James Baldwin Baldwin, James (Vol. 17) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Baldwin 1924–

American novelist, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter.

Since the publication in 1953 of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin has been an important presence in American letters. This first, semiautobiographical novel described with great compassion the events leading to the religious conversion of an adolescent boy growing up in Harlem. It earned Baldwin extravagant praise, some critics greeting him as the newest major black writer to follow in the steps of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. On the strength of it Baldwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship which he used to live in Paris.

During the next ten years of his voluntary exile he produced three collections of essays, two novels, and two plays. The plays, Blues for Mr. Charlie and The Amen Corner, received mixed reviews when first presented; most critics felt the effectiveness of the central monologues did not carry over into the rest of the writing. However, both have been revived on occasion by drama companies across the country.

All but Baldwin's first novel have been extremely controversial. Giovanni's Room, the story of a fatal relationship between two white men, was viewed by some as a tour de force and by others as an embarrassment. His investigation of sexual and racial politics took him into Another Country, a novel whose exploration of the use of power in interracial relationships provoked even more heated debate. Those who praise Baldwin's novels do so for his passionate language and his ability to make his world live. Most frequently, they are criticized as vehicles for Baldwin's political views, lacking depth of characterization. This difference of opinion has intensified over the years.

The reception accorded his essays has always been much more approving. Many people were ready to claim him as the foremost American essayist following Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. Although his essays document the oppression of black people he has refused to categorize himself with writers who talk only of anger and despair. It is perhaps his patience, his desire to be proved wrong in his assessment of the moral failure of white Americans, that has made the literary establishment consider him a spokesperson for black people.

Since his return to the United States Baldwin has accepted this role with some reluctance, stating that he can speak only for himself. Yet he has participated in two published conversations loosely conducted about the topic of race: A Rap on Race with anthropologist Margaret Mead, and A Dialogue with poet Nikki Giovanni. In these, as well as in all his other works, Baldwin shows himself to be a man deeply interested in the future of Western society, determined to do what he can to help compassion win out over the destructive forces within. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Harvey Curtis Webster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Baldwin's first novel ["Go Tell It on the Mountain"] is written as skilfully as many a man's fifth essay in fiction. His handling of the flashbacks so that they show the past without interrupting the drama of the present is masterful. His penetration of the mind of John, especially in the scene of his conversion, is as valid as anything in William James's "Varieties of Religious Experience" and as moving as the interior monologues in [William] Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." Although Mr. Baldwin does not have either [Richard] Wright's or [Ralph] Ellison's capacity to take all modern problems as his province, he never descends into the provincialism that has made so many Negro novels read like footnotes to [Gunnar] Myrdal's "An American Dilemma." "Go Tell It on the Mountain" fulfils a great deal, promises more.

Harvey Curtis Webster, "Community of Pride," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1953 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVI, No. 20, May 16, 1953, p. 14.

Anthony West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain" … is a first novel of quite exceptional promise, centering on a church in Harlem…. The Temple of the Fire Baptized is the scene of a conflict between a growing boy with a real vocation and his preacher stepfather, a compulsive lecher whose sense of guilt, rather than a true call, has brought him to the pulpit…. Mr. Baldwin … gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of the intellectual seediness and poverty of this kind of religious life and of the secular life that produces it….

But for all its abundant virtues there is something lacking in the book; its perfections are wooden and it is without vitality in spite of its realism. When one compares it with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," the deficiency immediately declares itself. Ellison's novel was emotionally disturbing and extremely serious, but it was also rich in comic invention…. Mr. Baldwin's God-intoxicated lecher, with his roving eye and his inflamed conscience, which always arrives on the scene too late, carries farce with him wherever he goes, and if one treats him with Kafkaesque solemnity, the life goes out of him and the spiritual tragedy of his congregation loses a dimension…. Mr. Baldwin's novel is humorless, and the result is that it seems not more dignified or more understanding but less penetrating.

Anthony West, "Sorry Lives," in The New Yorker (© 1953 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 18, June 20, 1953, p. 93.

