Study Guide

James Baldwin

James Baldwin Essay - Baldwin, James (Vol. 127)

Baldwin, James (Vol. 127)

Introduction

James Baldwin 1924–1987

(Full name: James Arthur Baldwin) American novelist, essayist, playwright, scriptwriter, short story writer, and children's book author.

The following entry presents an overview of Baldwin's career. See also James Baldwin Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 17.

Baldwin is considered one of the most prestigious writers in contemporary American literature. Since the publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Baldwin has exposed the racial and sexual polarization of American society and challenged readers to confront and resolve these differences. Baldwin's influence and popularity reached their peak during the 1960s, when he was regarded by many as the leading literary spokesperson of the civil rights movement. His novels, essays, and other writings attest to his premise that the African-American experience, as an example of suffering and abuse, represents a universal symbol of human conflict.

Biographical Information

Baldwin was born in New York City's Harlem on August 2, 1924, the illegitimate child of Emma Berdis Jones. Due to his mother's inaccessibility and his stepfather's stern and remote manner, Baldwin felt isolated and retreated into the world of literature. Baldwin attended school in Harlem where one of his teachers was the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who encouraged Baldwin's involvement in the school's literary club. Baldwin continued developing his interest in writing until undergoing a religious conversion when he was fourteen years old. Baldwin then turned his attention to preaching, but at seventeen, left the church and his home. Baldwin continued supporting his family financially by working in a defense plant and a meat-packing plant in New Jersey. When his stepfather died in 1943, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village to pursue his literary dreams. It was during this period that Richard Wright befriended Baldwin and encouraged him to write Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin's highly acclaimed first novel. Baldwin also wrote book reviews to help support himself even though he felt limited by editors who wanted book reviews only by African Americans. Unhappy in America, Baldwin moved in 1948 to Paris, where he found a blurring of racial lines and greater acceptance of his homosexuality. Baldwin continued writing fiction and essays, eventually settling in St. Paul de Vence, the French countryside town where he lived until the end of his life.

Major Works

Baldwin's novels tackle personal issues in his life as well as larger social issues, including race relations and sexuality. Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is a semi-autobiographical account of Baldwin's adolescence. The main character, a thirteen-year-old boy named John, is saved in the Baptist church where his stepfather is a preacher. As John undergoes conversion, his stepfather and the rest of the characters recall their past sins, struggling with questions of faith as well. In Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin moves on from adolescence to confront his homosexuality. Set in Paris, this controversial novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between a white American student and an Italian bartender. In Baldwin's Another Country (1962), the protagonist is Rufus Scott, a jazz musician who makes friends with a group of whites. The novel traces Scott's relationships with his best friend Vivaldo and his white lover Leona. There are further subplots that trace the sexual interactions of the other homosexual and heterosexual characters. The novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), tells the story of Leo Proudhammer, a famous black artist who becomes trapped in his public persona, losing his personal identity and convictions along the way. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) is about Fonny Hunts, another artistic and intellectual protagonist. The story is narrated by Tish, Hunts's nineteen-year-old fiancee who is pregnant with his child. Hunts is imprisoned after he is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. In the end, Hunts finds his salvation in love and in the birth of his son. Baldwin used essays to examine race relations. In his collection of essays, The Fire Next Time (1963), he argues that the lives and futures of whites and African Americans are inextricably intertwined. Although he respected Malcolm X, Baldwin was opposed to Malcolm's ideas about separation of the races and the superiority of African Americans. Baldwin's essays underwent a change in position with No Name in the Street (1972), which asserts the independence of African Americans and the possible necessity of violence against whites. In this book, Baldwin also asserts that an African American—by virtue of his powerlessness—could never be racist.

