Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Highly praised as a spokesperson for blacks, James Baldwin writes essays, short stories, and novels that are forceful, powerful, and brilliant. He has also received recognition as a competent dramatist.
If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin’s first novel with a female narrator, takes its title from the lyrics of “Beale Street Blues,” by W. C. Handy. Baldwin has used the blues thematically or as counterpoint in such works as the short story “Sonny’s Blues” and the drama Blues for Mister Charlie (1964).
If Beale Street Could Talk is based on Baldwin’s experiences while he was attempting to aid a jailed friend. The injustices that he observes are some of the same injustices on which he expounds in some of his provocative essays in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), a volume which, along with his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), clearly established him as an artist of the first rank.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, Baldwin attacks the organized Church, and this attack is continued in If Beale Street Could Talk, where Baldwin portrays the Christians as less caring and less loving than those outside the Church.
Baldwin also uses many of the themes of this novel in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), a longer, more rambling novel than If Beale Street Could Talk. The tautness of the latter strengthens Baldwin’s premises and makes the novel a very powerful work. Of If Beale Street Could Talk, Joyce Carol Oates writes: “[It] is a moving, painful story. It is so vividly human and so obviously based upon reality, that it strikes us as timeless. . . .”