Langston Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Baldwin writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself. As an essayist he is thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing and amusing. And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing.

In "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin surveys in pungent commentary certain phases of the contemporary scene as they relate to the citizenry of the United States, particularly Negroes. Harlem, the protest novel, bigoted religion, the Negro press and the student milieu of Paris are all examined in black and white, with alternate shutters clicking, for hours of reading interest. When the young man who wrote this book comes to a point where he can look at life purely as himself, and for himself, the color of his skin mattering not at all, when, as in his own words, he finds "his birthright as a man no less than his birthright as a black man," America and the world might well have a major contemporary commentator.

Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.

Langston Hughes, "From Harlem to Paris," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1956, p. 26.

David Karp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Baldwin has taken a very special theme [male homosexuality] and treated it with great artistry and restraint [in "Giovanni's Room"]. While he is franker about the physical aspects of male love than other writers who have written on the subject, he manages to retain a very delicate sense of good taste so that his characters never really offend us even when they appear most loathsome, most detestable. This truly remarkable achievement is possible because of Mr. Baldwin's intense sincerity and genuine ability to understand and to pity the wretches involved….

Of all the ills and vices of men it would seem that homosexuality is the one least demanding of patience and consideration, but Mr. Baldwin has managed to instil in one reader, at least, a greater tolerance, a fresher sense of pity.

David Karp, "A Squalid World," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIX, No. 48, December 1, 1956, p. 34.

William Esty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Giovanni's Room is the best American novel dealing with homosexuality I have read….

[From a recounting of the plot, Giovanni's Room] sounds like a painful novel, which it certainly is. It also sounds like a meretriciously fashionable-sensational one, which it is not…. He successfully avoids the cliché literary attitudes: overemphasis on the grotesque, and the use of homosexuality as a facile symbol for the estrangement which makes possible otherwise unavailable insights into the workings of "normal" society and "normal" people; in short, the Homosexual as Artist.

Not that Giovanni's Room is without faults. The novel's ending … is somewhat lame, his descriptions of the hero's emotions run too heavily to beating hearts, trembling, bright lights, overwhelming stirrings, falling, drowning, the bottom of the sea. Also, Baldwin's blond-athlete-type hero, like Norman Mailer's in The Deer Park, never wholly emerges from dimness.

Nevertheless, these shortcomings only slightly detract from the book's impact. If David, the American, remains even more lumpish than he is supposed to be, Giovanni, the experienced European more vulnerable than a child, is beautifully and economically realized. Baldwin insists on the painful, baffling complexity of things….

The Europe-versus-America theme is basic to Giovanni's Room. The Europeans' epigrammatic summations of individual and national character are contrasted with the gracelessness, sometimes oafishness of the Americans, David and his father, vacuously mouthing their hand-me-down colloquialisms.

But the Europeans are helpless, their knowledge is largely the knowledge of their own helplessness and that of others. They perceive some home truths about the American, but they misunderstand much, too…. In the end, neither Europe nor America is "right."

The complexities are of course most numerous in the treatment of the relationship between David and Giovanni…. Like so many heterosexual lovers also, David and Giovanni must fail each other because each seeks to become strong through the imagined strength of the other.

William Esty, "The Cities of the Plain," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1956 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 135, No. 25, December 17, 1956, p. 26.

Irving Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To transcend the sterile categories of "Negro-ness," whether those enforced by the white world or those erected defensively by Negroes, became Baldwin's central concern as a writer. He wanted, as he says in "Nobody Knows My Name," his brilliant new collection of essays, "to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer."…

Freedom cannot always be willed into existence; and that is why, as Baldwin went on to write two accomplished novels and a book of still more accomplished essays, he was forced to improvise a protest of his own: nonpolitical in character, spoken more in the voice of anguish than revolt, and concerned less with the melodrama of discrimination than the moral consequences of living under an irremovable stigma.

This highly personal protest Baldwin has released through a masterly use of the informal essay. Writing with both strength and delicacy, he has made the essay into a form that brings together vivid reporting, personal recollection and speculative thought….

