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"Sonny's Blues" Annotated Bibliography

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Chloe Morfett

on 16 December 2014

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Transcript of "Sonny's Blues" Annotated Bibliography

James Baldwin's
"Sonny's Blues"

Chloe Morfett
In Keith Byerman’s article, he claims that if resolution between the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” and his brother, Sonny, a musician and drug addict, is not assumed but taken as problematical, then new thematic and structural possibilities are revealed to the reader. Byerman argues that the message in “Sonny’s Blues” is not only apparent from the beginning, but it is also made available to the narrator repeatedly. Therefore, “Sonny’s Blues” is, in part, a story about the narrator’s misreadings and his inability to read properly. Byerman goes on to explain that the main source of the narrator’s inability to “read” is due to his reliance on rationalistic and metaphoric language. After describing the ways in which the narrator evades messages through his language, Byerman goes on to explain how the final scene only deepens the ambiguity of the story’s message rather than validating it. Through the narrator’s use of a linguistic pattern that restricts his understanding, Baldwin offers insight into the limitations of language and the narrative art. Byerman’s article illustrates that “‘Sonny’s Blues’ moves within the tension between its openly stated message of order and a community of understanding and its covert questioning, through form, allusion, and ambiguity, of the relationship between life and art” (317).
Byerman, Keith. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in
‘Sonny’s Blues.’” Studies in Short Fiction 19.4 (1982): 367-372. Web.
In Charles Duncan’s article, “Learning to listen to ‘Sonny’s Blues,’” he claims that Baldwin’s story attempts to open the “world-deafened” ears of the narrator as well as the reader. Even though Sonny is delivering a message through music, specifically the Blues, Baldwin intentionally has Sonny’s brother narrate his tale in order to depict the transformation of the perceiver, whether it be the narrator or the reader. Duncan then describes how “Sonny’s Blues” illustrates how the narrator, who is initially “deaf” to Sonny’s message, learns to “open his ears” and listen to his culture, his brother, and himself. Although the narrator remains deaf throughout most of the story, when the narrator agrees to hear Sonny perform, he consciously leaves the world he has composed for himself and simultaneously enters what he knows to be Sonny’s world. By doing so, the narrator not only begins to appreciate the value of Sonny’s music, but he also symbolically promises a new emotional foundation for their relationship through his “now-open” ears. Duncan argues that the metamorphosis the narrator undergoes is genuine and is embodied through the transformation of the glass of scotch and milk into “the very cup of trembling.” Although the narrator may not understand Sonny’s lifestyle or his blues, his metamorphosis allows him to hear Sonny and therefore create a relationship with him.
Duncan, Charles. “Learning to listen to ‘Sonny’s
Blues.’” Obsidian II 9.2 (1994): 1+. Web.
In Timothy Golden’s article, he claims that there is a moral problem presented in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” which he calls “epistemic addiction.” Golden begins by comparing the biblical tale of Adam and Eve to “Sonny’s Blues” to illustrate how the notion of grasping and seizing for knowledge creates a moral problem in the story. He argues that the narrator is committed to an ethics of knowing rather than an ethics of doing which causes him, like Eve, to “fall” because in the narrator’s goal to “know” his brother, he attempts to make Sonny like himself. This concept is what Golden states to be the problem of epistemic addiction: “one strives to ‘know’ others without regard for their alterity such that one tries to make others like the self” (556). He then goes on to describe how Baldwin’s critique of epistemic addiction in his work shares similarities with Emmanuel Levinas’s, Søren Kierkegaard’s, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s critiques of epistemic addiction. Golden further illustrates how reading “Sonny’s Blues” through Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche leads to “a reciprocity of philosophical and literary appreciation” (557). “Sonny’s Blues” not only presents philosophical issues in such a way that it gives embodiment to the reflections of these three philosophers, but the insights of Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche helps the reader to clarify Baldwin’s social critique.
Golden, Timothy. “Epistemic Addiction: Reading ‘Sonny’s Blues’ with Levinas,
Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26.3 (2012): 554-571. Web.