Critical Reception

Critics often discuss the fire-and-brimstone nature of Baldwin's prose even though his relationship to Christianity remains ambiguous. For part of his career during the early 1960s, Baldwin was considered "the" voice for African-Americans. However, Baldwin never intended to be a spokesman for his race. He saw himself as an intellectual who explored ideas and did not espouse a certain message. This disappointed many readers and reviewers, who dismissed Baldwin because he appeared opposed to the ideals of African-American liberation. Baldwin's ideas were seldom straightforward, and critics often accused him of espousing conflicting ideas. However, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. asserted, "As an intellectual, Baldwin was at his best when he explored his own equivocal sympathies and clashing allegiances." Many critics—including younger African American artists—accused Baldwin of hating himself, African Americans, and capitulating to whites. Others saw more subtlety in Baldwin's work, viewing his writing as a contribution to intellectual discourse on the subject of race relations. Reviewers often criticized Baldwin's fiction for its lack of artistic merit. Hilton Als argued, "It was in Baldwin's essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized." However, others—including Andrew Shin and Barbara Judson—disagreed. Shin and Judson said, "The novels, however, despite their poor critical reception, are interesting because they rarely capitulate to the urge for a simplified rhetoric that characterizes the essays of the early 1970s, persistently retaining the unresolved tension and complexity of a writer—a gay black writer no less—divided between his role as a popular spokesman for the race and his role as an artist whose imaginative life encompasses aesthetic standards that may alienate a popular audience." Baldwin's homosexuality also was a sticking point with many who reviewed his work. Many saw his sexuality as an attack on black masculinity. Baldwin's supporters even turned on him after he changed his position, recanting his previous work and realigning his opinions to mirror mainstream African American discourse. Nevertheless, many reviewers still found ambivalence in Baldwin's fiction in his portrayal of African Americans. Following the publication of Baldwin's collected works, The Price of the Ticket (1985), critics now find his early essays an important contribution to the discourse of race relations in America.

Principal Works

Go Tell It on the Mountain (novel) 1953
The Amen Corner (play) 1955
Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1955
Giovanni's Room (novel) 1956; also published as a play, 1957
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (essays) 1961
Another Country (novel) 1962
The Fire Next Time (essays) 1963
Blues for Mister Charlie (play) 1964
Going to Meet the Man (short stories) 1965
This Morning, This Evening, So Soon (novella) 1967
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (novel) 1968
Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism [with others] (essays) 1969
Menschenwurde und Gerechtigkeit [with Kenneth Kaunda] (essays) 1969
No Name in the Street (essays) 1972
A Deed from the King of Spain (play) 1974
If Beale Street Could Talk (novel) 1974
The Devil Finds Work (essays) 1976
Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (novel) 1976
Just above My Head (novel) 1979
Jimmy's Blues: Selected Poems (poetry) 1983
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (nonfiction) 1985
Harlem Quartet (novel) 1987

Criticism

Wilfrid Sheed (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Twin Urges of James Baldwin," in The Good Word & Other Words, 1978, pp. 194-200.

[In the following essay, which was published in 1977 in Commonweal, Sheed complains that the tone of Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work sounds false and that the subject of movies does not support the book's religious undertone.]

When James Baldwin goes wrong (as he has taken to doing lately), it usually seems less a failure of talent than of policy. Of all our writers he is one of the most calculating. Living his life on several borderlines, he has learned to watch his step: driven at the same time by an urge to please and a mission to scold.

In his...

(The entire section is 2604 words.)

James Baldwin with Quincy Troupe (interview date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Last Interview," in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 186-212.

[In the following interview, Baldwin discusses his relationships, his writing, other writers, and America.]

[Baldwin]: It all comes back now.

[Troupe]: When did you first meet Miles?

Oh, a long time ago, on West Seventy-seventh Street at his house.

What were the circumstances?

I'm trying to remember, I was living on West End Avenue then, early sixties. What was I doing at his home? I hadn't met him, but I admired him very much. But I think I met him before that....

(The entire section is 7939 words.)

Sondra A. O'Neale (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Fathers, Gods, and Religion: Perceptions of Christianity and Ethnic Faith in James Baldwin," in Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt, G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, pp. 125-43.

[In the following essay, O'Neale "explores the complexities of Baldwin's concepts of fatherhood and how they impinge on his search—for a sympathetic Father/God—an odyssey that he deliberately identifies as the collective historic experience of the race and its artists."]

In a 1965 television interview for the BBC, British author Colin MacInnes said to James Baldwin: "You spoke just now of the soul, the soul of the black man, the soul of the...

(The entire section is 8533 words.)

