Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: During the racial unrest in the United States in the 1960’s, Baldwin was the most visible and respected literary figure in the Civil Rights movement. His best work has focused on racial concerns and on homosexuality.
James Baldwin, the son of Berdis Jones Baldwin and the stepson of David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher, was born and grew up in New York City’s black ghetto, Harlem; he was the oldest of nine children. By the time he was fourteen years old, Baldwin, then a student in New York’s De Witt Clinton High School, was preaching in Harlem’s Fireside Pentecostal Church. His earliest writing appeared in The Magpie, his high school’s student newspaper, to which he contributed three stories before becoming coeditor in chief, a job he shared with fellow student Richard Avedon.
Upon graduation from high school in 1942, Baldwin, rejected for military service, took a job working for a railroad in New Jersey. He had just renounced the church and, although he never went back to it and scorned Christianity for what he perceived as its racism, much of the rhythm of black preaching and much of the drama of evangelical church services are found in most of his work. Baldwin sought refuge in the church during an uncertain period in his adolescence, but as he analyzed seriously his position as both a member of a racial minority and a homosexual, he found in literature more helpful solutions to the problems that plagued him than he had found in religion.
Between 1942 and 1944, Baldwin held menial jobs, some of them in the thriving wartime defense industries. A turning point came for him in 1944, when, having moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, he met Richard Wright, one of the leading black writers in the United States. Baldwin was working on his first novel, “In My Father’s House,” at that time. Although the novel remained unpublished, Wright arranged for Baldwin to receive the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust so that he could concentrate on his writing. Baldwin first appeared in print in 1946 in The Nation, where he published a book review. He also wrote book reviews for The New Leader during the same year.
In 1948, Baldwin, slight of stature and with a countenance that reflected both intensity and anguish, received the Rosenwald Fellowship. This award enabled him to move to Paris. That year, he also published an essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” and a short story, “Previous Condition,” in Commentary. Baldwin was to live abroad for the next decade, in the middle of which his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was published.
Baldwin’s first two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room (1956), are autobiographical. The former concentrates on the problems of growing up black in a predominantly white United States. The book explores the impact that religion has had on the black experience in the United States and accurately depicts the economic and social struggles with which black families cope on a regular basis. The book is also concerned with the sexual tensions that exist for the black who is coming of age and who is beset by deep-seated interracial conflicts.
Giovanni’s Room, set in France, was one of a rash of novels on homosexuality to appear between 1948 and 1956. The protagonist’s lover, Giovanni, kills an older man who forces him into a sexual encounter and is duly tried, found guilty, and executed for this crime. David, the protagonist, has to cope not only with the guilt of his homosexuality but also with feelings of not having been the loyal friend that Giovanni needed.
When Go Tell It on the Mountain appeared, Baldwin was working on a play, The Amen Corner, that was performed at Howard University in 1954 but that took nearly a decade to reach Broadway, where it was produced in 1964 largely because of the New York success of Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, which the American National Theater Association (ANTA) brought to Broadway in the spring of 1964.
The publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain led to Baldwin’s being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954, which afforded him the opportunity to do extensive revisions on The Amen Corner and to complete his much-acclaimed Notes of a Native Son (1955), a fierce, well-written book that articulates the outrage which Baldwin, as a sensitive black American, felt because of the social inequities that face blacks. Perhaps this book makes its greatest impact with its contention that racial hatred destroys not only the objects of that hatred but also the people who are possessed by it. Notes of a Native Son was to become one of the most...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Baldwin was very much a man of his era. By the time of his death, his message had been received and digested by the American populace; yet his vision, so passionate and articulate at its inception, will not lose relevance so long as prejudice and bigotry—oppression of those perceived as “other,” “inferior,” or “different”—persist. As a spokesman and activist, he helped to bring about the social transformation of his nation, to the benefit of all races, genders, and sexualities. As an artist, he found a unique and personal idiom for expressing the anguish and joy of his life.
Biography (Magill Book Reviews)
Though James Baldwin is a distinguished novelist and playwright, it can be argued that his most consistently brilliant work is in his essays, with their witty, impassioned, elegant observations on the life and art of his time. Many are autobiographical in whole or part; “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” Perhaps the most famous of Baldwin’s autobiographical essays is NOTES OF A NATIVE SON (1955), in which he tries to come to terms with his father, the model for Gabriel in GO, TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (1953), who was embittered by a heritage of racial oppression and took out his...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
James Arthur Baldwin grew up in Harlem. While he was still attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx he was a Holy Roller preacher. After high school, he did odd jobs and wrote for The Nation and The New Leader. A turning point for him was meeting Richard Wright, who encouraged him to write and helped him obtain a fellowship that provided income while he was finishing an early novel. After moving to Paris in 1948 he became acquainted with Norman Mailer and other writers. His first major work, Go Tell It on the Mountain, appeared in 1953 and was followed by a long list of books. He moved back to New York in 1957, and during the 1960’s his writing and speeches made him an important force in the...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
James Baldwin once dismissed his childhood as “the usual bleak fantasy.” Nevertheless, the major concerns of his writing consistently reflect the social context of his family life in Harlem during the Depression. The dominant figure of Baldwin’s childhood was his stepfather, David Baldwin, who worked as a manual laborer and preached in a storefront church. Clearly the model for Gabriel Grimes in Go Tell It on the Mountain, David Baldwin had moved from New Orleans to New York City, where he married James’s mother, Emma Berdis. The oldest of what was to become a group of nine children in the household, James assumed much of the responsibility for the care of his half brothers and sisters. Insulated somewhat from the...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
James Arthur Baldwin once dismissed his childhood as “the usual bleak fantasy.” Nevertheless, the major concerns of his fiction consistently reflect the social context of his family life in Harlem during the Depression. The dominant figure of Baldwin’s childhood was clearly that of his stepfather, David Baldwin, who worked as a manual laborer and preached in a storefront church. Clearly the model for Gabriel Grimes in Go Tell It on the Mountain, David Baldwin had moved from New Orleans to New York City, where he married Baldwin’s mother, Emma Berdis. The oldest of what was to be a group of nine children in the household, James assumed a great deal of the responsibility for the care of his half brothers and half...
