Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

If Beale Street Could Talk reveals the struggle between the forces of love and senselessness. The personal love between Fonny and Tish, as well as the family love that forms around the couple and the child that is on the way, is in conflict with the senseless scorn of Fonny’s mother and the senseless malice of the criminal justice system. Set in New York, the novel is an exploration of a childhood relationship that grows into mature love, but James Baldwin’s work is also a fierce indictment of hypocrisy in religion and racism in law enforcement. Love triumphs in If Beale Street Could Talk, but the price of that triumph is high, and the determination of the characters to pay the price demonstrates their heroism.

The narrative of this compact novel is framed by the final six months of Tish’s pregnancy, a period that coincides with the struggle to get Fonny out of jail. Baldwin’s work is divided into two books, the first much longer than the second. The first part begins with Fonny already in jail and Tish already in her third month of pregnancy, but Baldwin’s use of flashbacks enables him to provide extensive background and end the first book with the arrest of Fonny. The second book begins with Fonny’s dream of freedom and ends with the fulfillment of that dream.

The story is told by Tish, whose moving and disturbing flashbacks recount the development of the relationship between her and Fonny, as well as the stories behind the marriages of their parents and the circumstances leading to Fonny’s arrest. Her connection to Fonny goes back to her childhood and reveals the depth of her intimacy with him. Tish recalls from their childhood her scratching of Fonny’s forehead and Fonny’s retaliatory spitting in her face. Tish remembers her first date with Fonny—a trip to church supervised by...

(The entire section is 756 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991. A good narrative biography, with detailed notes and bibliography.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James Baldwin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A part of the Twentieth Century Views series, this collection contains some important appraisals of Baldwin’s work and career by Langston Hughes, Eldridge Cleaver, and Sherley Anne Williams, among others.

Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: Third Press, 1973. A good presentation of the social and historical background of Baldwin’s work.

Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A collection of contemporary reviews and essays covering Baldwin’s entire career.

Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. A study that examines in particular the links between Baldwin’s works and his life.

Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Equally divided between memoirs of the writer and discussions of his work. Includes a very useful bibliography.

Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989. An important biography written by one of Baldwin’s friends. Weatherby is, at times, too close to his subject to be objective.