Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Notes of a Native Son is a collection of ten essays that James Baldwin published in magazines such as Commentary, Harper’s, and The Partisan Review between 1948 and 1955. It also includes “Autobiographical Notes,” written for this volume. Taken together, the essays reveal self-knowledge, cultural understanding, and articulateness that are astonishing when one considers that Baldwin wrote these essays without the benefit of a formal college education and before he was thirty years old. Baldwin makes clear in “Autobiographical Notes” that he was driven to be a writer, to use his imagination on his own experience, and thereby to create order out of chaos by facing his past and America’s past fearlessly and honestly. To make himself into a writer, he had to become articulate, to understand and come to terms with his culture, and to know himself. The essays of Notes of a Native Son present the outlines of his quests and show what he had learned by 1955.

The book is divided into three sections. The three essays of the first section are cultural commentaries on representations of the African American in the arts. They show Baldwin’s mature assessment of the complexity of his position as an African American intellectual. The three essays of the second part examine aspects of African American life during and shortly after World War II. These essays show Baldwin’s origins, the home and the culture that he had to understand in order to become himself. The four essays of the third part discuss Baldwin’s experiences living in Europe. These pieces reveal the crucial process by which Baldwin gained—through expatriation—the distance from his cultural history that allowed him to know and accept the identity from which he speaks in all the essays.

Although the outlines of Baldwin’s quest to become a writer are apparent in this collection, and although certain concerns—such as identity and culture—pervade the essays, the topics are various. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” the opening piece, Baldwin notes that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) seem both to accept the American theology of...

(The entire section is 925 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Notes of a Native Son established James Baldwin as one of the most important black essayists in the United States. Yet, as he explained in the introduction added to the 1984 edition, Baldwin had not originally intended to produce a book of essays. His need to understand himself and his place in American culture led him to write a series of magazine articles grappling with the special problems facing black Americans. The success of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and of his first play, The Amen Corner (1954), had aroused interest in his work, but Baldwin found publishers reluctant to accept his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), because of its frank treatment of homosexuality. In order to earn enough money to go on writing fiction, Baldwin agreed to gather together nine of his previously published articles and write the title essay as well as a brief preface.

Although it originated as a series of separate magazine pieces, Notes of a Native Son is unified by recurring themes and by the arrangement of the essays. The book is divided into three parts and a preface, “Autobiographical Notes,” which introduces Baldwin’s determination to be “an honest man and a good writer.” The preface’s brief account of his childhood and emerging literary aspirations not only provides background for the essays that follow but also establishes the book’s dominant underlying theme: a black artist’s search for his identity. Baldwin explicitly recognizes that “the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality.” He goes on to argue that the black writer must find a way to overcome hatred and fear in order to provide an honest assessment of both his own personal experience and his complex, often painful relationship to American society and Western culture.

The three essays in part 1 attack the inadequate or dishonest treatment of the black experience in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and the film Carmen Jones (1955). Baldwin’s central point is that the traditions in which...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Baldwin wrote and published most of the essays in this collection during the late 1940s and early 1950s, decades during which the Civil...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Baldwin uses a variety of narrators in his essays. Sometimes he prefers to use the first person singular, such as in...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1900s: Several newspapers with a focus on African- American issues are in circulation. Two of these publications are Samuel E....

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Baldwin mentions the Progressive Party of the United States in his essay ‘‘Journey to Atlanta.’’ Research the history of this...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Native Son (1940) is Richard Wright’s first published novel. The main character, Bigger Thomas, a young man living in Chicago during...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Campbell, James, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, Viking, 1991.

Dupee, F. W.,...

(The entire section is 453 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Baldwin, James and Sol Stein. Native Sons: A Friendshipo that Created One of the Greatest Works of the Twentieth Century. New York: One World, 2004. A collection of letters and other documentation exchanged between Baldwin and Stein concerning the creation of Notes of a Native Son.

Bigsby, C. W. E. “The Divided Mind of James Baldwin.” In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977. A lucid discussion of the major themes of some of the essays in Notes of a Native Son, including the centrality of love and suffering, and Baldwin’s...

(The entire section is 696 words.)