apply just as well to this language.

“I’ve found online a series of instructions on how to write well,” says Eco’s introduction to the list. “I adopt them with a few variations because I think they could be useful to writers, particularly those who attend creative writing classes.” A few examples will suffice to give a sense of his guidance:

  • Avoid alliterations, even if they’re manna for morons.
  • Avoid clichés: they’re like death warmed over.
  • Never generalize.
  • Hold those quotes. Emerson aptly said, “I hate quotes. Tell me only what you know.”
  • Don’t write one-word sentences. Ever.
  • Recognize the difference between the semicolon and the colon: even if it’s hard.
  • Do you really need rhetorical questions?
  • Be concise; try expressing your thoughts with the least possible number of words, avoiding long sentences– or sentences interrupted by incidental phrases that always confuse the casual reader– in order to avoid contributing to the general pollution of information, which is surely (particularly when it is uselessly ripe with unnecessary explanations, or at least non indispensable specifications) one of the tragedies of our media-dominated time.
  • Don’t be emphatic! Be careful with exclamation marks!
  • No need to tell you how cloying preteritions are.

Not only does each of Eco’s points offer a useful piece of writing advice, it elegantly demonstrates just how your writing will come off if you fail to follow it. In the event that “you can’t find the appropriate expression,” he writes, “refrain from using colloquial/dialectal expressions.” To this he appends, of course, a colloquial expression, Peso el tacòn del buso: “The patch is worse than the hole.” However clichéd it sounds in Italian, all of us would do well to bear it in mind no matter the language in which we write. (And if you write in Italian, be sure to read Eco’s original column, which contains additional rules applying only to that language: Non usare metafore incongruenti anche se ti paiono “cantare,” for instance. Sono come un cigno che deraglia.)

You can read all 36 of Eco’s English-relevant writing rules at Clairval’s site. If you’d like to hear more of his writing advice, watch the Louisiana Channel interview clip we featured after his death in 2016. And elsewhere in our archives, you can compare and contrast Eco’s list of rules for writing with those drawn up by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Steven Pinker, Stephen King, V.S. Naipaul, Friedrich Nietzsche, Elmore Leonard, and George Orwell. Though Eco could, in his writing, assume what Parks calls an “immeasurably superior” persona, he surely would have agreed with the final, thoroughly English point on Orwell’s list: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Related content:

Umberto Eco Dies at 84; Leaves Behind Advice to Aspiring Writers

Umberto Eco’s How To Write a Thesis: A Witty, Irreverent & Highly Practical Guide Now Out in English

Umberto Eco Explains Why We Make Lists

Watch Umberto Eco Walk Through His Immense Private Library: It Goes On, and On, and On!

Free Italian Lessons

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear an Excerpt from the Newly-Released, First Unabridged Audiobook of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Need one go so far in digging out strata of meaning? Only if one wishes to; Finnegans Wake is a puzzle, just as a dream is a puzzle, but the puzzle element is less important than the thrust of the narrative and the shadowy majesty of the characters… and when our eyes grow bewildered with strange roots and incredible compounds, why, then we can switch on our ears. It is astonishing how much of the meaning is conveyed through music: the art of dim-sighted Joyce is, like that of Milton, mainly auditory. — Anthony Burgess

Finnegans Wake is not typically one of those books people pretend they have read, and even when they have read James Joyce’s last novel, no one’s likely to bring it up at dinner. It seems like making sense of Joyce’s polyglot prose — full of peculiar coinages and portmanteaus — takes special training and the kind of dedication and natural polymathic talents few readers possess. Critic, composer, linguist, poet, screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Anthony Burgess was one such reader, spending decades studying Joyce and publishing his first book on the Irish writer, Here Comes Everybody, in 1965.

Burgess published two more Joyce books, edited a shorter Finnegans Wake with his own critical commentary, and released documentary films about the novel, a book he made more approachable with his plain-spoken summaries. From the start, in the introduction to his first Joyce book — and against the evidence of most everyone’s experience with Finnegans Wake — Burgess insisted reading Joyce was not a rarified pursuit. “If ever there was a writer for the people,” Burgess argued, “Joyce was that writer.”




What’s important to keep in mind, Burgess emphasizes, even over and above considerations of meaning, is the music of Joyce’s language. One might go so far as to say, the book is nothing but language that must be read aloud, and, critically, sung. “[Joyce’s] writing is not about something,” wrote Samuel Beckett. “It is that something itself… . When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep… When the sense is dancing the words dance.”

That quote comes from the liner notes of the very first unabridged commercial audiobook recording of Finnegans Wake, read by Irish actor Barry McGovern (handpicked by the Joyce estate), with Marcella Riordan. You can hear an excerpt further up, the first five paragraphs of the book, opening with the famous sentence fragment, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Rolling Stone writes:

As it progresses, McGovern expertly navigates seemingly unpronounceable words like “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk” (which contains 100 characters) and he enunciates every consonant in Joyce’s unusual word inventions like “duskt.”

Yes, in print, it’s daunting stuff, but we should remember that for all Finnegans Wake’s linguistic complexity, its attempts to capture all of human history, its illustrations of the obscure theories of Giambattista Vico and Giordano Bruno and so forth, at its heart, wrote Burgess, is song, which gave the book its title.

“Finnegan’s Wake” is a New York Irish ballad which tells of the death of Tim Finnegan, a builder’s labourer who, fond of the bottle, falls drunk from his ladder… This ballad may be taken as demotic resurrection myth and one can see why, with its core of profundity wrapped round with the language of ordinary people, it appealed so much to Joyce. 

