Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)
When If Beale Street Could Talk was published, it held a place on the best-seller list for seven weeks. Reviews of the novel were mixed, with some readers finding the work to be powerfully realistic and dramatically convincing, but with others finding it to be either sentimental or bitter.
If Beale Street Could Talk brings to mind other works by James Baldwin: the treatment of family life and church affiliation raised in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953); the accessible, fast-paced style of Giovanni’s Room (1956); and the quest for sexual and artistic satisfaction in Another Country (1962). In addition, the rich references of these works to hymns and the blues recur in If Beale Street Could Talk, but there are also references to contemporary music by Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and others. Baldwin, perhaps in response to criticism that he is not sufficiently aggressive on racial issues, has If Beale Street Could Talk feature some of the rage embodied in the play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964); in particular, the rage of Frank Hunt is expressed in powerful black idiom, which contrasts sharply with the measured eloquence of the essay The Fire Next Time (1963).
Baldwin’s prolific output of outstanding works may lead some educators to overlook If Beale Street Could Talk, but those who select the work for classroom use will discover that the novel is a lively, accessible, and stimulating one for young adult readers.