James Baldwin 1924–1987
(Full name: James Arthur Baldwin) American novelist, essayist, playwright, scriptwriter, short story writer, and children's book author.
The following entry presents an overview of Baldwin's career. See also James Baldwin Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 17.
Baldwin is considered one of the most prestigious writers in contemporary American literature. Since the publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Baldwin has exposed the racial and sexual polarization of American society and challenged readers to confront and resolve these differences. Baldwin's influence and popularity reached their peak during the 1960s, when he was regarded by many as the leading literary spokesperson of the civil rights movement. His novels, essays, and other writings attest to his premise that the African-American experience, as an example of suffering and abuse, represents a universal symbol of human conflict.
Baldwin was born in New York City's Harlem on August 2, 1924, the illegitimate child of Emma Berdis Jones. Due to his mother's inaccessibility and his stepfather's stern and remote manner, Baldwin felt isolated and retreated into the world of literature. Baldwin attended school in Harlem where one of his teachers was the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who encouraged Baldwin's involvement in the school's literary club. Baldwin continued developing his interest in writing until undergoing a religious conversion when he was fourteen years old. Baldwin then turned his attention to preaching, but at seventeen, left the church and his home. Baldwin continued supporting his family financially by working in a defense plant and a meat-packing plant in New Jersey. When his stepfather died in 1943, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village to pursue his literary dreams. It was during this period that Richard Wright befriended Baldwin and encouraged him to write Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin's highly acclaimed first novel. Baldwin also wrote book reviews to help support himself even though he felt limited by editors who wanted book reviews only by African Americans. Unhappy in America, Baldwin moved in 1948 to Paris, where he found a blurring of racial lines and greater acceptance of his homosexuality. Baldwin continued writing fiction and essays, eventually settling in St. Paul de Vence, the French countryside town where he lived until the end of his life.
Baldwin's novels tackle personal issues in his life as well as larger social issues, including race relations and sexuality. Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is a semi-autobiographical account of Baldwin's adolescence. The main character, a thirteen-year-old boy named John, is saved in the Baptist church where his stepfather is a preacher. As John undergoes conversion, his stepfather and the rest of the characters recall their past sins, struggling with questions of faith as well. In Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin moves on from adolescence to confront his homosexuality. Set in Paris, this controversial novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between a white American student and an Italian bartender. In Baldwin's Another Country (1962), the protagonist is Rufus Scott, a jazz musician who makes friends with a group of whites. The novel traces Scott's relationships with his best friend Vivaldo and his white lover Leona. There are further subplots that trace the sexual interactions of the other homosexual and heterosexual characters. The novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), tells the story of Leo Proudhammer, a famous black artist who becomes trapped in his public persona, losing his personal identity and convictions along the way. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) is about Fonny Hunts, another artistic and intellectual protagonist. The story is narrated by Tish, Hunts's nineteen-year-old fiancee who is pregnant with his child. Hunts is imprisoned after he is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. In the end, Hunts finds his salvation in love and in the birth of his son. Baldwin used essays to examine race relations. In his collection of essays, The Fire Next Time (1963), he argues that the lives and futures of whites and African Americans are inextricably intertwined. Although he respected Malcolm X, Baldwin was opposed to Malcolm's ideas about separation of the races and the superiority of African Americans. Baldwin's essays underwent a change in position with No Name in the Street (1972), which asserts the independence of African Americans and the possible necessity of violence against whites. In this book, Baldwin also asserts that an African American—by virtue of his powerlessness—could never be racist.
Critics often discuss the fire-and-brimstone nature of Baldwin's prose even though his relationship to Christianity remains ambiguous. For part of his career during the early 1960s, Baldwin was considered "the" voice for African-Americans. However, Baldwin never intended to be a spokesman for his race. He saw himself as an intellectual who explored ideas and did not espouse a certain message. This disappointed many readers and reviewers, who dismissed Baldwin because he appeared opposed to the ideals of African-American liberation. Baldwin's ideas were seldom straightforward, and critics often accused him of espousing conflicting ideas. However, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. asserted, "As an intellectual, Baldwin was at his best when he explored his own equivocal sympathies and clashing allegiances." Many critics—including younger African American artists—accused Baldwin of hating himself, African Americans, and capitulating to whites. Others saw more subtlety in Baldwin's work, viewing his writing as a contribution to intellectual discourse on the subject of race relations. Reviewers often criticized Baldwin's fiction for its lack of artistic merit. Hilton Als argued, "It was in Baldwin's essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized." However, others—including Andrew Shin and Barbara Judson—disagreed. Shin and Judson said, "The novels, however, despite their poor critical reception, are interesting because they rarely capitulate to the urge for a simplified rhetoric that characterizes the essays of the early 1970s, persistently retaining the unresolved tension and complexity of a writer—a gay black writer no less—divided between his role as a popular spokesman for the race and his role as an artist whose imaginative life encompasses aesthetic standards that may alienate a popular audience." Baldwin's homosexuality also was a sticking point with many who reviewed his work. Many saw his sexuality as an attack on black masculinity. Baldwin's supporters even turned on him after he changed his position, recanting his previous work and realigning his opinions to mirror mainstream African American discourse. Nevertheless, many reviewers still found ambivalence in Baldwin's fiction in his portrayal of African Americans. Following the publication of Baldwin's collected works, The Price of the Ticket (1985), critics now find his early essays an important contribution to the discourse of race relations in America.