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.)