Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3759
Baldwin, James 1924–
A Black American novelist, essayist, and playwright, and one of the foremost spokesmen for American Blacks, Baldwin is best known for his novel Another Country. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Taken together [the essays comprising Notes of a Native Son] make up the best book I have ever read about the American Negro, a book that conveys a phenomenally keen sense of the special quality of Negro experience today. What distinguishes these pieces, even apart from the clarity, subtlety, and vividness with which they are written, is Baldwin's complex conception of the Negro as a man who is simultaneously like unto all other men and yet profoundly, perhaps irrevocably, different. The nature of the sameness and the nature of the difference are the subject of the book, and he never allows himself to forget the one term while exploring the other.
But it is precisely the loss of complexity that characterizes his novels. Go Tell It on the Mountain is a fairly conventional first novel about a Negro boy in Harlem, and though the hero's milieu (especially the religious background of his life) is well delineated, you nevertheless feel that Baldwin is trying to persuade you that there is no real difference between the situation of John Grimes and that of any other sensitive American boy who is at odds with his environment. But there is a difference, and it is not merely one of degree—as any reader of Notes of a Native Son can tell you.
Similarly with Giovanni's Room, which though it does not deal with Negroes, exhibits the same slurring over of differences in relation to homosexuality. (The white homosexual in America is in the same beat as the oppressed Negro—they are both, as it were, "black" in the eyes of their culture.) Baldwin, in writing about a young American living in Paris who discovers that he is a homosexual, tries very hard to make it appear that a love affair between two men is spiritually and psychologically indistinguishable from a heterosexual romance—which strikes me as at worst an untruth and at best an oversimplification. Here again, then, we have a writer who seems able to produce fiction only at the expense of suppressing half of what he sees and knows, whose discursive prose is richer, more imaginative, and fundamentally more honest than his novels and stories.
Norman Podhoretz, "The Article as Art" (1958), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 126-42.
When I read Baldwin's first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, I realized that the tortured intellectual consciousness I felt behind his fiction could be turned into the self-representation of an absolutely first-class essayist, reporter, and social critic. Notes of a Native Son is one of the two or three best books ever written about the Negro in America, and it is the work of an original literary talent who operates with as much power in the essay form as I've ever seen. I'm sure that Baldwin doesn't like to hear his essays praised at the expense (seemingly) of his fiction. And I'm equally sure that if Baldwin were not so talented a novelist he would not be so remarkable an essayist. But the great thing about his essays is that the form allows him to work out from all the conflicts raging in him, so that finally the "I," the "James Baldwin" who is so sassy and despairing and bright, manages, without losing his authority as the central speaker, to show us all the different people hidden in him, all the voices from whom the "I" alone can speak….
The extraordinary thing about these essays is that he can give voice to all his insights and longings and despairs without losing control—indeed, without ever missing his chance to dig in deeper. Speaking now with the moral authority of the future, now with the bitterness of Harlem, now with the sophistication of the perennial American abroad, now with the toughness of the adventurer who knows the slums and messes of Paris, now as the dopester on Gide's marriage, now as the literary celebrity moving in the company of other celebrities, he somehow manages never to enjoy things so well that he will get heedless, never suffers so constantly that he will lose himself. He is bitter yet radiantly intelligent as he seizes the endless implications in the oppression of man by man, of race by race. To be James Baldwin is to touch on so many hidden places in Europe, America, the Negro, the white man—to be forced to understand so much!…
Of all the many things I admire about Baldwin's essays, I think what I admire most is this: more than any other Negro writer whom I, at least, have ever read, he wants to describe the exact place where private chaos and social outrage meet. He wants to know just how far he is responsible for his unhappiness.
Alfred Kazin, "The Essays of James Baldwin" (1961), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 254-58.
I would … like to venture a step or two in the direction of literary justice to a new novel that seems to me to have been maltreated in an appalling way: James Baldwin's Another Country….
