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Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone

Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone

A Novel

Book - 1968
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A major work of American literature that powerfully portrays the anguish of being Black in a society that at times seems poised on the brink of total racial war.

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.

Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is overpowering in its vitality and extravagant in the intensity of its feeling.
Publisher: New York : Dial Press, 1968
ISBN: 9780375701894
0375701893
Call Number: F BALDWIN
Characteristics: 484 p. ; 22 cm

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rab1953
May 11, 2021

This is a dense and fascinating story, as much a reflection on racism in America as it is the story of a man’s life and illusions. The title phrase does not seem to appear in the text, and when I began I wondered what it’s meaning was. By the end, it seems to me that it’s a comment on the life of the central character, who works through his life to overcome the racist society he lives in, but finally finds that the success train has left before he ever got to the station. He was never going to be on it, no matter how much he rose in his art.
The scenes of Leo’s young life in Harlem show the impact of racism on his family, especially on his father. The threat of violence from the police and the fear of violence from white people shapes Leo’s existence. This becomes even more intense when he spends a summer at a small-town theatre camp together with a white woman friend. Nevertheless, he wants to fight against the racism and make his own future.
In some ways, Leo’s character could be a stand-in for Baldwin, a successful Black man who challenges racism and has to continually defend his choices. He has friends and allies, but being a public figure calling for justice is stressful and leads to the heart attack that makes him pause and re-examine his life. The apparent futility of his life work eventually draws him toward armed resistance. I’m not sure if that was the conclusion that Baldwin came to personally, but it is where he leaves his central character.
The story is also about Leo’s relationship with his older brother, Caleb. Leo loves and admires Caleb, a natural leader who responds with rage to the racism they grew up with in Harlem. Leo is devastated when Caleb is wrongly imprisoned for theft by racist police (and corrupted Black criminals). Caleb later becomes a preacher, swallows his rage and challenges Leo’s anger and radicalism. Is this a suggestion that Black leaders can work within the church to create a separate world? Or that the church provides a haven for defeated Black men? Leo wants to kill the white people who have damaged his brother, but he has to painfully reject his brother’s reactionary passivity and fight the racism that dominates all of their lives. By succeeding in the theatre, Leo wants to inspire other black people to overcome the racism they face. At one point, though, he sees a parallel between the church and the theatre, and by the end his success seems as limited as his brother's. In a scene near the end of the novel, he has lunch with the family of his closest friend, a white woman from Tennessee. In her family, he finds just a thin layer of politeness and liberalism covering a deep racism.
In some respects, this could be a depressing story, given the way that racism remains in contemporary society since Baldwin wrote it over 50 years ago. Somehow it isn’t depressing, at least not to me. Baldwin’s characters fight a terrible, devastating struggle, but they continue to fight, and they are ready to escalate if they have to. Baldwin suggests that they won’t stop until they succeed. The alternative is to succumb to insubstantial beliefs that are deadening. Baldwin portrays Leo’ rage and the social conditions that drive it, and makes the reader feel it too, along with the fear and despair that go along with it.
And perhaps the tone is also raised by the beautiful prose that Baldwin writes with. In every paragraph I could hear the cultured voice that he used in his public debates and talks. It’s such a pleasure to hear the language that it made me slow down to read each sentence in my head. This is not a book that I wanted to to skim through quickly.

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Tamiyah06
Jun 14, 2020

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.

From the Publisher:
"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

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