[Especially] noteworthy are three essays on Richard Wright, which range in tone from disturbed affection to disturbing malice and reflect Baldwin's struggle to achieve some personal equilibrium as writer and Negro by discovering his true feelings toward the older man….

One great merit of his essays is their honesty in reflecting his own doubts and aggressions, and in recording his torturous efforts to find some peace in the relations between James Baldwin the lonely writer and James Baldwin the man who suffers as a Negro….

I have only one complaint to register against "Nobody Knows My Name." Partly because his work relies so heavily on a continuous scrutiny of his own responses, Baldwin succumbs at times to what Thorstein Veblen might have called the pose of conspicuous sincerity. In the essays on Wright and especially in a piece on Norman Mailer, the effort to expose the whole of his feelings slips occasionally into a mere attitude, and the confessional stance reveals some vanities of its own.

These are small blemishes on a splendid book. James Baldwin is a skillful writer, a man of fine intelligence and a true companion in the desire to make life human.

Irving Howe, "A Protest of His Own," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1961, p. 4.

Donald Malcolm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Baldwin [in "Nobody Knows My Name"] proves to be a steady and exact observer of himself and of others. He also qualifies eminently as a person for whom our society has not troubled to provide an identifying niche. In evidence of this, it is enough to say that he couples an uncomfortably acute intelligence with a measure of personal pride and that he is a Negro.

For convenience, we might divide Mr. Baldwin's essays into two heaps. The larger heap will contain his observations on a number of particular events that illuminate the peculiar situation of the Negro in a white world…. Their relation to the author's search for identity often is not an intimate one, but he argues for their inclusion on...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Dan Jacobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Notes of a Native Son remains, in my opinion, Mr. Baldwin's best book, either in fiction or non-fiction: it is more complex and more forceful than any of the others, more inward with the experience it seeks to describe and at the same time more detached from it. (p. 497)

We hear too often in these essays the voice of his will rather than the voice of his sensibility; there are too many examples of rhetoric, of exhortation, of uplift, of reproach, in the book, and they undoubtedly weaken the impact it makes. But the moral to be drawn from these faults is not at all that writers should eschew the political struggles into which their own deepest inclinations draw them. Anyone who might be...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

James Finn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Nobody Knows My Name] is confirmation that James Baldwin is one of America's finest writers. The essays are uneven; some are slight and dated already because of their subject, some simply deserve more thought than Baldwin has devoted to them. But in this book and in his earlier Notes of a Native Son he has frequently written with a combination of passion, insight and intelligence to which his prose is equal. What sets Baldwin apart from even the best of his contemporaries is that he is an unproclaimed moralist whose arguments and insights rest on traditional and, in the best sense, even conventional values. (pp. 288, 290)

James Finn, "Critics' Choices for...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Paul Goodman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Another Country," James Baldwin] studies the homosexuals and Negroes, often in parallel scenes. His plotting urges toward the breakdown of the barriers and the recovery of common humanity in love, a love that, in this book, invariably climaxes in sexual bouts. These are told frankly and pretty well, the homosexual ones somewhat better because they are less hectic and abrupt. The divisive barriers, on the other hand, he explores as far as sexual jealousy, and there are scenes of violence.

Unfortunately the persons of "Another Country" exist in a kind of vacuum: they do not have enough world to grow in, so love does not lead to community, procreation, productive collaboration, character change or...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Saul Maloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] Another Country, there are no effective controls—of form, of language, of moral content, of theme…. [Metaphorically, the "country" of the title] is that misty region on the nether side of society where alienated men and women act out the racial and sexual—and, improbably, the international, or at least the Franco-American—encounter. The characters—black and white, beat and square, irresolutely straight and avowedly homosexual—are in their variety meant to describe the topography of that other country, and to dramatize the way life is lived there….

Baldwin loses control almost immediately, and never recovers it; and the manner in which he fails lies at the heart of the...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

Edgar Z. Friedenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[When] I finished [Another Country], I felt as if I had become one of the minor characters in it, though less real and utterly outclassed sexually.