Whites coupled with Negroes, heterosexuals coupled with homosexuals, homosexuals coupled with women, none of it involving casual lust or the suggestion of neurotic perversity, and all of it accompanied by the most serious emotions and resulting in the most intense attachments—it is easy enough to see even from so crude a summary that Baldwin's intention is to deny any moral significance whatever to the categories white and Negro, heterosexual and homosexual. He is saying that the terms white and Negro refer to two different conditions under which individuals live, but they are still individuals and their lives are still governed by the same fundamental laws of being. And he is saying, similarly, that the terms homosexuality and heterosexuality refer to two different conditions under which individuals pursue love, but they are still individuals and their pursuit of love is still governed by the same fundamental laws of being. Putting the two propositions together, he is saying, finally, that the only significant realities are individuals and love, and that anything which is permitted to interfere with the free operation of this fact is evil and should be done away with….
Within the context of his own development as a writer, I believe that Another Country will come to be seen as the book in which for the first time the superb intelligence of Baldwin the essayist became fully available to Baldwin the novelist, in which for the first time he attempted to speak his mind with complete candor and with a minimum of polite rhetorical elegance, and in which for the first time he dared to reveal himself as someone to be feared for how deeply he sees, how much he demands of the world, and how powerfully he can hate.
Norman Podhoretz, "In Defense of James Baldwin" (1962), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 244-50.
I envy whoever writes of James Baldwin a century from now. That his work will then be discussed I have no doubt, since of all writers in English of our era his style is most classic, his theme one of the most relevant. But it is because of this theme, precisely, that it is so hard to criticize his writing now.
Baldwin's essential theme is life-death-passion-honor-beauty-horror … the perpetual theme since the Greeks and long before, the only one worthy of a great artist and of which, as writer and man, he has proved himself so worthy….
Baldwin has seemed both novelist and essayist (also one of the extraordinarily rare TV performers who are entirely convincing), but in reality he is neither: he is a premonitory prophet, a fallible sage, a soothsayer, a bardic voice falling on deaf and delighted ears. These qualities emerge best in his "essays" (for such one must call them, though they are so agonized and hortatory that the word hardly fits), and far less decisively in his novels … because I see—or hear—James Baldwin as a voice, a presence, a singer almost, [and] I feel the mode of direct address—to us in his own person, and not through invented "characters"—expresses his talent and his message best….
[Go Tell It on the Mountain] is a densely-packed, ominous, sensual, doom-ridden story, lit by rare beauty, love and human penetration. The theme is life and religion and how both, wonderful and terrible, can create and destroy….
The "plot" … of Giovanni's Room is, by comparison with that of the earlier book, a simple one; indeed, the work is more a nouvelle than a novel and, in certain nonrealistic passages, more in the nature of a prose poem than a work of fiction…. I must say at once I think the realistic passages of the book are admirable, and its more important psychological conclusions much less so. In a nutshell, the flaw seems to me to be that Giovanni's Room is—whereas the earlier book only seemed at first to be—a melodrama…. [Another Country] is the least overtly personal of James Baldwin's novels, the most ambitious and, I regret to have to say, the least successful…. One may say it is a wonderful, if scarifying, portrait of New York, about which great agglomeration the writer makes us feel that all Manhattan Island ("the world's most bewildered city"), and not just Harlem, is a ghetto of imprisoned and self-imprisoned human victims…. Then what has gone wrong with the book? In a general way, I would say that Another Country is much too bulky for what it has to say. The passages in which Baldwin makes his points, and makes them splendidly, are buried amid vast wastelands that neither add to nor prepare for the declaration of his essential themes. There is an immense amount of dialogue, but a great deal of it is what I would never have believed possible in any page Baldwin wrote, which is simply dull….
The first quality in [Baldwin's] essays is their extraordinary tone. Baldwin was just over thirty when the first collection appeared—and many of the essays were of course written when he was even younger—but already the note of authority is as unmistakable as it is unforced. As to the style, if I may borrow his own description of jazz and gospel songs—"taut, ironic, authoritative, and double-edged"—these fit exactly. To them I would add a natural dignity, a sadly acid wit, and an enormous, quite uncondescending—if exigently demanding—humanity.
Their chief theme is race, and all I can say about Baldwin's analysis of this ghastly topic is that if there is anything conceivable to add, I cannot imagine what it may be.
