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  • Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
  • Written by James Baldwin
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  • Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
  • Written by James Baldwin
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Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone

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On Sale: September 17, 2013
Pages: 496 | ISBN: 978-0-8041-4970-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

At the height of his theatrical career, the actor Leo Proudhammer is nearly felled by a heart attack. As he hovers between life and death, Baldwin shows the choices that have made him enviably famous and terrifyingly vulnerable.  
  


For between Leo's childhood on the streets of Harlem and his arrival into the intoxicating world of the theater lies a wilderness of desire and loss, shame and rage. An adored older brother vanishes into prison. There are love affairs with a white woman and a younger black man, each of whom will make irresistible claims on Leo's loyalty. And everywhere there is the anguish of being black in a society that at times seems poised on the brink of total racial war. Overpowering in its vitality, extravagant in the intensity of its feeling, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is a major work of American literature.  

Excerpt

I went down again. My heart and I went down again. I was aware of her hand. I was aware of my breathing. I could no longer see it, but I was aware of her face.

"Barbara. My dear Barbara."

"My dearest Leo. Please be still."

And she's right, I thought. There is nothing more to be said. All we can do now is just hold on. That was why she held my hand. I recognized this as love--recognized it very quietly and, for the first time, without fear. My life, that desperately treacherous labyrinth, seemed to fall where there had been no light before. I began to see myself in others. I began for a moment to apprehend how Christopher must sometimes have felt. Everyone wishes to be loved, but in the event, nearly no one can bear it. Everyone desires love but also finds it impossible to believe that he deserves it. However great the private disasters to which love may lead, love itself is strikingly and mysteriously impersonal; it is a reality which is not altered by anything one does. Therefore, one does many things, turns the key in the lock over and over again, hoping to be locked out. Once locked out, one will never again be forced to encounter in the eyes of a stranger who loves him the impenetrable truth concerning the stranger, oneself, who is loved. And yet--one would prefer, after all, not to be locked out. One would prefer, merely, that the key unlocked a less stunningly unusual door.

The door to my maturity. This phrase floated to the top of my mind. The light that fell backward on that life of mine revealed a very frightened man--a very frightened boy. The light did not fall on me, on me were I lay now. I was left in darkness, my face could not be seen. In that darkness I encountered a scene from another nightmare I had had as a child. In this nightmare there is a book--a great, heavy book with an illustrated cover. The cover shows a dark, squalid alley, all garbage cans and dying cats, and windows like empty eyesockets. The beam of a flashlight shines down the alley, at the end of which I am fleeing, clutching something. the title of the book in my nightmare is, We Must Not Find Him, For He Is Lost.

When Caleb, my older brother, was taken from me and sent to prison, I watched, from the fire escape of our East Harlem tenement, the walls of an old and massive building, far, far away and set on a hill, and with green vines running up and down the walls, and with windows flashing like signals in the sunlight. I watched that building, I say, with a child's helpless and stricken attention, waiting for my brother to come out of there. I did not know how to get to the building. If I had I would have slept in the shadow of those walls, and I told no one of my vigil or of my certain knowledge that my brother was imprisoned in that place. I watched that building for many years. Sometimes, when the sunlight flashed on the windows, I was certain that my brother was signaling to me and I waved back. When we moved from that particular tenement (into another one) I screamed and cried because I was certain that now my brother would no longer be able to find me. Alas, he was not there; the building turned out to be City College; my brother was on a prison farm in the Deep South, working the fields.
James Baldwin

About James Baldwin

James Baldwin - Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone

Photo © The Granger Collection

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, and educated in New York. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, appeared in 1953 to excellent reviews and immediately was recognized as establishing a profound and permanent new voice in American letters. "Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else," he remarked. Baldwin's play The Amen Corner was first performed at Howard University in 1955 (it was staged commercially in the 1960s), and his acclaimed collection of essays Notes of a Native Son, was published the same year. A second collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, was published in 1961 between his novels Giovanni's Room (1956) and Another Country (1961).

The appearance of The Fire Next Time in 1963, just as the civil rights movement was exploding across the American South, galvanized the nation and continues to reverberate as perhaps the most prophetic and defining statement ever written of the continuing costs of Americans' refusal to face their own history. It became a national bestseller, and Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Critic Irving Howe said that The Fire Next Time achieved "heights of passionate exhortation unmatched in modern American writing." In 1964 Blues for Mister Charlie, his play based on the murder of a young black man in Mississippi, was produced by the Actors Studio in New York. That same year, Baldwin was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and collaborated with the photographer Richard Avedon on Nothing Personal, a series of portraits of America intended as a eulogy for the slain Medger Evers. A collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man, was published in 1965, and in 1968, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, his last novel of the 1960s appeared.

In the 1970s he wrote two more collections of essays and cultural criticism: No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976). He produced two novels: the bestselling If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Just Above My Head (1979) and also a children's book Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1976). He collaborated with Margaret Mead on A Rap on Race (1971) and with the poet-activist Nikki Giovanni on A Dialogue (1973). He also adapted Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X into One Day When I Was Lost.

In the remaining years of his life, Baldwin produced a volume of poetry, Jimmy's Blues (1983), and a final collection of essays, The Price of the Ticket. Baldwin's last work, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), was prompted by a series of child murders in Atlanta. Baldwin was made a Commander of the French Legion of Honor in June 1986. Among the other awards he received are a Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Trust Award, a Rosenwald fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Partisan Review fellowship, and a Ford Foundation grant.

James Baldwin died at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in France on December 1, 1987.

Praise

Praise

"Baldwin is one of the few genuinely indispensable American writers."
--Saturday Review

"He has not himself lost access to the sources of his being--which is what makes him read and awaited by perhaps a wider range of people than any other major American writer."
--The Nation

  • Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone by James Baldwin
  • February 17, 1998
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780375701894

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