Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Fred Standley, in his obituary for James Baldwin, quotes literary figures from Irving Howe and Norman Mailer to Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou as affirming that Baldwin was among the foremost American intellectuals of the twentieth century and that his essays, like those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken, have contributed centrally to the self-understanding of the people of the United States.
Notes of a Native Son was Baldwin’s second book. Together with Go Tell It on the Mountain and his regularly appearing short stories and essays in American magazines, this collection helped to establish Baldwin as a powerful and important voice in American culture. With this volume, Baldwin in effect claimed new territory for African American writers. Although he was not the first to call for freeing African Americans from having to write mainly about racial relations, he articulated an approach that he followed himself and that was taken up by younger writers, such as his friend Lorraine Hansberry. Fred Standley describes Baldwin’s approach well: “Autobiography becomes transformed into frequently unforgettable expressions of image and insight that transcend the specifics of personal experience to become the means of providing situations and statements of universal applicability that are then inferred to possess even more relevant individual significance.” This book was followed by several other important collections of his essays that elaborated and extended Baldwin’s ideas and influenced—by example and provocation—many writers and thinkers in the United States and throughout the world: Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), and The Price of the Ticket (1985).