Critical response to James Baldwin's writinghow has his work illuminate the American experience

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
  • James Baldwin is a critic of race relations (he is black) and sexual identity (he is gay) who participated in the civil and gay rights movements.
  • He is an American novelist who lived outside America: a kind of contradiction.  He called himself a "commuter" instead of an expatriate (he moved to France and then Turkey).
  • In his essay "A Talk to Teachers," for example, he believes society interferes and intrudes upon individual choices.  So, he is a critic of social determinism.
  • He is a master of language, whose prose has a hypnotic, complex rhythm
  • In "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin shows the creative and imaginative life of Black Americans and the ordeals of suffering and addiction that plagues them.  In all, he reveals the social and historical dimension of the African-American civil rights experiences.

Here are some notes from Enotes:

Baldwin represents...the generation which rejected “protest literature” in favor of “universal” themes. Strangely at odds with the view of Baldwin as racial spokesman, this view emphasizes the craftsmanship of Baldwin’s early novels and his treatment of “mainstream” themes such as religious hypocrisy, father-son tensions, and sexual identity.

the African American writer Ishmael Reed dismisses Baldwin as a great “white” novelist. A grain of truth lies in Reed’s assertion; Baldwin rarely created new forms. Rather, he infused a variety of Euro-American forms, derived from Wright and William Faulkner as well as from Henry James, with the rhythms and imagery of the African American oral tradition.

Like the folk preacher whose voice he frequently assumed in secular contexts, Baldwin combined moral insight with an uncompromising sense of the concrete realities of his community, whether defined in terms of family, lovers, race, or nation. This indicates the deepest level of Baldwin’s literary achievement; whatever his immediate political focus or fictional form, he possessed an insight into moral psychology shared by only a handful of novelists. Inasmuch as the specific circumstances of this psychology involve American racial relations, this insight aligns Baldwin with Wright, Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Inasmuch as his insight involves the symbolic alienation of the individual, it places him with American romantics such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and European existentialists such as Albert Camus. Since his insight recognizes the complex pressure exerted by social mechanisms on individual consciousness, it reveals affinities with James Joyce, George Eliot, and Ellison. As a writer who combined elements of all of these traditions with the voice of the anonymous African American preacher, Baldwin cannot be reduced to accommodate the terms of any one of them. Refusing to lie about the reality of pain, he provided realistic images of the moral life possible in the inhospitable world that encompasses the streets of Harlem and the submerged recesses of the mind.



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