Even this is no threat. One cannot get lost in Baldwin's work because it is completely contiguous with reality; an extension of it in depth rather than a substitute for it. There is no sense of transition, merely of immensely heightened awareness and vividness and moral understanding….

Another Country is, in its implications, in some ways a profoundly conservative novel. In this respect, it resembles The Last of the Just, though I am less certain that the inferences one draws from that work are what [André]...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

James Finn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In spite of all that has been written about the Negro in America in the last decade or so, I think there is no more lucid, revealing and corruscating record than [Notes of a Native Son]. The intensity of feeling is matched by the brilliance of the thought, and it is difficult to grasp the moral effort that must have been required to bring to the surface, to place under the harsh light of critical examination, things that both black and white have for so long kept buried deep. (pp. 113-14)

Another Country is a novel whose parts are more successful than the whole, and the achievement in these parts is of such a high order and of such particularity that we will not, I think, find their...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Garry Wills

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Baldwin is a disarming man, against whom it is necessary to arm ourselves. Which, oddly enough, may be what he is trying to tell us.

[In The Fire Next Time he] has written an indictment of Western civilization—more precisely, of that civilization's religion, of "the white God"—that is carefully and consciously "outrageous." He edges toward us—in every sentence—his credentials as the most sensitive and discriminating articulator of Negro suffering; while, fully aware of the incongruity, he constructs an intricate sympathy for the crudest kind of Negro racism, that of Elijah Muhammad and his Black Muslims. There is virtuosity, even a dark gaiety in his anger: he does not try to...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Stephen Spender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Baldwin's power is his ability to express situations—the situation of being a Negro, and of being white, and of being human. Beyond this, he is perhaps too impatient to be a good novelist, and although he is a powerful essayist [as shown in The Fire Next Time] his experiences are so colored with feelings that he seems unable to relate the thoughts which arise from his feelings to parallel situations that have given rise to other men's thoughts. (p. 256)

Mr. Baldwin would admit, I think, that when (and this is quite often) he is guided by his emotions he finds himself in a position not far from that of the Black Muslims. He quite rightly resents the claims of whites that they are superior to...

(The entire section is 366 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. (p. 119)

[Baldwin] is a premonitory prophet, a fallible sage, a sooth-sayer, a bardic voice falling on deaf and delighted ears. These qualities...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

David Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Baldwin has come to represent for "white" Americans the eloquent, indignant prophet of an oppressed people, a voice speaking … in an all but desperate, final effort to bring us out of what he calls our innocence before it is (if it is not already) too late. This voice calls us to our immediate duty for the sake of our own humanity as well as our own safety. It demands that we stop regarding the Negro as an abstraction, an invisible man; that we begin to recognize each Negro in his "full weight and complexity" as a human being; that we face the horrible reality of our past and present treatment of Negroes—a reality we do not know and do not want to know.

This message has always formed the core of...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Howard Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Baldwin is a preacher and a rhapsodist. "Blues for Mister Charlie" is an angry sermon and a pain-wracked lament. It draws together the humiliation, degradation, frustration and resentment felt by millions relegated to second-class citizenship and transmutes the accumulated bitterness into a roar of fury. Listen attentively to Mr. Baldwin if you want to know the Negro who now is emerging from behind the noncommittal mask.

Mr. Baldwin is not quite so good with the white man. His fearful, unreconstructed white Southerners are close to caricature. His account of their ignorant, superstitious, malevolent opinions is probably well-founded. One can hear similar obscenities in the North.


(The entire section is 248 words.)

Philip Roth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The direction Blues for Mr. Charlie] takes is an expression of the will of one of the characters, Richard's father, who searches for the meaning of [his son's] murder for himself, for his son, and for the man who committed it….

[Richard] is rich with anger, and yet in the very first scene with his father, he surrenders to him the pistol he has brought back with him from the North, an act for which he will in the end have to pay with his life.