In her academic essay, Trudier Harris draws a parallel between James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif.” She claims that the way in which characters are positioned in both these texts mirrors how the reader is positioned while reading them. Harris first discusses how the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” is initially a spectator and an outsider to the circumstances of Sonny’s life and continues to distance himself from Sonny through physical and symbolic means. Even though the narrator actively distances himself from Sonny, he is nonetheless curious about Sonny’s life as a drug addict, but the narrator can only wait and watch until Sonny attempts to describe his addiction. This revelation causes the reader to watch over the narrator’s shoulder as he himself is watching Sonny describe his experiences. Harris then illustrates the ways in which these levels of watching leads to metaphors of knowing and not knowing and of light and darkness, which shapes the reader’s views of the characters in the story. The narrator and the reader remain outsiders until the final scene of “Sonny’s Blues” where the narrator gives himself over completely and truly listens to Sonny’s music. Through this process, the watcher becomes a participant in familial, historical, and racial suffering which, in turn, causes the narrator and the reader to become less detached from Sonny. Harris ends her essay by comparing how Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Morrison’s “Recitatif” not only create narrators who are outsiders and watchers, but also how this technique causes the readers to shadow the narrators’ path.
Harris, Trudier. “Watchers Watching Watchers: Positioning Characters and Readers in Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s
Blues’ and Morrison’s ‘Recitatif.’” James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative, Critical and Theoretical Essays. Ed. Lovalerie King and Lynn Scott. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 103-120. Web.
In Robert McParland’s article, he claims that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that “exists in the tension between the communal mystery of jazz and Sonny’s poignant individual struggle” (131). He explains how Sonny is depicted as an existential character who uses jazz and the Blues as an escape from the absurdity of life as well as a way to defend the integrity of his existence. Through the communal making of music, Sonny is able to connect to fellow musicians, jazz listeners, and his interior life. McParland continues his article by describing the ways in which jazz and the Blues allow Sonny’s eccentric and gifted spirit to connect with humanity as well as how the musical element of “Sonny’s Blues” engages the reader as a listener. McParland suggests that from the beginning of the story, Baldwin writes “Sonny’s Blues” in a rhythmic, repetitive style, similar to traditional Blues music, which makes the reader an active listener throughout the story. His article further explores the idea that music is able to cause a trembling in the material world as well as in the human psyche. McParland argues that this concept of music in “Sonny’s Blues” is reinforced by the final image of the story where a glass of milk and scotch is set on top of Sonny’s piano. This image as well as the Blues element in “Sonny’s Blues” suggests a “space of suspension between the trouble of life and that breakthrough to wholeness that is temporary” (136).
McParland, Robert. “To the Deep Water: James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s
Blues.’” Interdisciplinary Humanities 23.2 (2006): 131-140. Web.
Donald Murray states in his article that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” deals with man’s need for identity within a hostile society as well as his ability to understand himself through communal and individual artistic expression. Murray explains that the many images of light and dark presented in the “Sonny’s Blues” are used to illustrate this theme of man’s painful quest for his identity. Murray argues that the imagery of light is a representation of the harsh reality of ghetto existence which hardens and brutalizes the young people who have to live there. There is, however, light that is shrouded in darkness which represents those instances where the “ghetto-dwellers” have temporary relief from their conditions and realities; they are together and alone simultaneously and exist without communication. Murray further describes how “Sonny’s Blues” is a story of the narrator’s dawning self-awareness through his immense sense of loss (the death of his father and his daughter, Grace) as well as through Sonny’s presence.
Murray, Donald. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated
and Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction 14.4 (1977): 353-357. Web.
John Reilly argues in his article that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about the discovery of one’s identity as well as the slow accommodation of the narrator’s consciousness to the meaning of Sonny’s way of life. He further claims that “Sonny’s Blues” provides the reader with an esthetic for the cultures of the Black ghetto. Reilly then goes on to describe how Baldwin’s use of the Blues in his short story is a key metaphor of Black community. The Blues has a unique quality of combining personal and social significance in a lyric encounter with history. Therefore, the relationship between Sonny and his brother is repaired through an intuition of the meaning of the Blues as the brothers choose different ways to cope with their “ghetto” environment. Reilly states that the reconciliation between Sonny and the narrator through the medium of this Afro-American musical form extends the meaning of the individual’s Blues until it becomes a metaphor of Black community.
Reilly, John. “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black
Community.” Negro American Literature Forum 4 (1970): 56-60. Web.
