Baldwin’s turbulent and passionate life informs all of his writings. His life and art were inseparable; he wrote to understand the trials of the past and to articulate principles for the future. In his essays, he constantly depicted and expanded upon personal experiences, and in his fiction he drew on autobiographical events, issues, and characters, building dramatic situations that closely reflected his intimate experience of the world. He refused to lie, to shield, or to “prettify” reality.
Though Baldwin limited his fictional settings to those he knew—a poor, religious Harlem home, the expatriate community in France, New York’s jazz scene—he explored them deeply and critically. His experience with his friend Tony Maynard’s legal battle against a false murder conviction inspired If Beale Street Could Talk, in which a young woman searches for the truth that will acquit her fiancé of rape, and Baldwin’s last novel, Just Above My Head, treats the anguished life of a homosexual gospel singer, a life not unlike his own.
Baldwin’s early exposure to writers and writing helped him to become a skilled craftsman: His favorite childhood novels were Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). His acquaintance with black writers Richard Wright, Countée Cullen, and Langston Hughes forced him to consider the particular problems of the black writer in the United States. Later, he was strongly influenced by the novels of Henry James—especially The Ambassadors (1903), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and The Princess Casamassima (1886). Though writing about wealthy white New Yorkers, James explored the same questions of individuality and nonconformity in a conformist society.
Baldwin was a precise writer: He chose words carefully and connected images with emotions in ways calculated to achieve maximum effect. His love of jazz music and appreciation of art infused his writing with evocative rhythms, colors, and textures, and his early training in the church is evident not only in the religious aspects of his stories but also in language replicating the simplicity, poetry, and ardor of the Bible and the traditional sermon. The Fire Next Time, perhaps his most renowned work, employs the biblical image of God’s wrathful fire, as interpreted through a popular Negro spiritual song, to predict America’s fate in the absence of meaningful progress toward a new racial order.
Race was always a crucial issue to Baldwin but never a simple one. Though he often felt pure rage at the legacy of white supremacy, he strove in his life to speak to and treat black and white people in the same manner, and this determination to deal with people first as individuals helped him to create a language that is brutal but not unjust, objective but not detached. Baldwin never fully blames or exonerates anyone; as members of the human race, everyone is both guilty and innocent of shared history. For Baldwin, the color problem was not a problem for blacks alone but for all members of society; the suppression of blacks and black culture has been a result of white fear and confusion, and it has inhibited the development not so much of black identity but of a truly integrated and fulfilled American identity. Though keenly aware of both his African American roots and his frequent voluntary exile, Baldwin considered himself American through and through, and he sought to express himself in American terms to an American audience.
In a similar fashion, though himself a homosexual, Baldwin tried to avoid all bias or prejudice in his treatment of sex, sexuality, and love. His curiosity and candor allowed sex and love to be used as meaningful modes for the expression of uniquely personal identity, and not simplistic ways of limiting or pigeonholing character.
Ultimately, the issues of race and sexuality become issues of identity and individuality. Baldwin, though a black homosexual, felt free to express himself through white, female, or heterosexual characters, and his voice, whether it be as the authoritative social observer of Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name, the third-person narrators of Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country, or the intimately confessional protagonists of Giovanni’s Room and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, is always searching for meaning, for a solution to the problem of expressing oneself forcefully and honestly in an imperfect world that bombards the individual with preordained roles and assumptions. While ostensibly writing about “exiles,” “bisexuals,” or “artists,” all of which terms may have applied to Baldwin at points, he reserved for his characters the right to go beyond such labels and the freedom to feel and act according to the entire range of possible human behavior.
Go Tell It on the Mountain
First published: 1953
Type of work: Novel
A young black man in Harlem begins to confront the legacy of anger and guilt that he is inheriting from his family.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s first published novel, tells a passionate story closely paralleling the author’s own family background. It focuses on John Grimes, a black boy growing up in a religious home in Harlem under the stern hand of his preacher father, Gabriel. The action of the novel takes place in 1936, on John’s fourteenth birthday, with sections detailing previous events in the lives of John’s aunt Florence, his father, and his mother, Elizabeth.
Florence is a strident and bitter woman who left her ailing mother and irresponsible younger brother to come North. She married a man named Frank, who abused and abandoned her, and now she approaches old age feeling empty, living alone, and sharing in the life of her brother’s family.
Gabriel, her brother, had been a wild young man, but he repented, became a preacher, and married a fallen woman named Deborah. Succumbing to temptation, however, he impregnated a young woman he worked with and then refused to acknowledge his paternity. He watched his son Royal grow before his eyes and heard of the boy’s violent death in a knife fight. Gabriel drifted in despair, his wife passed on, and he came to New York to begin a new life. There he met Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was nine when her mother died, and, because her father ran a brothel, she went to live with her aunt in Maryland. There she fell in love with a young man named Richard; they moved to New York. Richard, wrongly accused of robbery, took his own life, leaving Elizabeth behind, alone and pregnant with John. Through Florence she met Gabriel, newly arrived from the South. They married, and Gabriel promised to treat John as his own. He preferred their other children, however, above all the fiery Roy, to his docile and pensive stepson, John.
The character of Gabriel is a sharper version of Baldwin’s own father, and, accordingly, his sternness and coldness elicit John’s hatred. Everyone assumes that John will become a preacher like Gabriel, but, approaching manhood, John is having deep religious doubts. He is also feeling guilt over the sin of masturbation and is subtly becoming aware of his admiration for and attraction to Elisha, another young man in the church.
During the course of the day depicted in the novel, John’s younger brother Roy is slashed in a fight, Gabriel strikes Elizabeth in anger, and Florence confronts Gabriel with his past in the form of a pained letter from his long-dead first wife. The novel’s central action, however, is John’s personal journey, culminating in the climactic third part titled “On the Threshing Floor.” Through a long night in the family’s church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized, John experiences a frenzy of fear, inspiration, and awakening, a spiritual rite of passage before his family and congregation, in which he gives himself over to powers outside himself, infused as they are with familial and racial history, and begins to see the road he must travel.
The action of Go Tell It on the Mountain is not expansive; rather, it focuses on inner turmoils and private moments. Time moves slowly, and the interspersed flashbacks elucidate present moments or events. Through the accumulation of information, Baldwin slowly brings into focus how centuries of racial oppression—slavery, injustice, rape, violence—have shaped the lives of one Harlem family and how the complex family picture affects a sensitive young man at a crucial juncture in his life.
First published: 1956
Type of work: Novel
The inability of a young American in Paris to confront his bisexuality leads to his male lover’s tragic downfall.
Giovanni’s Room is an intimate, confessional narrative of an American named David who looks back on his turbulent experiences in France on the eve of his return to the United States. The novel works through two time frames simultaneously, for as past events are recounted, the relevance of the present moment gradually emerges. By the end, night has become morning, and only then does the story being told reach its conclusion.
Months earlier, David came to France with his girlfriend Hella, but uncertainty in their relationship and her wanderlust sent...
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