Before he published his first novel, James Baldwin had established a reputation as a talented essayist and reviewer. Many of his early pieces, later collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), have become classics; his essays on Richard Wright, especially “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949) and “Many Thousands Gone” (1951), occupy a central position in the development of “universalist” African American thought during the 1950’s. Culminating in The Fire Next Time (1963), an extended meditation on the relationship of race, religion, and the individual experience in America, Baldwin’s early prose demands a reexamination and redefinition of received social and cultural premises. His collections of essays No Name in the Street (1971) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) reflected a more militant stance and were received less favorably than Baldwin’s universalist statements. The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) is a book-length essay on the case known as the Atlanta child murders, and The Price of the Ticket (1985) includes all of Baldwin’s essay collections as well as a number of previously uncollected pieces. Less formal and intricate, though in some cases more explicit, reflections of Baldwin’s beliefs can be found in A Rap on Race (1971), an extended discussion between Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead, and A Dialogue (1975), a conversation with poet Nikki Giovanni.
Baldwin also wrote children’s fiction (Little Man, Little Man, 1975), the text for a photographic essay (Nothing Personal, 1964, with Richard Avedon), an unfilmed scenario (One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” 1972), dramas, and short stories. Most critics prefer Baldwin’s first play, The Amen Corner (pr. 1954), to his Blues for Mister Charlie (pr. 1964) despite the latter’s four-month Broadway run. Although he published little short fiction after the collection Going to Meet the Man (1965), Baldwin was an acknowledged master of the novella form. “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), the story of the relationship of a jazz musician to his “respectable” narrator-brother, anticipates many of the themes of Baldwin’s later novels and is widely recognized as one of the great American novellas.