In Janet Shannon’s article, she explores the conditions James Baldwin creates in his work that produces the secretive language and behavior of his characters not only as individuals, but also as members of the Black community. Through an analysis of Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and
Go Tell it on the Mountain
, Shannon scrutinizes these secrets to discern why they are kept and shared as well as the function they perform. Shannon’s literary and sociological article further analyzes secrecy as a sociocultural defense in both “Sonny’s Blues” and
Go Tell it on the Mountain
. She further expands this idea as a manifestation of metaphorical escape as well as literal escape. The metaphorical escape is represented through religion, music, aggression, and substance abuse whereas the literal escape is seen in expatriation and death. Shannon further argues that in both “Sonny’s Blues” and
Go Tell it on the Mountain
, these concepts of escape are placed in the context of literary, sociological, and social psychological theories that not only focus on secrecy in general, but also within the Black family and Black community.
Shannon, Janet. “Family and Community Secrets: Secrecy in the Works of
James Baldwin.” Western Journal of Black Studies 22 (1998): 174-181. Web.
Tracey Sherard argues in her article that most analyses of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” focus on how Blues music reconciled the relationship between Sonny and his brother and perceive the Blues through a superficial lens. Sherard opposes this view and claims that in the final scene of “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny is playing jazz, and more specifically “Bebop,” rather than traditional Blues which is a cultural context few analyses seem to focus on. Sherard continues her article by describing how the title of “Sonny’s Blues” causes the reader to question the “very nature” of the Blues Sonny does play. This idea highlights Baldwin’s “treatment of the metaphorical nature of the blues matrix” as well as its relationship to jazz and the cultural assumptions it operates under (691). Sherard then states how this interpretation of “Sonny’s Blues” is a more “trained” one that is multivalent in its relationship to the transition from traditional Blues to jazz and what that transition means in Harlem as well as the larger context of urban African American culture. Therefore, “Sonny’s Blues” not only thematically addresses the intersection between the Blues and jazz, but it also addresses the “need for a new form of cultural narrative as a repository for the experiences of African Americans” (691). Sherard finally states that the Blues transformed by Sonny into Bebop is a form of jazz that embraces this new cultural narrative.
Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural
Critique.” African American Review 32 (1998): 691-705. Web.
In James Tackach’s article, he writes about the biblical themes found in James Baldwin’s “Sonny Blues” and identifies two biblical texts as the foundation of Baldwin’s story: Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis and the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s gospel. Tackach claims that even though many critics prefer to look at Baldwin as a civil rights writer rather than a Christian one, by utilizing biblical tales to shape his work, Baldwin was following a deep rooted African American tradition. Tackach goes on to compare the similarities between the Prodigal Son parable and “Sonny’s Blues” describing how they are both tales of sin and redemption. He also explains how Genesis is often referred to as the story of The Fall; a reference that is evident in “Sonny’s Blues” due to Baldwin’s uses of the verb “to fall” throughout the story. However, not every aspect of “Sonny’s Blues” reflects Cain of Genesis because the narrator in Baldwin’s story has the possibility of redemption through saving his prodigal younger brother. He ends his article by arguing that the drink the narrator gives Sonny in the final scene of the story symbolizes Sonny’s redemption born of sin.
Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s
Blues.’” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. Web.
In Dana Ayres’s posting on hubpages.com, she discusses how James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is an adaptation of the actual, deep-rooted experience of the “American Negro.” She argues that Baldwin’s short story is about the freedom and ability of expression within circumstances that are engrained in the denial, degradation of a people, their culture, and their languages. Ayres further explores the idea that “Sonny’s Blues” harnesses oppressive language in such a way that it uplifts, empowers and provides positive validity to African American people and their many unique forms of expression. Ayres then goes on to explain how the element of music in Baldwin’s story becomes a language of its own and provides a voice for those who are voiceless. She claims that music provided Sonny with a sense of freedom, happiness, and “proper” guidance just as a family would treat him. She concludes her entry by illustrating the ways in which religion also acts as a form of expression in “Sonny’s Blues” in such a way that the story resembles a sermon which illustrates Baldwin’s ultimate message of healing. In “Sonny’s Blues,” healing can only be attained through learning to be more accepting and loving of others regardless of any language barrier.
