Baldwin was very much a man of his era. By the time of his death, his message had been received and digested by the American populace; yet his vision, so passionate and articulate at its inception, will not lose relevance so long as prejudice and bigotry—oppression of those perceived as “other,” “inferior,” or “different”—persist. As a spokesman and activist, he helped to bring about the social transformation of his nation, to the benefit of all races, genders, and sexualities. As an artist, he found a unique and personal idiom for expressing the anguish and joy of his life.
Though James Baldwin is a distinguished novelist and playwright, it can be argued that his most consistently brilliant work is in his essays, with their witty, impassioned, elegant observations on the life and art of his time. Many are autobiographical in whole or part; “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” Perhaps the most famous of Baldwin’s autobiographical essays is NOTES OF A NATIVE SON (1955), in which he tries to come to terms with his father, the model for Gabriel in GO, TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (1953), who was embittered by a heritage of racial oppression and took out his frustrations in indescribable cruelty to his family.
Extremely intelligent, James Baldwin continually battled the absurdity of racism that made life miserable for his people purely because of their color, but he was determined not to let hatred embitter his life as it had his father’s. Baldwin found some solace in the blues, in laughter, and in exiling himself to France. The vital factor about Baldwin’s perceptions is that he was triply an outsider, as an African American, a homosexual, and an expatriate. When asked whether he felt handicapped by being black and gay, he answered, “No, man, I thought I hit the jackpot.” Baldwin returned to the United States to become a leader in the civil rights movement, and his THE FIRE NEXT TIME (1963) is a powerful argument against racism and for full equality for blacks. In NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME: MORE NOTES OF A NATIVE SON (1961), he investigates questions of identity and democracy, “what it means to be an American.” THE DEVIL FINDS WORK (1976) analyzes movies that he saw as a boy and later ones of interest for their treatment of race and politics; many other essays deal with literature—the work of Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, and others. Baldwin followed Henry James’ advice to be the sort of person upon whom nothing is lost, and the abundance of his interests is reflected in the keen observations, wit, and vitality of his essays.
James Arthur Baldwin grew up in Harlem. While he was still attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx he was a Holy Roller preacher. After high school, he did odd jobs and wrote for The Nation and The New Leader. A turning point for him was meeting Richard Wright, who encouraged him to write and helped him obtain a fellowship that provided income while he was finishing an early novel. After moving to Paris in 1948 he became acquainted with Norman Mailer and other writers. His first major work, Go Tell It on the Mountain, appeared in 1953 and was followed by a long list of books. He moved back to New York in 1957, and during the 1960’s his writing and speeches made him an important force in the Civil Rights movement. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Baldwin returned to Europe several times and again settled in France in 1974, where he lived until his death. He continued his productivity in the 1980’s. In 1985, for example, Baldwin wrote three works, including his first book of poetry. He died in 1987 of stomach cancer and is buried near Paul Robeson’s grave at Ferncliff Cemetery, Ardsley, New York.
James Baldwin once dismissed his childhood as “the usual bleak fantasy.” Nevertheless, the major concerns of his writing consistently reflect the social context of his family life in Harlem during the Depression. The dominant figure of Baldwin’s childhood was his stepfather, David Baldwin, who worked as a manual laborer and preached in a storefront church. Clearly the model for Gabriel Grimes in Go Tell It on the Mountain, David Baldwin had moved from New Orleans to New York City, where he married James’s mother, Emma Berdis. The oldest of what was to become a group of nine children in the household, James assumed much of the responsibility for the care of his half brothers and sisters. Insulated somewhat from the...
(The entire section is 1150 words.)
James Arthur Baldwin once dismissed his childhood as “the usual bleak fantasy.” Nevertheless, the major concerns of his fiction consistently reflect the social context of his family life in Harlem during the Depression. The dominant figure of Baldwin’s childhood was clearly that of his stepfather, David Baldwin, who worked as a manual laborer and preached in a storefront church. Clearly the model for Gabriel Grimes in Go Tell It on the Mountain, David Baldwin had moved from New Orleans to New York City, where he married Baldwin’s mother, Emma Berdis. The oldest of what was to be a group of nine children in the household, James assumed a great deal of the responsibility for the care of his half brothers and half...
(The entire section is 963 words.)
Born in New York City’s Harlem, James Arthur Baldwin began to preach when he was fourteen and planned to enter the clergy. Upon graduation from high school in 1942, he became a railroad hand in Belle Meade, New Jersey. Moving to New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1944, he met the writer Richard Wright, who encouraged him in his writing. Wright recommended him for the Eugene Saxton Fellowship in 1945. Receiving this fellowship enabled Baldwin to continue work on his novel, In My Father’s House, which was not published. He used the proceeds from a Rosenwald Fellowship awarded in 1948 to move to Paris, where he worked on his first published novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain...
(The entire section is 1726 words.)
Prior to publication of Baldwin’s first short story, “Previous Condition” in Commentary in 1948, a number of words were deleted because his editor feared that they would violate obscenity laws. Thus began Baldwin’s struggle against censorship. Most of his subsequent work was affected by censorship either before or after publication. Alfred A. Knopf agreed to publish his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), but after suppressing several passages that his editor deemed obscene. Baldwin acquiesced, but later regretted doing so and determined to fight harder against expurgation in the future.
When Baldwin submitted his second novel, Giovanni’s...
(The entire section is 1552 words.)
From the immediate critical success of Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s writings were well received by the intellectual community, but his fiction, which deals frankly and sympathetically with controversial issues such as civil rights and homosexuality, did not immediately win popular approval. Not until the 1974 publication of If Beale Street Could Talk did Baldwin make the best-seller list. In the meantime, he won awards ranging from a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948 to a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 to election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.
Born out of wedlock in Harlem, Baldwin was the eldest of nine children, a fact that forced him to shoulder much of the...
(The entire section is 858 words.)
James Baldwin was born in New York City on August 2, 1924. His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, was unmarried at the time, and his illegitimacy would haunt him throughout his life. In 1927, Emma married David Baldwin, a former slave’s son who had come north from New Orleans filled with bitterness toward whites. David worked in factories, preached on weekends, and raised his ten children with iron discipline and little warmth.
James grew to hate his father for constantly criticizing and teasing him. As a teenager, he rebelled in many ways, first by becoming a Young Minister at a rival congregation, then by rejecting the church to pursue writing. At the same time, he watched his father slowly descend into a mental illness...
(The entire section is 1022 words.)