Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Critical Overview

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Notes of a Native Son, when first published in 1955, did not sell well. However, when it was reissued in paperback form in 1957, after the publication of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, it received outstanding reviews and brisk sales and would go on to become one of the most popular of all Baldwin’s works.

An example of the praise that Baldwin received for Notes of a Native Son comes from Baldwin’s biographer Leeming, who writes, ‘‘With the publication of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin staked a large claim in an area of American literary territory inhabited by such masters of the essay and autobiography as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass.’’ Leeming would add that Baldwin ‘‘leads the white consciousness through the horrors of the black dilemma, not without passion, but with the subtlety and elegance of a Henry James.’’

In Nick Aaron Ford’s essay ‘‘The Evolution of James Baldwin as Essayist,’’ Ford states, ‘‘James Baldwin is one of the most talented American essayists since Ralph Waldo Emerson.’’ Ford continues:

Like Emerson . . . his major thrust is not to impart abstract or concrete knowledge, but to provoke humane thought and announce eternal truths intended to elevate the consciousness of the reader from animal passion to spiritual or philosophical contemplation.

Another noted African-American author, also a contemporary of Baldwin’s, was Langston Hughes, who wrote a review of Notes of a Native Son for the New York Times in which he describes Baldwin:

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.

Hughes believed that there were few writers in America who could ‘‘handle words more effec- tively in the essay’’ than Baldwin. Hughes adds: ‘‘In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.’’

James Campbell wrote Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, in which he praises Baldwin’s gift as essayist, a type of writing in which Baldwin was best able to display his intellect. ‘‘The essay form enabled Baldwin to write as he spoke, to unfold his experience by discursive methods, until he came upon the meaning at the core.’’ In a more specific analysis of Notes of a Native Son, Campbell writes:

Notes of a Native Son unharnesses his gift for autobiographical rumination, his willingness to force his way into new and awkward challenges. The greatest challenge of all was to be free to set his own terms for the course of his life. . . . In order to achieve this, to slough off the old ‘nigger’ identity he had inherited, he had to invent another way of thinking about himself. The essay was the place to do it, and the didactic process is laid out in the pages of Notes of a Native Son.

In his ‘‘From a Region in My Mind, The Essays of James Baldwin,’’ Hobart Jarrett declares that Baldwin is ‘‘a writer by choice, by talent, by calling.’’ Jarrett does not temper his admiration of Baldwin and goes on to state that from the first time he read Baldwin, he has been ‘‘stimulated, exhilarated, and amazed by his essays ever since.’’

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Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)


Essays and Criticism