James Baldwin’s writing has an astounding, pounding and musical quality to it that almost demands the reader catch their breath at intervals in order to not be trampled flat by the weight of revelation and sorrow it contains—especially in the silence and stillness of the night after, say 11pm, or in the corner of a library before a glass gradually darkening and filling itself with your own desolate reflection.
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone spans multiple decades of the protagonist Leo Proudhammer’s life—his name almost a prophecy of his character, struggle and triumph in a world that hates the Black person, lies to his face and raises its brows in disapproval at his success should he somehow still manage to achieve it. The book follows Leo’s life, from a young boy living in Harlem, to an aspiring actor living in various rundown establishments, with friends and alone, and finally his fame as a theatrical actor. The story opens with his near-death—a heart attack on stage. Recovering in the hospital, he looks back on his life, on all that made him and continues to make him.
Baldwin encapsulates a staggeringly ambitious array of issues and topics that Leo Proudhammer’s life and identity—a bisexual Black man living in 1960s America—comprises. Mainly, these are: family, sexuality, racial identity, struggles and violence, religion (a topic that haunted Baldwin), friendship and love. Ultimately, the question at the heart of the novel—one Leo takes decades to realise he’s asking—is: what makes a person and their life worth living? Despite all that he has to contend with?
When younger, Leo finds this anchor in his older brother Caleb—the idol and love of his life. Caleb, however, gets incarcerated for a crime he did not commit and gets tortured in multiple ways by sadistic white men and women in jail—an event which irrevocably changes him and causes Leo to lose him gradually and then forever. Upon his release, Caleb joins the army during which he has a life-altering salvation encounter. He then becomes a preacher and marries a Black woman. In essence, he becomes the quintessential respectable Black man saved and redeemed by his religion and marriage and the place these grant him in his Black community.
Leo, however, struggles to survive, barely making ends meet as he works towards his dream of becoming an actor on stage. He falls in love and lives with, for a while, a white actress, Barbara King. He also, because of the connections she provides, ends up working as a sort of intern-turned-student at a White actors’ workshop. Everywhere he goes, he faces the hostility of a white community appalled by the scandal of his and Barbara’s relationship and the rejection of a Black community helplessly betrayed by his living on the White side of town and working with White people—he is seen, almost as one of them—yet hopeful that he might be the one more Black Negro who makes it— and thus bring them, as a whole,— one more step up the White man’s mountain. From the moment he makes the decision to live this life, Leo toes this delicate balancing act constantly poised on the brink of violence.
For years at work, he is made to play humiliating “Black roles”: servants, busboys. Seeing the world for what it is and therefore seeing the false narrative of an equally loving God for what it is, Leo rages against a religion which ultimately serves to keep the Blacks in their place behind the guise of lessons and virtues like ‘patience’, ‘humility’ and ‘thankfulness’.
The novel is unerringly precise in its descriptions, especially of the characters’ movements: a person walks to the bedroom, then to the bathroom, then to the kitchen and back to the bedroom. The attention paid to different items and especially characters, no matter how minor they are, is notable too. Every movement, then, is a stage direction, every person an actor, every item a prop. Baldwin always has the very pleasing way of making form mimic content in the most precise, almost invisible, yet simultaneously blatant way.
Yet with Caleb, the scene tends to fall apart. Leo uses the reason “I do not remember” to explain these incongruences and gaps in his memory. Whenever he is upset, stressed or uncomfortable—such as during the hours leading up to opening night—but especially so in his adult moments with Caleb, this happens. Leo rages at a God who took away, or replaces, his brother. It is as if it is in this rage that his mind goes blank: he forgets his lines and the story’s trajectory—the careful narrative he crafts his life around—goes awry.
Baldwin writes, “There is truth in the theatre and there is truth in life—they meet, but they are not the same, for life, God help us, is the truth. And those disguises the artist wears are his means, not of fleeing from the truth, but of attempting to approach it”. In Caleb’s presence, however, the truth becomes too much to bear. With Caleb, Leo is stripped, down to the ‘Little Leo’ full of shame and rage that he long ago tried to discard. Without a disguise, without a stage, Leo unravels—there are gaps in the narrative because there isn’t a script and without his script and stage directions, it seems that—after so many years conflating the two—there isn’t a life as well.
At the beginning of the novel, as Leo is forced by his heart attack to accept love and care from others, he writes, “everyone wishes to be loved, but in the event, nearly no one can bear it”. This strange, yet base truth is constantly turned over and over like a worry stone and weighed throughout the novel’s course, begging the question: how does one bear it? What can make this inconvenient necessity bearable? With Barbara and Christopher (a young lover and protégé Leo takes on), it seems that the answer lies in knowing that one is loved and that one has loved and suffered in that loving enough to cover the cost. With his brother and father, a compromise seems to have been made on the fact of his own success, which, by virtue of relation, has made them successful too.
Towards the end of the novel, all uneasy compromises notwithstanding, Leo still hangs suspended between the past and present, between bitterness and reconciliation. The novel ends on an open note, with him waiting in the wings of a stage for his cue. Through the character of Christopher, Baldwin suggests that a best that a man in Leo’s position can do is to set the next generation up for success—that is, to successfully comprehend the truth and the price of what they are fighting for: “What, after all, could I do with him? except, perhaps, set him on his path, the path that would lead him away from me. My honour, my intelligence, and my experience all informed me that freedom, not happiness, was the precious stone. One could not cling to happiness—happiness simply, submitted to no clinging; and it is criminal to use the unspoken and unrealised needs of another as a means of escorting him, elaborately, into the prison of those needs, and sealing him there. But on the other hand, the stone I hoped to offer was, nevertheless, a stone: its edges drew blood, and its weight was tremendous. Still, there he was, before me”.
Living and working for this freedom has cost Leo a relationship with the brother he once knew, a place in his community and perhaps even an authentic sense of self. He has, in short, paid a heavy heavy price. And yet; standing at the top of a mountain, personally and literally, Leo muses, “indeed, I had conquered the city: but the city was stricken with the plague. Not in my lifetime would the plague end, and now, all that I treasured, wine, talk, laughter, love, the embrace of a friend, the light in the eyes of a lover… would have to be stolen, each moment lived as though it were the last, for my mortality was not more certain than the storm that was rising to engulf us all”. Happiness, the great pretender, remains always one step away from ending, permanently or temporarily; it remains as ephemeral as the quickly fading evening light behind a thin and delicate glass, leaving but an illusory shadow in its wake. What, then, is the solution?
Perhaps, Baldwin seems to suggest, that in the face of these impossible and slippery joys, the best one can do is to keep at paving the way to freedom as the only sort of truth for those waiting in the wings and watching for their turn, no matter the price.