An Important Novel

‘Writer and playwright [James] Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. One of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works. He was especially known for his essays on the Black experience in America.’ This is an extract from

This afternoon I finished reading the author’s novel ‘Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone’ in which, according to the above-quoted website ‘Baldwin returned to popular themes โ€” sexuality, family and the Black experience. Some critics panned the novel, calling it a polemic rather than a novel. He was also criticized for using the first-person singular, the “I,” for the book’s narration.’ My copy is a first UK edition published in 1968 by Michael Joseph.

In my view the novel was certainly not a polemic. It recounts the story of the life of a man of his times from mid-teens to middle age. The atmosphere of fear and mistrust underlying the life of the Black protagonist is never far from present but the book is far more than a rant. Leo’s struggles with relationships, both within and without the constraints of racial boundaries, both sexual and familial; his bisexuality reflecting the author’s own; finding a non-stereotypical place in the world, are conveyed with sensitivity, compassion, passion, and understanding. Yes, there is progressive seething anger, yet, to my mind, the author’s genuine humanity is the dominating factor.

Baldwin is a literary genius. His writing is eloquent, his fine descriptions elucidating and his complex characterisation credible.

I thought the first person singular enormously enhanced the impact of the book.

He was also very far sighted in his view that change would not come in his lifetime. Indeed, it seems that not much has been learned in the last half century. The author’s work has never been more relevant.

Today, the hottest day of the year, was largely overcast and humid. We began with a trip to the pharmacy at Milford on Sea for repeat medication. The coast road car parks were full to bursting. We continued to Ferndene Farm Shop where Jackie bought some new lavender plants in the uncrowded nursery section, but eschewed the queues to the main shop. We returned home where I spent much of the afternoon indoors and the head Gardener carried out essential watering..

This evening we dined on Jackie’s flavoursome cottage pie with superb al dente carrots and cauliflower, and tasty, meaty, gravy with which she drank sparkling water and I finished the Rioja.


  1. I also think that James Baldwin was a genius who was ahead of his times on several issues, and I agree with you, Derrick, regarding the usage of first person singular. Leo’s voice contributes to a uniquely poignant flavor of the novel.

  2. Oh, you are so right! Mr. Baldwin is an amazing writer! And this book is so important!
    I wish his books were required reading for everyone.
    Thank you for sharing him and this book, Derrick!
    His work has impacted my life in only positive ways! I’d start listing his books that have helped me, but the list would be so long.
    I collect quotes so I can read them over and over…and I have many from Mr. Baldwin.
    Here is just one:
    “Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.” – Mr. James Baldwin

    Stay safe in from the heat and humidity! I can’t wait to see the new lavender plants!
    HUGS!!! ๐Ÿ™‚
    PS…your description of your meal always makes me hungry!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Wow – this review, along with the enthusiastic comments, ensures that I will be checking this novel out. I have read some of his writing, but not this one. I agree he is a treasure.

  4. Hi Derrick, as I said in another exchange of comments with you, I really need to read James Baldwin. The other book discussion group at work, the Page Turners, read If Beale Street Could Talk this year and my work friend told me how good it was. I run the mystery book group, so I often don’t have time to read everything the other group reads.

  5. Baldwin is always a good read and a good think and a little bit of emotional turmoil. I agree the first person narrative works perfectly where third person might have posed some difficulties.

  6. Thank you for the reminder of the beauty of Baldwin’s prose and the imporance of his message–as you say, now more relevant than ever. He knew the character of this country well, sadly.

  7. Hi Derrick, I’m always perturbed by critics of literature, which are about the realities and confronting issues that are in front of them…..
    Thank you for this important article about a great author ….

  8. Thank you for the review! I have never read any of his work but now I certainly shall! Your description of the meal enjoyed at the end of you day had my mouth watering. lovely post.

  9. An interesting comment on an obviously impressive book. One of which I have not previously heard. Another ‘Should Read’ – Ah, “Had we but world enough, and time”!

  10. I watched James Baldwin’s “I am not your Negro” on BBC 2. There are not many things I watch twice on TV but this was one of them. If you didn’t see it, try BBC I-player. It really is worth a serious search, he is an extremely perceptive man.

  11. I have read so little modern literature. I would love to spend a year browsing through your library – the next best thing is to see your reviews here. Critics are such a straitjacket to writers that it takes a brave soul to break free. I happened upon a comment today on Britannica about ‘Shirley’: ‘a sturdy but rather embittered feminism’. It made me think “What?”

  12. Thanks very much for this interesting review, Derrick. I completed rereading The Fire Next Time and will be reading this one soon. Baldwin had such mastery of the language. I wish!

  13. Thank you very much for the review, Derrick. I’ve read some of his shorter pieces, but not this novel, but I will certainly add it to my list.

  14. That was an excellent review, Derrick. I have read several Baldwin novels. Always enjoy his character development and ability to maintain reader intrigue. His perspective as a black man living in the period he did is indeed enlightening – and sad to think we have progressed so little as a people who need to learn to love and respect one another and celebrate our differences. This is the only post I have seen you do with no pictures. Camera broken??

  15. Baldwin has been a writer I’ve long wanted to read and yet somehow it never happens. Reading your thoughts, Derrick, I hope I pick up one of his works sooner rather than later.

  16. I can understand how using first person singular would make this book more personal and meaningful. It’s high time I read some James Baldwin.

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