Why does he surrender the pistol? Meridian himself does not demand it, although his values may seem to. Instead, at his son's provocation, Meridian admits that the mother was in fact pushed, and did not slip as apparently he had once...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

C. B. COX and A. R. JONES

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Baldwin attempts to deal honestly with a number of sexual relationships most of which were taboo to previous writers. In Another Country it is suggested that security, order and common sense are illusions, and that only people like Rufus, Vivaldo, Cass and Eric, who submit themselves to the mystery and chaos of their emotions, are truly alive…. For Baldwin and his characters, sexual experience involves an entry into an unknown violent country…. Most people fear this journey into the unknown and never dare to examine the reality of their sexual impulses. In his treatment of sex, Baldwin has much in common with the writers examined by Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony. The descent into sexual experience...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Karl Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr Baldwin's enlistment in the cause of Civil Rights was bound to change his writings. It seems he has sacrificed them, or some of their resources…. His earlier essays were rich and good. But the intermittently powerful rhetoric of last year's The Fire Next Time—a fire kindled, it's the kind of thing that happens with such documents, in the asbestos pages of the New Yorker—has become the brutal and unqualified rhetoric of the present essay [Nothing Personal].

No one who visited America before the drive for Civil Rights properly began will doubt that there were decent people there whose lives were virtually unaffected by the racial situation…. Mr Baldwin should not pretend...

(The entire section is 343 words.)

Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nothing Personal pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America, but the people likely to buy this extravagant volume are the subscribers to fashion magazines, while the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic….

Baldwin's attacks are significant less for their familiar content than for the conditioned response they are expected to provoke in the reader—and, especially, for the format in which they appear. But lending himself to such an enterprise, Baldwin reveals that he is now part and parcel of the very things he is criticizing….

James Baldwin's rage is here inspired largely by opportunism, but while the...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Robert A. Bone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) is the best of Baldwin's novels, and the 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 storefront 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 which he has not attained again in the...

(The entire section is 2655 words.)

Howard Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fact that one has to wait until the final minutes of "The Amen Corner" for Sister Margaret to come truly alive is a clue to the shortcomings of Mr. Baldwin's early work. The structure of the play is elementary. The characterization is halting, and points are made obviously and repetitively.

Even in the much later "Blues for Mister Charlie," Mr. Baldwin had not mastered the dramatic form. "The Amen Corner," though it is not guilty of excesses of rhetoric, is often like an outline rather than a fully realized stage work. But unlike more craftsmanlike and emptier pieces, "The Amen Corner" has something to say. It throws some light on the barrenness of the lives of impoverished Negroes who seek...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Edward A. Watson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are several remarkable things about [Go Tell It on the Mountain], the most impressive of which is Baldwin's ability to make the experiences of the story immediate and definitive. He achieves this end through the use of his facile way with words and the oratorical flourish of the preacher. The immediacy is more strongly felt when we realize that Baldwin himself is preaching to us, not only in the way he knew as a boy preacher, but also as a persuasive writer reaching out to an audience. Also, his use of the flash-back technique without halting the action of the conversion is a formidable achievement especially for a first attempt in the novel. It would not be too much to compare Baldwin's success at...

(The entire section is 1729 words.)

Daniel Stern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Going to Meet the Man, Baldwin's first collection of short stories, is closer in spirit, tone, and achievement to his best critical work than it is to his "sensational" fiction. These are stories beautifully made to frame genuine experience in a lyrical language. They are, for the most part, free from the intellectual sin of confusing the Negro's (and/or the white man's) tragedy with the homosexual's psychic deformity. They sing with truth dug out from pain….

The stories in Going to Meet the Man demonstrate with stunning effect that James Baldwin has no need of racial or sexual special pleading. Free of these, at his best he is a rare creature.


(The entire section is 136 words.)

