Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
The publication of The Fire Next Time created a sensation. The promising writer found that he had quickly become a public figure, his face looking out from the cover of the May 17, 1963, issue of Time. The book marked a turning point in Baldwin’s reception, raising him from the status of an acclaimed writer to that of a major one.
It is noteworthy that a book receiving such a widely favorable popular reception was initially greeted by mixed reviews. While the book was praised in some venues, it also drew fire for its lack of homework and its panacea of universalism. The reviewers underlined the curious act the book commits—as a serious exercise of intellect and spirit, it is too public to be memoir, too personal to be sociology, and too unmethodical to be political science. In The New York Review of Books, reviewer F. W. Dupee charged that Baldwin’s material on the Nation of Islam was inadequately researched. Psychologist Robert Coles and scholar Marcus Klein went into print charging that the book was altogether too simplistic.
However, the book has a staying power and has earned its merit in the literary canon. Covering turf that the literary canon usually overlooks as ephemera, The Fire Next Time has endured far beyond its considerable immediate glory. Only a handful of other “classics” of social analysis exist as exceptions to prove the literary rule that art and sociopolitical essays do not mix; others include Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and The Jungle (1906).
Rhetorical skill accounts partly for the book’s continued resonance, but there is more. The shape of the questioning in Baldwin’s analysis, personalizing such very large conflicts, keeps its fascination. For this book crystalizes the key concerns of the author’s large and public life: activist work for the African American struggle and the personal quest as universal drama.
The Fire Next Time is unique among Baldwin’s works in that this is his book that most thoroughly treats religion as substance. The culture of pulpit and gospel informs plots, motivates passions, and guides action throughout Baldwin’s work. In his other plays, fictions, and essays, these elements define a community to be discussed.
Here, however, the focus is not on religion as iconography. Instead, the author grapples with religion simply as religion. This wrestling match provides enduring interest and terrible beauty, for God is found wanting while humankind is not.