No work of art can be created separately from the social and historical context. It is rather difficult to distinguish between phenomena taking place in society from the historical events, because in the end everything becomes history, and the latter specifically deals with the development of the society and national communitites. Books referring to some burning problems and providing a comprehensive background are those which enrich the treasuries of national literatures and leave their legacy in the world literary process. Short story Sonny’s Blues (1957) by an American writer James Baldwin presents such a coherent story which enfolds in close relation to the epoch.
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James Arthur Baldwin, who spent most of his infant and early adolescence years in Harlem, one of the most troublesome New York districts, brought his childhood memories throughout his life. They found their outlet in Sonny’s Blues. The author himself admitted the autobiographic character of this work by calling it “highly personal” in one of his interviews in Paris (Elgrably). Filled with some personal details and paying much attention to the personages, their background and inner world, the story still remains a product of its time, 1950’s in the USA. The great drama of one family still remains a purely American drama. A tragedy of one if it is true sincere and great always becomes a tragedy of the whole generation. Harlem is felt in the speech of the personages (with all the contracted forms, colloquial utterances and so on) and the plot itself: Sonny is revealed to the reader as drug addict and a musician. According to David Farnell, Harlem of 1960’s is a scene of dystopia to Sonny (Farnell 7). The scholar continues his dystopia theory by mentioning the personage’s retreat to mystical practices and religion. The sadness of this allegation is that Harlem was real and rigid, it showed no signs of changing for better even when one intentionally did not visit it for a long time. Farnell confirms this statement by mentioning that the “real-world Harlem of James Baldwin’s experience, with its poverty, violence and oppression, certainly qualifies to stand among the ranks of the many real-world dystopias”. The position of the scholar reveals a painful interrelation between the present distressing reality of Harlem, routine of which swallows whole, and the world of the story reflecting the actual state of things. A harsh statement that the writer hated the place he grew up in due to “drugs, number games and prostitution”, as stated in the article by Roger Rosenblatt, might even seem true based on the attitude of his personage Sonny regarding the issue.
Religious aspect of the story is also mentioned by James Tackach. Particularly, the author claims this domain of Sonny’s Blues to be not investigated enough and worth of incorporating into the scholarly interpretation of the work of James Baldwin. Tackach also states that the reason of insertion of the spiritual level results from the Harlem childhood of the writer, thus, identification of the latter with the Harlem-based stratum of Christian African Americans.
Both music and drugs were popular and even interrelated at those times, which finds its evidence in the text: “Some guys, you can tell from the way they play, they on something all the time” (Baldwin 41)). A bitter phrase of a Mother – “It ain’t only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under” (Baldwin 28) may be referring to that very dangerous and confusing period of history as well as to the modern times, for the problem is of a social character and, unfortunately, is unwilling to become history. There can never be a guarantee from being led astray, especially if you grow up in unfavorable conditions. Drug addiction was a very serious problem in Harlem at those times. 1950’s might be considered a time when drug dealing invaded this part of the city. There was a drug addict in practically every family. Sonny regrets that he took the wrong way, and the only fact that soothes him is that the parents are dead and cannot witness the effects of his self-destroying habit. The narration itself begins with the publication of an article about Sonny’s imprisonment sequencing the heroin raid. His brother feels sorry for him as a man who has been an addict for a long time and for the boys in the school where he teaches, for they are likely to follow this inglorious path. The narrator also feels uncomfortable around one of Sonny’s friends sharing the harmful habit with the latter. The only thing that kept the elder brother from a drug addict path could have been his own family. Sonny, on the contrary, admitted his total loneliness, which only enhanced his desperation. Being a creative person, Sonny must have been more vulnerable and inclined to using drugs than his calm and reasonable elder brother. Such a plot development suggests that, probably, living in Harlem does not automatically make a person apt to anti-social lifestyle. There are antidotes against this evil, and because of character peculiarities one of the brothers manages to find them and another – fails.
Music is one of the key images of the short story. It is not only Sonny who expressed his desire to become a musician, it is actual referencing to real persons, like Louis Armstrong (already a corny example for the young man) or Charlie Parker (his icon). It is Sonny’s perception, quite different from the one of his brother. Strangely enough, the narrator states that all his knowledge about music “is that not many people ever really hear it” (Baldwin 45). Who of them is closer to the real state of things? Probably, both. If Sonny is a keen fan and knows about all the directions and genres, his brother, having no musical training and generally being not that interested, presents a true insight by his words forming themselves in a paragraph with a comprehensive personal idea on the concept of music and performing. At the very end Sonny’s brother even suggests that a lot of suffering could be avoided and life would became better if we could just listen. In such a way, both brothers treat music positively. However, the plot reveals a different viewpoint on it, too. Music can be dangerous, and not only beautiful. It is music that brings Sonny, as well as hundred of other performers of the 50’s and further decades, to an intense emotional state demanding stimulants to cope with some inner conflicts. A lot of people consider music itself to be a drug, claiming the effect of it to be satisfying the way narcotic substances are, but when it becomes difficult to get them, the mind strives for an artificial aid. The story emphasizes the narrator’s astonishment when he realizes how complicated the relations between a musician and an instrument are, how much the former has to share and sacrifice that he practically burns inside. At the end this struggle becomes cathartic. Actually, it is what every musician seeks in his art – relief from suffering. As for blues specifically – it is a hallmark of this genre. Blues, which was already an established artistic institution in 1950’s, filled the minds of Americans. Its magical power of raising to surface all the tragic moments of life is described by the narrator’s reaction to the performance of his brother and his colleagues. Pancho Savery introduces another dimension of the story. According to him, the described processes at the jazz music scene in 1950s display a division in the black community represented by the brothers themselves. Savery suggests that Sonny also favors bebop – an innovative branch of jazz – not as a creative outlet only, but also as the source of social and personal liberation. All of these music directions have roots in African American music which was later fully incorporated into the all-national culture and penetrated into other cultures. Thus, Sonny’s Blues reveals connections to musical reality of the times; moreover, the events are truly relevant for the whole history of music.
Military service is also mentioned in the short story. Pancho Savery makes a conclusion in his article that the story seems to take place during the Korean War and unlikely during World War II. Thus, the events described in Sonny’s Blues prove to unfold prior to the great commotion in the American society concerning this issue. However, they raise another important problem, beginning to become topical at that time, that of enlisting African Americans. As for the social coloring of this aspect of the story, though both brothers served in the army, only the views of a younger one are put to the foreground. Sonny believes that army is what can save him from the stuffing world of Harlem, which seems to bring only suffering and loss, and give him an opportunity to see the world and pursue his endeavors of learning to play music. Paradoxically, even serving during the war seems to be a better opportunity to Sonny than continuing staying in his hometown.
Harlem in mid-fifties appears to be more than just a background for Sonny’s Blues. It is a world that James Baldwin faced and confronted himself. Autobiographic character of the story proves that the described events stem from the objective reality of America. The shortness of the genre does not allow reflecting all the social and cultural phenomena of the times, but the outline of the historical background is definitely traceable from numerous details and parts of narration.