Stephen Donadio

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The stories in [Going to Meet the Man] add nothing to Mr. Baldwin's stature, nor do they diminish it by much. Five have appeared in print before; the other three are new and, for the most part, disappointing. Taken as a whole, the book traces the author's progress from "The Rockpile" and "The Outing," halting first steps toward the first novel, to his most recent work, which suffers from its journalistic conception. With the possible exception of the first two, all the stories tend to tear themselves apart. At best, they are composed in a prose oddly balanced between sheer banality and rhetoric as thick as jam. (p. 137)

While his writing labors under a burden of irrelevant subtlety, his...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

C.W.E. Bigsby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The continuing battle which Baldwin has waged with the spirit of Richard Wright, a battle which started in 1949 with the publication of his essay, 'Everybody's Protest Novel', is symptomatic of that tension which he was later to see, more sympathetically, in [Langston] Hughes's poetry. As evidence of this tension within his own work on the one hand he admits to a determinism not essentially different from Wright's and admits that 'we cannot escape our origins, however hard we try' while on the other he generalises from this and seeks to find in the Negro's experience an archetype for the human condition…. It is Baldwin's ability to maintain this distinction in his novels which raises his work above the naïve...

(The entire section is 1244 words.)

John Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Baldwin's language from his first writings has been distinguished. Precise, well-ordered, very sophisticated, it could describe extreme experiences with chill casualness, and apparently trivial experiences with a simple but effective use of extreme language that conveyed the underlying importance of the apparently trivial….

The material of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is not sensational in itself. In a particular and important way, violence is ever present and very important in the book, but there is no relishing of it, no gory details….

The author of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone is concerned with what moves his people. He is able to show us...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Mario Puzo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone"] is a simpleminded, one-dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters, a polemical rather than narrative tone, weak invention, and poor selection of incident. Individual scenes have people talking too much for what the author has to say and crucial events are "told" by one character to another rather than created. The construction of the novel is theatrical, tidily nailed into a predictable form.

It becomes clearer with each book he publishes that Baldwin's reputation is justified by his essays rather than his fiction. It may be that he is not a true or "born" novelist. But it must be said that his essays are as well written as any in our language; in...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Composed mostly in flashback, [Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone] follows Proudhammer through a bitter Harlem childhood, the birth of ambition toward the stage, a long love affair with a white actress, a homosexual love alongside that, the beginning of political awareness, a step toward identification with his people's new militancy.

A half-dozen themes, none of which is realized, none brought to any conclusion in the imagination, they exist almost as mutually exclusive, as though in setting out to do a big, complex, invented life Baldwin had been unable to find a principle of coherence for its parts…. [What] is missing is any sense of artistic inevitability, any conviction that things...

(The entire section is 323 words.)

Brian Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The particular social condition Baldwin diagnoses in his essays is the same one that makes the creation of a fictional world virtually impossible for a Negro novelist. His essays subtly explore the ambiguities and ironies of a life lived on two levels—that of the Negro, and that of the man—and they have spoken eloquently to and for a whole generation. But Baldwin's feelings about the condition—alternating moods of sadness and bitterness—are best expressed in the paradoxes confronting the haunted heroes of his novels and stories. (p. 169)

The possible modes of existence for anyone seeking refuge from a society which refuses to acknowledge one's humanity are necessarily limited, and Baldwin has...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Mike Thel Well

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Although Another Country] has its faults, and the most distracting of these have to do with an uncharacteristic note of sentimentality and too much of a self-consciously aphoristic and apocalyptic rhetoric, its accomplishments and its importance far outweigh these. Whether or not one agrees with the vision of the meaning of contemporary experience presented, no one denies that the book is an accurate, perceptive and truthful expression of the texture, feel and consistency of that experience. That is the first and major responsibility of the novelist. My own feeling and that of everyone I talked to when the book first came out was, despite anything else, "He is telling it like it is." I can not remember...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Walter Meserve

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fact that [Baldwin] equated playwriting with improving a troubled world [as he did in an observation made in high school] explains his theory of drama quite clearly. It may also explain why he is not a better playwright and why he has not written more plays. While the theatre brings the most immediate response for the propagandist; it also brings adverse criticism…. It is perhaps vital to note that although he used similar theses and argued the same points in his fiction and in his plays, he used different major characters in his plays which essentially remove Baldwin, his own model-hero, from the center of the work. For some reason the drama forces him to change his attitude toward his material….