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At nineteen, James Baldwin left Harlem, the black section of New York City. He traveled across Europe and the United States, living for years in France, where he died at age sixty-three. More than any other place, Harlem shaped Baldwin’s identity. He never completely left the ghetto behind.
Baldwin returned often to Harlem to visit family. Much of his writing features the stores and streets of Harlem, in such essays as “The Harlem Ghetto” and “Notes of a Native Son,” in stories such as “Sonny’s Blues” and “The Rockpile,” and in such novels as Go Tell It on the Mountain.
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Biography (The Sixties in America)
Born in New York City’s Harlem, James Arthur Baldwin began to preach when he was fourteen and planned to enter the clergy. Upon graduation from high school in 1942, he became a railroad hand in Belle Meade, New Jersey. Moving to New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1944, he met the writer Richard Wright, who encouraged him in his writing. Wright recommended him for the Eugene Saxton Fellowship in 1945. Receiving this fellowship enabled Baldwin to continue work on his novel, In My Father’s House, which was not published. He used the proceeds from a Rosenwald Fellowship awarded in 1948 to move to Paris, where he worked on his first published novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain...
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Biography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Prior to publication of Baldwin’s first short story, “Previous Condition” in Commentary in 1948, a number of words were deleted because his editor feared that they would violate obscenity laws. Thus began Baldwin’s struggle against censorship. Most of his subsequent work was affected by censorship either before or after publication. Alfred A. Knopf agreed to publish his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), but after suppressing several passages that his editor deemed obscene. Baldwin acquiesced, but later regretted doing so and determined to fight harder against expurgation in the future.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
From the immediate critical success of Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s writings were well received by the intellectual community, but his fiction, which deals frankly and sympathetically with controversial issues such as civil rights and homosexuality, did not immediately win popular approval. Not until the 1974 publication of If Beale Street Could Talk did Baldwin make the best-seller list. In the meantime, he won awards ranging from a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948 to a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 to election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.
Born out of wedlock in...
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James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York City. Many of the details in the life of John, the main character in Go Tell It on the Mountain, parallel facts in Baldwin's own life. He was an awkward, gangly boy who suffered the abuse of his stepfather, a laborer and storefront preacher who had moved to New York from New Orleans. In contrast to the squalor and anger that he experienced at home, Baldwin was a resounding success at Public School 24 and at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, where his teachers recognized his brilliance and verbal skills. At age fourteen, he, like John, experienced a religious conversion during the service at his church, the Mount Calvary of the Pentecostal Faith Church.
After that, Baldwin became a preacher himself, and throughout high school he addressed the congregation at the local storefront church at least once each week. After high school he worked briefly in New Jersey, and then moved to Greenwich Village, the section of New York City that was a famous gathering place for artists. For five years he worked menial jobs and published short pieces in intellectual magazines such as The Nation, The Partisan Review, The New Leader, and Commentary.
With the help of famed African-American author Richard Wright Baldwin received the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust Award for financial help while writing his first novel. In November 1948 he sailed to France and he never lived in America again, although he traveled here frequently on speaking engagements. He felt that America was too socially oppressive, both because he was black and because he was homosexual.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, was published in 1953, and it gained immediate popularity among American intellectuals, establishing Baldwin as one of the keenest observers of the American racial situation. None of the other seven novels he wrote is considered to have been as successful, possibly because they sublimated storytelling to their message. From the early 1940s to his death in 1987, Baldwin was recognized as a master of the personal essay. Several of his pieces, compiled in such collections as Notes of a Native Son (1955), The Fire Next Time (1963) and The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 have created a lasting effect on American social life, particularly in the area of race relations. James Baldwin died of cancer in 1987, at his home in the south of France.
IntroductionBest known for his semiautobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), African-American author James Baldwin primarily explores issues of injustice and identity. That is understandably so. Born in 1924 in Harlem, Baldwin never knew his biological father, his mother was impoverished, and his stepfather was abusive. Baldwin also had to deal with the problems posed by being homosexual. His feelings of the unfairness of life come out repeatedly in both his fiction and nonfiction. Thinking he could escape personal problems at home, Baldwin moved to Europe in 1948. However, he returned to the States in 1957, compelled by the school desegregation debates. Although he wrote consistently after publishing Mountain, Baldwin never again achieved its success.
- Baldwin became a preacher at the age of 14 and delivered sermons for three years, but he later left the church entirely.
- Baldwin finished Go Tell It on the Mountain not in Harlem, the city of his upbringing and setting of the novel, but in Switzerland.
- Baldwin felt it was his personal mission to “bear witness to the truth.”
- Baldwin was of great interest to the F.B.I., which purportedly held more than 1,750 files on his activities.
- One of Baldwin’s most quoted maxims is “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
James Baldwin was born in New York City on August 2, 1924. His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, was unmarried at the time, and his illegitimacy would haunt him throughout his life. In 1927, Emma married David Baldwin, a former slave’s son who had come north from New Orleans filled with bitterness toward whites. David worked in factories, preached on weekends, and raised his ten children with iron discipline and little warmth.
James grew to hate his father for constantly criticizing and teasing him. As a teenager, he rebelled in many ways, first by becoming a Young Minister at a rival congregation, then by rejecting the church to pursue writing. At the same time, he watched his father slowly descend into a mental illness...
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