Study Guide

James Baldwin

James Baldwin Analysis

Discussion Topics (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Why does James Baldwin find it so difficult to endorse the work of writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright, who would seem to be his colleagues in the struggle against racism?

Baldwin is described as having been influenced by Henry James, a white novelist whose characters tend to be part of the upper crust of society and whose style is very sophisticated and elaborate. Considering Baldwin’s background and typical subject matter, what could Baldwin expect to learn from James?

In what ways, other than in his identity as an African American, did Baldwin feel himself to be an outsider? Did his writing benefit from this outsider status?

In his essay “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin concludes that he must accept life and people as they are but that he must not accept injustice. Since injustice is always caused by human beings, how is this possible?

Can a white American ever be as conscious of his or her own race as Baldwin was of his?

What evidence is there that Baldwin abandoned his early refusal to read the Bible?

James Baldwin Other Literary Forms (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111201176-Baldwin_J.jpgJames Baldwin Published by Salem Press, Inc.

In addition to one edition of short stories, James Baldwin published more than twenty other works, including novels, essays, two plays, a screenplay on Malcolm X, one play adaptation, a children’s book, two series of dialogues, and a collection of poetry, as well as numerous shorter pieces embracing interviews, articles, and recordings.

James Baldwin Achievements (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

James Baldwin received numerous awards and fellowships during his life, including the Rosenwald, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Partisan Review fellowships, a Ford Foundation Grant, and the George Polk Memorial Award. In 1986, shortly before his death, the French government made him a Commander of the Legion of Honor.

James Baldwin Other Literary Forms (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111201176-Baldwin_J.jpgJames Baldwin Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Best known for his novels and essays, James Baldwin contributed to every contemporary genre except poetry. Baldwin established his literary reputation with Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a novel that anticipates the thematic concerns of The Amen Corner. Subsequent novels, including Another Country (1962), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979), along with the brilliant story “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), confirmed Baldwin’s stature as a leading figure in postwar American fiction. Several of Baldwin’s early essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), are today recognized as classics. His essays on Richard Wright, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949) and “Many Thousands Gone” (1951), occupy a central position in the development, during the 1950’s, of “universalist” African American thought. The Fire Next Time (1963), perhaps Baldwin’s most important work of nonfiction, is an extended meditation on the relationship of race, religion, and the individual experience. No Name in the Street (1971), emphasizing the failure of the United States to heed the warning of The Fire Next Time, asserts the more militant political stance articulated in Blues for Mister Charlie. Less formal and intricate, though in some cases more explicit, statements of Baldwin’s positions can be found in A Rap on Race (1971), an extended discussion with Margaret Mead, and A Dialogue (1975; with Nikki Giovanni). Of special interest in relation to Baldwin’s drama are the unfilmed scenario One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976), which focuses on Baldwin’s personal and aesthetic frustrations with the American film industry.

James Baldwin Achievements (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

James Baldwin’s high-profile career, in both the literary and the political spheres, earned for him widespread recognition and a number of awards. Early in his career, he was granted the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust fellowship in 1945, followed by the Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948. In 1956 he was awarded a Partisan Review Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letter grant for literature, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, followed three years later by a Ford Foundation grant. His magazine articles earned him a George Polk Memorial Award in 1963 and in 1964 Blues for Mister Charlie earned a Foreign Drama Critics Award and The Fire Next Time was given a National Association of Independent Schools Award. Just Above my Head was nominated in 1980 for the American Book Award. France honored him in 1986 by naming him Commander of the Legion of Honor. He served as a member of several organizations throughout his lifetime, including the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Authors’ League, International PEN, Dramatists Guild, Actors Studio, and the Congress of Racial Equality.

James Baldwin Other literary forms (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

ph_0111225702-Baldwin.jpgJames Baldwin Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

James Baldwin Achievements (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

James Baldwin’s role as a major spokesman on race guarantees his place in American cultural history. Although not undeserved, this reputation more frequently obscures than clarifies the nature of his literary achievement, which involves his relationship to African American culture, existential philosophy, and the moral tradition of the world novel. To be sure, Baldwin’s progression from an individualistic, universalist stance through active involvement with the integrationist Civil Rights movement to an increasing sympathy with militant pan-Africanist thought parallels the general development of African American thought between the early 1950’s and the mid-1970’s. Indeed, Baldwin’s novels frequently mirror both the...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

James Baldwin Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Balfour, Lawrie Lawrence, and Katherine Lawrence Balfour. The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Explores the political dimension of Baldwin’s essays, stressing the politics of race in American democracy.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking Press, 1991. Good narrative biography is organized into five sections, each focusing on a particular period of Baldwin’s life. Places Baldwin’s work within the context of his times. Includes detailed notes and bibliography.

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(The entire section is 1159 words.)