(The entire section is 1835 words.)

Charles Deemer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Baldwin has long been a champion of the Person over the People. The fight against racial and other injustices, he argued as early as Notes of a Native Son (1955), begins with the heart's purification of hatred and despair. For Baldwin, the fight was with oneself: "my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart." Salvation must be personal before it can become social and political. (p. 37)

More than ever before, Baldwin fits much of his commentary [in No Name in the Street] into an ideological framework, albeit one in which the devil is more recognizable than the savior…. But the dramatic...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Anthony Bailey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[One has] the feeling that Malcolm X's life and death do not furnish the best vehicle by which even an immensely talented writer can express in cinematic terms the problems of race in America today. And finally one wonders if Baldwin himself was right to accept this particular job. In his recent prose works his evangelical fervour has been meshed with a marvellous, high style reminiscent of the masters of Rye, Sussex, and Oxford, Mississippi and seeming more natural to him than Harlem, Argot. The upshot, in [One Day, When I Was Lost] …, is the suggestion of a job of work energetically and demotically written and not altogether inspirited. Plenty of heart, if you like, but not enough soul. (p. 643)


(The entire section is 140 words.)

Bruce Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Baldwin's screenplay adaptation of [The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley] now published as One Day When I Was Lost, is no substitute for the original. Unfortunately, it is not much worth reading at all, except for those who have a special interest in Baldwin's career and its curious downward spiral during the last years. What ever has happened to him, anyway? He seems to have become increasingly isolated from America and its problems, perhaps even from himself, during the 1960s. This screenplay, about which there was a lot of talk just a few years ago, may have been a last major effort on his part to come to terms with something important in his own life. Perhaps on this level...

(The entire section is 656 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To consider the latest novel by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk …, is to re-evaluate more than a decade of Baldwin-watching. My response to his work has shifted from admiration of the arrogance of the early essays to rejection of the Old Testament predictability of the later fiction. Admittedly, the rejection of Baldwin's logic as a spokesman reflected a growing disenchantment with specific strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin's early work neatly fit that time, in terms of the assault on the so-called liberal conscience. Yet the history of the Sixties will be charted as a maze through which all of us were propelled, its horrors and beauties blurring thought, leaving us to sit in this...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A "protest play," unfortunately, always has a hard time of it artistically, and even more so if, like Baldwin, the playwright doth protest too much. And not only too much but too much too soon. Right at the outset [of Blues for Mister Charlie] we are clobbered with a tirade which is an inflammatory inventory of all the injustices toward the Negro, and, justified as these grievances are, they strike a false note: … Baldwin would shudder at the thought of having written a pop-art play. But that is what it is: pop art and agit-prop. (p. 48)

What is most serious is that the play pretends to be about racial injustice and the Negro's struggle for his human rights, while it is actually about...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Eric Rhode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With The Devil Finds Work] James Baldwin has written a commentary on the movies as visionary, and unusual, as D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classical American Literature.

The nature of his theme is hinted at in a recalling of a moment (the moment) of apostasy—when Baldwin decided to go to a proscribed theatre matinée, and in so doing, put in peril his religious calling…. He sees The Exorcist as an example of the power to possess that movies may have in an age almost without faith—and dismisses it for its 'hysterical banality'. In dismissing it, though, he enriches us by invoking once more his vision of life as an experience both terrible and terrifying (favoured...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Frederic Raphael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Devil Finds Work is a sermon with a celluloid text….

To take the movies as a source for instances of wilful bad faith is hardly a case of tendentiousness….

[There] are times here when Hollywood's falsenesses—even in such well-meaning pieces as In The Heat of The Night, The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner—are assumed to be more deliberate than they are likely to have been. There is only one thing which Hollywood tries to do on purpose and that is to make money….

