Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Novelist William Styron once remarked that The Fire Next Time shook the conscience of a nation, and that claim was no exaggeration. The book appeared at an edgy moment in American race relations; those fighting for social change were seeking tactics to face down segregationist practices that were, in many communities, centuries old. Baldwin wrote a plea that called for nothing less than an activism of all Americans, whom he urged to reconsider the true state of their land in order “to end the racial nightmare . . . and change the history of the world.”

The text of The Fire Next Time was on newsstands, more or less in its entirety, all in the same week. “Letter from a Region in My Mind” (reprinted in the book as “Down at the Cross”) was featured in the November 17, 1962, issue of The New Yorker. “A Letter to My Nephew” (reprinted in the book as “My Dungeon Shook”) appeared in the December, 1962, issue of The Progressive. The two essays appeared together as a book printed by Dial Press in 1963.

A surprising frame for the book is suggested in “My Dungeon Shook.” Turning any paternalism in the integrationist struggle aside, the author acknowledges the reality of segregation; still, he tells his nephew, the challenge is not to earn acceptance from white society. Rather, the struggle for the nephew is to find acceptance for the white culture in his own heart. “Down at the Cross,” originally conceived as a commentary on the rise of the Nation of Islam in northern U.S. cities, became a great, synthetic sermon focusing themes of national, tactical, religious, personal, and activist concerns. “A Letter to My Nephew” runs a mere seven pages in the original edition, while “Down at the Cross” takes up ninety-one pages of text.

The title change for the second essay had less to do with its conception than with The New Yorker’s editorial policy. At the time, the magazine was running a series of subjective analyses as “letters” from its stable of writers and from selected guests.

Lecturing on the politics of race, the work is a cry for the exercise of imagination and intellect, and it remains a seminal testament long after its moment: a time when retrenchment of legalized and de facto segregation left many whites unwilling to examine their heritage and when national philosophies pushed the black community to react more systemically and militantly to retrenched oppression. The Fire Next Time spoke to these questions in passion, drawing on elements both autobiographical and historical. The book is insistently self-referential in drawing models of experience. Autobiography, this suggests, is as valid a historical model as any conventional teaching.

The skill to speak to an integrated audience is one that Baldwin mastered early, honed by the rhetoric of childhood preaching, international education, eclectic activism, and wide reading. Thus, the emergent voice is deeply informed in fact and spirit but keeps a tone of practical applicability. As strident and demanding...

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time grew out of the charged American racial atmosphere of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950’s had moved blacks, and some whites, toward social change. Blacks, in particular, began to fight for changes in American laws and institutions that were centuries old. They began to speak out boldly on issues and to attack the Southern system of legalized segregation through sit-in protests and marches. Also, black groups with nationalistic philosophies began to develop and to challenge the American system more aggressively and militantly; one such group was the Nation of Islam, which Baldwin treats in significant depth in The Fire Next Time. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, blacks as a group focused on political and social activism as they had not done since the 1920’s, but this later activism had an even more urgent and demanding tone.

In response to black social and political activism, American institutions began to change slightly, but when Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, the most apparent responses were retrenchment, recalcitrance, and violence, by both law enforcement agencies and private white citizens in the North and South. Many whites seemed unwilling to examine and change their ideas about their supposed superiority. The nation as a whole apparently...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baraka, Amiri. “Jimmy! (Eulogy for James Baldwin, 1987).” The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Edited by William J. Harris. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991. Delivered on December 8, 1987, Baraka’s eulogy praises Baldwin’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement and to African American aesthetics.

Bloom, Harold, ed. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Bloom’s introduction pays tribute to the prophetic intensity of The Fire Next Time, exactly the quality that F. W. Dupee attacks in his analysis, which is included here. Dupee argues that by substituting rhetoric for criticism, Baldwin weakens his cultural analysis. Overall, the criticism here is anxious to dismiss The Fire Next Time as a minor work by a major writer.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking Press, 1991. Campbell considers the essay “Down at the Cross” as Baldwin’s masterwork, most successfully merging the creative work with advocacy of the black struggle. Too, in the context of literary biography, he records the range of reactions to the book. Contains thorough notes and a chronological bibliography.

Eckman, Fern Marja. The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1966. An early analysis of the biographical aspects of...

(The entire section is 591 words.)