Joyce, the singer and lover of song, heard it everywhere he went, and it’s in every bewildering sentence and paragraph of Finnegans Wake. Hear the entire book, read unabridged for the first time, in the new recording, released on June 16th, Bloomsday, by Naxos Audiobooks. Free alternative versions can be found below…

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Rashomon Effect: The Phenomenon, Named After Akira Kurosawa’s Classic Film, Where Each of Us Remembers the Same Event Differently

Toward the end of The Simpsons’ golden age, one episode sent the titular family off to Japan, not without resistance from its famously lazy patriarch. “Come on, Homer,” Marge insists, “Japan will be fun! You liked Rashomon.” To which Homer naturally replies, “That’s not how I remember it!” This joke must have written itself, not as a high-middlebrow cultural reference (as, say, Frasier would later name-check Tampopo) but as a play on a universally understood byword for the nature of human memory. Even those of us who’ve never seen Rashomon, the period crime drama that made its director Akira Kurosawa a household name in the West, know what its title represents: the tendency of each human being to remember the same event in his own way.

“A samurai is found dead in a quiet bamboo grove,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. “One by one, the crime’s only known witnesses recount their version of the events that transpired. But as they each tell their tale, it becomes clear that every testimony is plausible, yet different, and each witness implicates themselves.”




So goes “In a Grove,” a story by celebrated early 20th-century writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. An avid reader, Kurosawa combined that literary work with another of Akutagawa’s to create the script for Rashomon. Both Akutagawa and Kurosawa “use the tools of their media to give each character’s testimony equal weight, transforming each witness into an unreliable narrator.” Neither reader nor viewer can trust anyone — nor, ultimately, can they arrive at a defensible conclusion as to the identity of the killer.

Such conflicts of memory and perception occur everywhere in human affairs: this TED-Ed lesson finds examples in biology, anthropology, politics, and media. Sufficiently many psychological phenomena converge to give rise to the Rashomon effect that it seems almost overdetermined; it may be more illuminating to ask under what conditions doesn’t it occur. But it also makes us ask even tougher questions: “What is truth, anyway? Are there situations when an objective truth doesn’t exist? What can different versions of the same event tell us about the time, place, and people involved? And how can we make group decisions if we’re all working with different information, backgrounds, and biases?” We seem to be no closer to definitive answers than we were when Rashomon came out more than 70 years ago — only one of the reasons the film holds up so well still today.

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What Is Déjà Vu? Michio Kaku Wonders If It’s Triggered by Parallel Universes

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch a Never-Aired TV Profile of James Baldwin (1979)

In 1979, just a couple of months into his stint with 20/20, ABC’s fledgling television news magazine, producer and documentarian Joseph Lovett was “beyond thrilled” to be assigned an interview with author James Baldwin, whose work he had discovered as a teen.

Knowing that Baldwin liked to break out the bourbon in the afternoon, Lovett arranged for his crew to arrive early in the morning to set up lighting and have breakfast waiting before Baldwin awakened:

He hadn’t had a drop to drink and he was brilliant, utterly brilliant. We couldn’t have been happier.

Pioneering journalist Sylvia Chase conducted the interview. The segment also included stops at Lincoln Center for a rehearsal of Baldwin’s play, The Amen Corner, and the Police Athletic League’s Harlem Center where Baldwin (and perhaps the camera) seems to unnerve a teen reporter, cupping his chin at length while answering his question about a Black writer’s chances:

There never was a chance for a Black writer.  Listen, a writer, Black or white, doesn’t have much of a chance. Right? Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead. But to answer your question, there’s a greater chance for a Black writer today than there ever has been.

In the Manhattan building Baldwin bought to house a number of his close-knit family, Chase corners his mother in the kitchen to ask if she’d had any inkling her son would become such a success.




“No, I didn’t think that,” Mrs. Baldwin cuts her off. “But I knew he had to write.”

Baldwin speaks frankly about outing himself to the general public with his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room and about what it means to live as a Black man in a nation that has always favored its white citizens:

The American sense of reality is dictated by what Americans are trying to avoid. And if you’re trying to avoid reality, how can you face it?

Nearly 35 years before Black Lives Matter’s formation, he tackles the issue of white fragility by telling Chase, “Look, I don’t mean it to you personally. I don’t even know you. I have nothing against you. I don’t know you personally, but I know you historically. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t swear to the freedom of all mankind and put me in chains.”

The finished piece is a superb, 60 Minutes-style profile that covers a lot of ground, and yet, 20/20 chose not to air it.

After the show ran Chase’s interview with Michael Jackson, producer Lovett inquired as to the delay and was told that no one would be interested in a “queer, Black has-been”:

I was stunned, I was absolutely stunned, because in my mind James Baldwin was no has-been. He was a classic American writer, translated into every language in the world, and would live on forever, and indeed he has. His courage and his eloquence continue to inspire us today.

On June 24, Joseph Lovett will moderate James Baldwin: Race, Media, and Psychoanalysis, a free virtual panel discussion centering on his 20/20 profile of James Baldwin, with psychoanalysts Victor P. Bonfilio and Annie Lee Jones, and Baldwin’s niece, author Aisha Karefa-Smart. Register here.

H/T to author Sarah Schulman

Related Content: 

Why James Baldwin’s Writing Stays Powerful: An Artfully Animated Introduction to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

Watch the Famous James Baldwin-William F. Buckley Debate in Full, With Restored Audio (1965)

James Baldwin’s One & Only, Delightfully-Illustrated Children’s Book, Little Man Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1976)

Listen to James Baldwin’s Record Collection in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spotify Playlist

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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