Colin MacInnes, "Dark Angel: The Writings of James Baldwin," in Encounter, August, 1963, pp. 22-33.
The point of Baldwin's recent work is that the issue is as desperate for the White as it is for the Negro. In this sense, he quite cleverly balances the suffering Negro against the unhappy White in Another Country. The novel's power comes partly from Baldwin's refusal to be "angry" in the manner of Native Son, or to accept an easy "liberal" patronage of "token" Negro examples of the race's condition.
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, p. 250.
It should be generally observed that Baldwin's writings owe much to Negro folk tradition (the blues, jazz, spirituals, and folk literature), and to the chief experimental practitioners of modernist fiction, with especial emphasis upon Henry James.
The moral vision that emerges is one primarily concerned with man as he relates to good and evil and to society. For there is evil in human nature and evil abroad in the world to be confronted, not through Christianity whose doctrine tends to be the perverted tool of the ruling classes…, but through the love and involvement available from those able to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and live. Within the breast of each individual, then, rages a universe of forces with which he must become acquainted, often through the help of an initiated person, in order to direct them for the positive growth of himself and others. The foregoing achievement is what Baldwin means by identity. To achieve it, one must not be hindered by the detritus of society and one must learn to know detritus when one sees it.
Perhaps the question which throws most light upon Baldwin's works is simply: How can one achieve, amid the dislocations and disintegrations of the modern world, true, functional being? For Baldwin, the Western concept of reality, with its naïve rationalism, its ignoring of unrational forces that abound within and without man, its reductivist activities wherein it ignores the uniqueness of the individual and sees reality in terms of its simplifications and categorizations, is simply impoverishing. He who follows it fails to get into his awareness the richness and complexity of experience—he fails to be. And freedom is unattainable, since paradoxically, freedom is discovery and recognition of limitations, one's own and that of one's society: to deny complexity is to paralyze the ability to get at such knowledge—it is to strangle freedom.
George E. Kent, "Baldwin and the Problem of Being," in CLA Journal, No. 7, 1964.
James Baldwin is one of the most accomplished and sophisticated American writers of today, and from a strictly literary point of view it is unfortunate that he expends so much of his energy on nonfiction. To be sure, his essays are sensitive accounts of the complex spiritual and moral predicament of the Negro intellectual, but as Baldwin himself once said (in Notes of a Native Son) he does not want to be a Negro—he wants to be a writer. Yet we find him still expending his creative energies on the genre of the protest essay, which he no doubt finds more satisfactory than the protest novel but which is nevertheless a way of being a Negro rather than a writer.
John V. Hagopian, "James Baldwin: The Black and the Red-White-and-Blue," in CLA Journal, No. 7, 1964.
"Although we do not wholly believe it yet," James Baldwin once said, "the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect upon the world." Baldwin's intangible dreams are real enough now to shatter our sleep for us. But the breadth of his vision and the tenacity of his belief in man offer us, if we can but accept it, a far better national reality than any we have ever known. It is this vision and this belief that illuminate his work.
Kay Boyle, "Introducing James Baldwin" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 155-57.
Mr. Baldwin has become a kind of prophet, a man who has been able to give a public issue all its deeper moral, historical, and personal significance. For this reason, he appears as the one contemporary writer who is most beset with a vision, his vision being the great urgency and revolutionary implications of the race issue. It is a vision, despite the seeming narrowness of the starting point, because Baldwin has shown how the issue itself is connected with nearly every area of American life and belief. Ideas change. An experience can be told and forgotten. But a vision, such as Baldwin's, mercilessly grows and deepens, and it has affected, in some way, almost everything he has written. Certainly one mark of his achievement, whether as novelist, essayist, or propagandist, is that whatever deeper comprehension of the race issue Americans now possess has been in some way shaped by him. And this is to have shaped their comprehension of themselves as well.
Robert F. Sayre, "James Baldwin's Other Country" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 158-69.
The most important Negro writer to emerge during the last decade is, of course, James Baldwin. His publications, which include three books of essays, three novels, and two plays, have had a stunning impact on our cultural life. His political role as a leading spokesman of the Negro revolt has been scarcely less effective. Awards and honors, wealth and success have crowned his career, and Baldwin has become a national celebrity.