Chinua Achebe (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "James Baldwin," in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, Simon & Schuster, 1989, pp. 213-17.

[Chinua Achebe is a novelist whose works include Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah. In the following essay, he asserts the value of James Baldwin's legacy.]

The many and varied tributes to Jimmy Baldwin, like the blind men's version of the elephant, are consistent in one detail—the immensity, the sheer prodigality of endowment.

When my writing first began to yield small rewards in the way of free travel, UNESCO came along and asked where I would like to go. Without hesitation I said, "U.S.A. and Brazil."...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (essay date 1 June 1992)

SOURCE: "The Fire Last Time," in New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 22, June 1, 1992, pp. 37-43.

[In the following essay, Gates traces the course of Baldwin's thought and importance throughout his career.]

"I am not in paradise," James Baldwin assured readers of the Black Scholar in 1973. "It rains down here too." Maybe it did. But it seemed like paradise to me. In 1973 I was 22 years old, an eager young black American journalist doing a story for Time, visiting Baldwin at his home just outside the tiny, ancient walled village of St. Paul de Vence, nestled in the alpine foothills that rise from the Mediterranean Sea. The air carried the smells of...

(The entire section is 5236 words.)

Terry Rowden (essay date January 1993)

SOURCE: "A Play of Abstractions: Race, Sexuality, and Community in James Baldwin's Another Country," in Southern Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 41-50.

[In the following essay, Rowden analyzes racial and sexual identity in Baldwin's Another Country, focusing on the character of Rufus, his relationships, and his place in the community.]

Of the many blindnesses that have characterized critical readings of James Baldwin's work, one of the most consistent has been the critical failure to consider seriously the lack of continuity uniting the persona of racial spokesman that Baldwin adopts in many of his essays and that of sexual utopian that he...

(The entire section is 4266 words.)

Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "If the Street Could Talk: James Baldwin's Search for Love and Understanding," in The City in African-American Literature, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 150-67.

[In the following essay, Hakutani traces the protagonist's search for love and salvation in If Beale Street Could Talk, and contrasts Baldwin's optimistic view in this novel with the pessimism of other African-American writers, including Richard Wright.]

No Name in the Street, a book of essays Baldwin wrote immediately before If Beale Street Could Talk, is about the life of black people in the city just as the story of...

(The entire section is 8285 words.)

Valerie Rohy (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Displacing Desire: Passing, Nostalgia, and Giovanni's Room," in Passing and the Fictions of Identity, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 218-33.

[In the following essay, Rohy analyzes how the questions of origin and identity in Baldwin's Giovanni's Room relate to the concepts of passing and nostalgia.]

"America is my country and Paris is my hometown," writes Gertrude Stein in "An American in France" (61). Placing in question the very notion of place, this transatlantic crossing relies on the terms—origin and identity—that it will expose as most unreliable. In the American expatriate tradition, the trope of...

(The entire section is 6280 words.)

Hilton Als (review date 16 February 1998)

SOURCE: "The Enemy Within: The Making and Unmaking of James Baldwin," in New Yorker, February 16, 1998, pp. 72-80.

[In the following review, Als presents an overview of Baldwin's life and career.]

Twenty-two years ago, when I was fourteen, I was given James Baldwin's second collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name (1961), by his friend and my mentor the writer Owen Dodson, who was one of the more ebullient survivors of the Harlem Renaissance. The dust jacket of the book featured a photograph of Baldwin wearing a white T-shirt and standing in a pile of rubble in a vacant lot. It was this photograph that compelled me to read the book. I had never seen an image...

(The entire section is 6431 words.)

Andrew Shin and Barbara Judson (essay date Summer 1998)

SOURCE: "Beneath the Black Aesthetic: James Baldwin's Primer of Black American Masculinity," in African American Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 247-61.

[In the following essay, Shin and Judson analyze the change in Baldwin's presentation of homosexuality between Giovanni's Room and Just Above My Head.]

It has become commonplace to suggest the similarities in the histories of the black and feminist consciousness movements of the 1960s and '70s, especially the critical blindnesses that threatened to undermine the very solidarity crucial to political identity.1 The conspicuous elision of women from black nationalism's struggle to achieve...

(The entire section is 9038 words.)