Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
Notes of a Native Son was probably the single most impressive work of cultural criticism to emerge from the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950’s. It gained widespread attention and may have influenced the increasing sympathy for the plight of blacks among liberal Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The black writers that followed Baldwin have had to acknowledge his presence and his ideas even when they disagreed with him. The controversy generated by Baldwin’s attack on Wright and protest fiction set the course for much of the literary debate about black writing. More radical writers, such as Eldridge Cleaver, have often disapproved of Baldwin’s treatment of political issues, insisting that black American writing had to be based on fervent political protest. Others, most notably Ralph Ellison, have shared Baldwin’s belief in the primary need for an essentially symbolic affirmation of black humanity within American culture.
Baldwin went on to write many other essays and to produce several nonfiction books, the most important of which are Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), and No Name in the Street (1971). These works show an increasing dissatisfaction with the failure of Americans to recognize and correct the reality of racial injustice. By the time he wrote his new introduction for Notes of a Native Son in 1984, he complained of the years of unkept promises and saw little reason for optimism.
Baldwin also wrote novels, plays, and short stories, and during his life he was generally regarded as one of the two or three most important American black writers. The general critical assessment is that he was a writer of great talent who never quite fulfilled the promise shown in his early work. When he reviewed Notes of a Native Son for The New York Times, Langston Hughes praised it highly, stating that he preferred Baldwin’s essays to his fiction. It seems possible that Baldwin’s importance in American literary history may rest more on his skillful handling of the essay form in works such as Notes of a Native Son than on his novels.