Ayres, Dana. “‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin: a Critical Analysis.”
Hubpages. Hubpages, 21 Jul. 2014. Web.
In Methuydo’s entry on their blog, they identified fundamental observations about James Baldwin’s narrative style, religious connotations, contingencies, Apollonian and Dionysian dialect, and the socio-historical context within “Sonny’s Blues.” Methuydo then explains how the narrative structure in “Sonny’s Blues” is complex throughout the story as it is presented to the reader without any type of context, but as the story continues, the narration is disrupted with flashbacks. Methuydo also argues that the religious themes in “Sonny’s Blues” are portrayed through critical characters, such as the narrator’s mother who can be interpreted as a disciple of god, as well as the relationship between Sonny and the narrator which reflects a biblical tale known as Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis. In relation to the Apollonian and Dionysian literary concepts, Methuydo argues that both Sonny and the narrator can be considered to play the role of Apollo or Dionysus, but they cannot both play the role of the same god because of their clashing personalities which creates ambiguity and conflict within the story. Methuydo concludes their blog posting by explaining the ways in which Harlem life is a source of suffering and community which is reflected in the relationship between Sonny and the narrator as well as their time served in the military.
Methuydo. “An in Depth Analysis of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s
Blues.’” Wordpress. Wordpress, 20 Nov. 2013. Web.
In Ashley Nelson’s excerpt on the
Dictate This
blog, she explains how Harlem-life and the ideas generated during the “Dream Deferred” period in American history are represented in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Both Sonny and his brother, the narrator of the story, have chosen two very different paths in life and by the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” both men recognize that they are actually similarly struggling and coping with their sufferings and hardships that their community has brought them. When the narrator listens to Sonny play his Blues at the end of the story, he is able to recognize his own form of Blues and, in order for the brothers to transcend their suffering, they must listen and hear each other. Nelson also argues that even though both Sonny and his brother sought to establish themselves by measuring how well they coped with their suffering, they will always be hindered by the confinements of their Harlem environment and upbringing.
Nelson, Ashley. “Harlem Life Expressed in ‘Sonny’s Blues’: A Review
and Analysis.” Dictate This. Blogspot, 25 Sept. 2010. Web.
In Andrew Neuendorf’s video lecture, he focuses on the setting and historical context of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” He also explores differences in jazz music and styles as well as the differences in character between Sonny and his brother, the narrator. He first discusses how the setting and time period of “Sonny’s Blues” is an indication to the reader that Whites and Blacks do not have equal rights which is a major theme portrayed throughout the story. Although the narrator attempts to escape the hardships of Harlem life, he finds himself to be like everyone around him: trapped in an inescapable way of life. William argues that the setting of the story is not only important in gaining historical context, but it is also important in interpreting the motives of the characters in “Sonny’s Blues.” He goes on to explain how the type of jazz music Sonny prefers, Bebop, portrays him to be a radical who is attempting to move music as well as himself forward. William concludes his lecture by exploring the concept that Baldwin intentionally created Sonny and the narrator to be opposites in order to represent conflicting ideals.
Neuendorf, Andrew. “Lecture 7: Sonny’s Blues.” Online video clip. YouTube.
YouTube, 15 Jun. 2012. Web.
In his blog posting, John Presnall discusses the theme of suffering and its connection to artistic expression in James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” In his post, Presnall explores the concept that Sonny is presented as a sacrificial artist who “takes on” suffering in order to rescue those around him, like his brother. This religious theme in “Sonny’s Blues” shows the reader that Sonny understands that everyone suffers even though they try not to and that there is an artistic superiority to Sonny’s sacrifice because he chooses music over drugs. Presnall concludes his blog post by stating, “whether in music or words, the story points to the notion that in order to never know lament, one must ‘Never No Lament.’”
Presnall, John. “Never no Lament in ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” First
Things. First Things 25 May. 2013. Web.
