Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

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.

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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 ,...

(The entire section contains 565 words.)

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Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)


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