Under the circumstances, the separation of the artist from the celebrity is as difficult as it is necessary. For Baldwin is an uneven writer, the quality of whose work can by no means be taken for granted. His achievement in the novel is most open to dispute….
Baldwin's career may be divided into two distinct periods. His first five books have been concerned with the emotion of shame. The flight from self, the quest for identity, and the sophisticated acceptance of one's "blackness" are the themes that flow from this emotion. His last three books have been concerned with the emotion of rage. An apocalyptic vision and a new stridency of tone are brought to bear against the racial and the sexual oppressor….
The best of Baldwin's novels is Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and his best is very good indeed. It ranks with Jean Toomer's Cane, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a major contribution to American fiction. For this novel cuts through the walls of the store-front church to the essence of Negro experience in America. This is Baldwin's earliest world, his bright and morning star, and it glows with metaphorical intensity. Its emotions are his emotions; its language, his native tongue. The result is a prose of unusual power and authority. One senses in Baldwin's first novel a confidence, control, and mastery of style that he has not attained again in the novel form….
Giovanni's Room (1956) is by far the weakest of Baldwin's novels. There is a tentative, unfinished quality about the book, as if in merely broaching the subject of homosexuality Baldwin had exhausted his creative energy…. And yet this novel occupies a key position in Baldwin's spiritual development. Links run backward to Go Tell It on the Mountain as well as forward to Another Country. The very furniture of Baldwin's mind derives from the store-front church of his boyhood and adolescence. When he attempts a novel of homosexual love, with an all-white cast of characters and a European setting, he simply transposes the moral topography of Harlem to the streets of Paris. When he strives toward sexual self-acceptance he automatically casts the homosexual in a priestly role….
Another Country (1962) is a failure on the grand scale. It is an ambitious novel, rich in thematic possibilities, for Baldwin has at his disposal a body of ideas brilliantly developed in his essays. When he tries to endow these ideas with imaginative life, however, his powers of invention are not equal to the task. The plot consists of little more than a series of occasions for talk and fornication. Since the latter is a limited vehicle for the expression of complex ideas, talk takes over, and the novel drowns in a torrent of rhetoric.
Robert A. Bone, "James Baldwin," in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, pp. 215-29.
Baldwin's theme [in Another Country is that the dividing terms men and women, whites and blacks, heterosexuals and homosexuals], which society imposes on itself and regards as fundamental categories, are of no importance in face of the only things that really count—the establishment of satisfactory human relationships, the pursuit of love. What does it matter if white sleeps with black or man with man? If our deepest individual needs are satisfied, we are incapable of seeing life in terms of arbitrary divisions. If a society grants primacy to these divisions, thus blocking the individual's right to fulfilment, then society must be fought tooth and nail, for society is evil. The intensity with which Baldwin, through the mostly tragic lives of his characters, makes these points is of a kind likely to, and intended to, shock. His verbal technique is one of extreme violence, a kind of literary rape.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 198-99.
You get, in James Baldwin's new novel [Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, a] sense of a man rummaging in his trunk for a theme. It has been six years since Another Country, and the crowd back home is beginning to shuffle its feet and remember appointments. In other words, it's novel time again. How about giving them the one about the young writer who grows up in Harlem and leads a bisexual life in the Village, etc.? You say they've heard it already? All right, suppose we make him an actor instead of a writer?…
One might call Baldwin a special victim of the race wars, a man trying to belong to both worlds, slipping in one and unsure in the other: but I think this is too drastic. I think he has paused in his travels and batted out a careless book, alive where it touches his own interests, borrowed and mechanical where it doesn't. He would not be the first writer to have done this.
Wilfrid Sheed, "James Baldwin: Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone" (1968), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar. Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 76-8.
James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) … is far more than the chronicle of the experiences of a single black boy in a Harlem environment. The novel is a Bildungsroman (a novel recording the development of a young man) of universal appeal, and it speaks eloquently of the terrors and hopes of youth as a whole, while at the same time it portrays the very special terror of being young and black in America.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, p. 16.