The Fire Next Time Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

James Baldwin

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

The publication of The Fire Next Time created a sensation. The promising writer found that he had quickly become a public figure, his face looking out from the cover of the May 17, 1963, issue of Time. The book marked a turning point in Baldwin’s reception, raising him from the status of an acclaimed writer to that of a major one.

It is noteworthy that a book receiving such a widely favorable popular reception was initially greeted by mixed reviews. While the book was praised in some venues, it also drew fire for its lack of homework and its panacea of universalism. The reviewers underlined the curious act the book commits—as a serious exercise of intellect and spirit, it is too public to be memoir, too personal to be sociology, and too unmethodical to be political science. In The New York Review of Books, reviewer F. W. Dupee charged that Baldwin’s material on the Nation of Islam was inadequately researched. Psychologist Robert Coles and scholar Marcus Klein went into print charging that the book was altogether too simplistic.

However, the book has a staying power and has earned its merit in the literary canon. Covering turf that the literary canon usually overlooks as ephemera, The Fire Next Time has endured far beyond its considerable immediate glory. Only a handful of other “classics” of social analysis exist as exceptions to prove the literary rule that art and sociopolitical essays do not...

(The entire section is 405 words.)