I am not sure that [Baldwin] will ever be satisfied. He is so full of pity and terror that it would need a tragic medium more noble, more generally honoured...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of all the well-known novelists of the day, James Baldwin is among the warmest, the most companionable, the least ironic. So many contemporary writers seem incapable of presenting loyalty, innocence or happiness, especially family happiness, but Baldwin inhabits these feelings with great naturalness and intensity. He can show, as he does more than once in Just Above My Head, parents and children exchanging gifts at Christmas or during a reunion. The family members have tears in their eyes, not of regret but of anticipation, not of loneliness but of love. Looked at merely as a literary fashion (and it is, of course, much, much more), the direct depiction of such ardor is unique today; one has to go back to...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It isn't hard to see why James Baldwin in particular has chosen to shape his sixth novel along the lines of a saga in the contemporary mode. His fiction has often been attacked, notably by younger black writers in the 1960's, as too personal, too patently a working-out of inner conflict at the price of distorting the realities of race and racial conflict in America….

It may well be that "Just Above My Head" is Baldwin's attempt to answer such criticism. The novel takes in 30 years in the lives of a group of friends, who start out preaching and singing in Harlem churches, survive (or do not survive) incest, war, poverty, the civil-rights struggle, as well as wealth and love and fame…. (p. 3)...

(The entire section is 875 words.)

Stanley Crouch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is Baldwin's sentimental and poorly argued attempt to present homosexuality as some form of superior erotic enlightenment that continually slackens the power of Just Above My Head. The sentimentality results from a tendency to overstatement, pretension, and pomposity, as well as the creation of situations and responses the sole function of which is to prove the degradation of black people at the behest of racism and sexual convention. The degradation is wrought with existential cliches to demonstrate that suffering and alienation form the high road to awareness, and that he or she who is most painfully alienated is somehow most human and, as Robert Bone once angrily pointed out [see excerpt above], stands as...

(The entire section is 988 words.)

Margo Jefferson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Despite Baldwin's] absorption in culture's complexities and conundrums, despite his indictments of racism, his deepest impulses are religious, mythological and romantic. Certain themes emerge again and again in his work: that race does not exist, finally, except in a moral dimension; that we are one another's history and thus cannot abuse one another without abusing ourselves; that salvation and damnation are real, and depend upon our ability or our failure to love. Race and sex are the arenas in which we fight for love. Our racial and sexual histories are the opponents that must be bested….

[Love] is the principle that binds people in his novels—love between fathers and sons, men and men, men...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Just Above My Head is] a melancholy piece of creation. Swollen …, meandering, awkwardly colloquial, and pretentiously elevated by turns, the book agitatedly contains four or five major themes that never are brought into coherence with one another. Dealing with experiences that clearly have meant a great deal to Baldwin, it is a novel stuck halfway between life and art, with none of the originality or fatefulness of either.

The mélange of themes I mentioned includes family relationships, religious passion and its repudiation, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Baldwin's narrator, one Hall Montana, is in many respects his alter ego in a damaging...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Whitney Balliet

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The novelistic walls of "Just Above My Head" bulge and leak. But the form Baldwin chooses to write in no longer matters. His great and peculiar power is to re-create the maddening halfway house that the black man finds himself in in late-twentieth-century America. Baldwin is a prophet, a master of exhortation. Only weariness makes his voice crack. (p. 219)

Whitney Balliet, "Father and Son," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 41. November 26, 1979, pp. 218-19.

(The entire section is 80 words.)

Darryl Pinckney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moralistic fervor, a high literary seriousness, the authority of the survivor, of the witness—these qualities made Baldwin unique. In his best work, he is drawn to the ways in which life can go wildly wrong, to examinations of the damage done the individual by society. Another bloodied stone is always waiting to be turned over. A sense of mission has guided Baldwin's development as a writer. He was truly born with his subject matter, and yet for a long time his work showed a feeling of distrust for the promises of "pure" literature, a sense of its impotence, both personally and as a political weapon. In his youth Baldwin wanted to be identified not as a black but as a writer. It is a conflict he has never resolved....

(The entire section is 1016 words.)