Emily Rapport’s entry in
Common Places
discusses how the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” hides behind an invisible film composed of language. She explains how the narrator’s addiction to language prevents him from not only experiencing his own emotions, but also from connecting to Sonny. “Sonny’s Blues” charts the narrator’s ability to accept different forms of expression, specifically gesture and music, and it further displays how this change affects narrator’s attitude towards life in Harlem. His attitudes are reflected in his dependence on using metaphors of interlocking dichotomies of darkness and light as well as childhood and adulthood. Rapport goes on to explain how the narrator’s use of metaphors and comparisons to express his feelings in a way that emphasizes language causes him to deny his actual feelings towards both himself and the reader. Additionally, Rapport draws a parallel between the narrator’s use of language and Sonny’s heroine addition as being their forms of “darkness” which hinders their ability to cope with the harsh realities of their lives. However, by learning to accept alternative ways of communication and gesture, specifically music, the narrator is able to break the dichotomies of light and darkness as well as childhood and adulthood.
Rapport, Emily. “Diction Addiction: The Drug of Language in ‘Sonny’s Blues.’”
Common Place. Vol. 4. Davidson College, 2013. Web.
SteffystefElite’s video is of herself performing a monologue from a scene in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” By reenacting the pivotal scene in “Sonny’s Blues” where Sonny is attempting to explain his drug addiction to his brother, SteffystefElite provides unique insight into the complicated relationship between Sonny and the narrator. As she acts out the monologue, the listener is able to really feel the emotions of Sonny rather than simply reading it off of a page. Her interpretation of the scene is not only emotional, but her facial expressions and body language allows the viewer to relate to her character and understand the difficulty of what she is trying to communicate. Additionally, the fact that she did a monologue in the voice of an African American man causes the viewer to think about how few female characters are in “Sonny’s Blues” and how that impacts the story.
SteffystefElite. “Sonny’s Blues by: James Baldwin (Monologue).”
Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 Mar. 2013. Web.
In Catherine Sustana’s posting on about.com, she discusses that throughout James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the images of darkness are used to symbolize the menacing threats the African American community faced during that time. The darkness of their circumstances follows those who are raised in Harlem throughout their lives even if they try any means to escape it. However, when the narrator listens to Sonny play music at the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” the darkness of the nightclub provides a kind of protection for Sonny rather than a menace. Therefore, Sustana argues that for Sonny, the answer to his suffering lies within the darkness, not in escaping it. In other words, the only way Sonny can escape his darkness is not through finding an individual escape route from the darkness, it is through creating a new kind of light by improvising music with other musicians that he will be able to transcend his suffering.
Sustana, Catherine. “Analysis of ‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin: Redefining
Darkness.” About Entertainment. About Entertainment. Web.
Emily Voshell’s blog post focuses on the cultural importance of setting and time period in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” She explains how the Harlem Renaissance caused Harlem to become separated from society and allowed for creative art to be expressed in writing, poetry, paintings, and music. However, the Harlem Renaissance also gave life to drug abuse, sexual exploitations, and poverty. These negative aspects of Harlem illustrate a sense of entrapment in “Sonny’s Blues” as well as an overwhelming tone of sorrow. Voshell argues that this sorrow is not just caused by the poverty and drug use, but it is also caused by the hardships of racism. As she states, Harlem was once a beacon for African Americans to escape their oppression, but they soon realized that is was a place for the dominant White culture to imprison them. Although the setting of “Sonny’s Blues” causes the story’s characters to have tragic lives, Voshell claims that through their struggles, the characters are able to become more appreciate of life in general.
Voshell, Emily. “The Importance of Setting in ‘Sonny’s Blues.’”
Blogspot. Salisbury University, 21 Apr. 2012. Web.
Gregory Williams’s video “Sonny’s Blues” was inspired by James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” and is an exploration of mood. The video portrays a pivotal point in the relationship between two brothers, Sonny and the narrator, who are attempting to cross the chasm of silence and misunderstanding that separates them. Rather than reading the scene and leaving the setting and interactions between the brothers up to the reader’s imagination, Williams’s video provides an alternative interpretation of the scene. While watching the video clip, one is able to see how the narrator and Sonny speak to each other as well as the state in which Sonny is living. The viewer can also evaluate their body language in order to really gain a sense of how difficult it is for the brothers to communicate and understand each other. This visual interpretation of the tense relationship between the narrator and Sonny provides an interesting method of portraying how separated the brothers are because of their inability to communicate.
Williams, Gregory Jr. “Sonny’s Blues- Inspired by James Baldwin’s Short Story-
Starring Saul Williams and Charles Parnell.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 4 Feb. 2013. Web.
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