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James Baldwin is recognized as one of the most important writers in post-World War II American literature. In his works he exposed racial and sexual polarization in American society and challenged readers to confront and resolve these differences. Baldwin’s influence and popularity reached their peak during the 1960s, when he was regarded by many as the leading literary spokes man of the civil rights movement. His novels, essays, and other writings attest to his premise that the black American, as an object of suffering and abuse, represents a universal symbol of human conflict.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Much of Baldwin’s work is based on his unhappy childhood and adolescence. He was born and raised in Harlem under very trying circumstances. His stepfather, an evangelical preacher, struggled to support a large family and demanded the most rigorous religious behavior from his nine children. According to John W. Roberts, ”Baldwin’s ambivalent relationship with his stepfather served as a constant source of tension during his formative years and informs some of his best mature writings. . . . The demands of caring for younger siblings and his stepfather’s religious convictions in large part shielded the boy from the harsh realities of Harlem street life during the 1930s.” As a youth Baldwin read constantly and even tried his hand at writing. He once noted, ”For me writing was an act of love. It was an attempt—not to get the world’s attention—it was an attempt to be loved. It seemed a way to save myself and to save my family. It came out of despair. And it seemed the only way to another world.” During the summer of his fourteenth birthday he underwent a dramatic religious conversion, partly in response to his emerging sexuality and partly as a further buffer against the omnipresent temptations of drugs and crime. Baldwin served as a junior minister for three years at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, but gradually he lost his desire to preach as he began to question blacks’ acceptance of Christian tenets that had, in essence, been used to enslave them.
Shortly after his conversion, Baldwin was accepted at De Witt Clinton High School, a predominantly white, Jewish school in the Bronx. This new environment was also a cause of Baldwin’s reassessment and eventual rejection of his religious stance. Soon after he graduated in 1942, Baldwin was compelled to find work in order to help support his brothers and sisters. He took a job in the defense industry in Belle Meade, New Jersey, and there, not for the first time, he was confronted with racism, discrimination, and the debilitating regulations of segregation. Baldwin’s disagreeable experiences in New Jersey were closely followed by his stepfather’s death, after which Baldwin determined to make writing his sole profession. He moved to Greenwich Village and began to write a novel, and supported himself by performing a variety of odd jobs. In 1944 he met African-American author Richard Wright, who helped him obtain the 1945 Eugene F. Saxton fellowship. Despite the financial freedom the fellowship provided, Baldwin was unable to complete his novel that year. Moreover, he found the social and cultural tenor of the United States increasingly stifling. Eventually, in 1948, he moved to Paris, using funds from a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship to pay his passage. Most critics believe that this journey abroad was fundamental to Baldwin’s development as a writer.
Life and Work Abroad
”Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean,” Baldwin told the New York Times, ”I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” Through some difficult financial and emotional periods, the young author undertook a process of self-realization that included both an acceptance of his heritage and an admittance of his homosexuality. Robert A. Bone noted that Europe gave Baldwin many things: ”It gave him a world perspective from which to approach the question of his own identity. It gave him a tender love affair which would dominate the pages of his later fiction. But above all, Europe gave him back himself. The immediate fruit of self-recovery was a great creative outburst. First came two [works] of reconciliation with his racial heritage. Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner represent a search for roots, a surrender to tradition, an acceptance of the Negro past. Then came a series of essays which probe, deeper than anyone has dared, the psychic history of this nation. They are a moving record of a man’s struggle to define the forces that have shaped him, in order that he may accept himself.”
Baldwin’s fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s was primarily influenced by his involvement in the civil rights movement. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) centers on two brothers and their different attempts to escape the ghetto; one finds success in the entertainment industry, while the other is nearly destroyed by racism and violence. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) further examined blacks living in a hostile environment. In Just above My Head (1979), Baldwin returned to his earlier themes of religion and sexuality in a complex story of a homosexual gospel singer. Although these works were best-sellers, they signaled for most critics a decline in Baldwin’s creative talents due to his reliance on didacticism. In a 1985 interview, Baldwin discussed his erratic literary position: The rise and fall of one’s reputation. What can you do about it? I think that comes with the territory. . . . Any real artist will never be judged in the time of his time; whatever judgment is delivered in the time of his time cannot be trusted.”
Nonfiction and Drama
Although Baldwin is best known as a novelist, his nonfiction works have also received substantial critical acclaim. The essay Every body’s Protest Novel,” published in 1949, introduced him to the New York intelligentsia and generated controversy for its attack on authors of protest fiction, including Richard Wright, who, Baldwin maintained, perpetuated rather than condemned negative racial stereotypes. While Baldwin viewed this piece as an exploration of the thematic options that black writers could follow, Wright considered it a personal affront and subsequently terminated his professional alliance with Baldwin. Nevertheless, critics praised Baldwin for his perceptive analysis of protest literature and for his lucid prose.
At the time of his death from stomach cancer late in 1987, Baldwin was still working on two projects—a play, The Welcome Table, and a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although he lived primarily in France, he had never relinquished his United States citizenship and preferred to think of himself as a commuter” rather than as an expatriate.
Works in Literary Context
Baldwin’s fiction was highly autobiographical, drawing upon his own experiences growing up with a difficult and domineering father, and his experiences with racism and homosexuality as an adult.
Baldwin was hailed by critics as a major novelist and a worthy successor to Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright following the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. The book dramatizes the events leading to the religious confirmation of John Grimes, a sensitive Harlem youth struggling to come to terms with his confusion over his sexuality and his religious upbringing. At the core of the novel is a family’s legacy of brutality and hate, augmented by the destructive relationship between John and his stepfather, a fundamentalist preacher whose insecurities over his own religious commitment result in his abusive treatment of John and his emotional neglect of the family. Baldwin earned unanimous praise for his skillful evocation of his characters’ squalid lives and for his powerful language, which some critics likened to a fire-and-brimstone oratory.
While most critics regarded Go Tell It on the Mountain as a cathartic novel in which Baldwin attempted to resolve the emotional anguish of his adolescence, others viewed his next work, Giovanni’s Room, as the one in which he openly confronted his homosexuality. The novel was controversial, because Baldwin was one of the first black writers to openly discuss homo sexuality in his fiction. Giovanni’s Room, which is set in Paris, is the story of an ill-fated love affair between a white American student and an Italian bartender. Many critics were outraged by Baldwin’s blunt language and his polemic topic, though some reviewers echoed David Littlejohn’s assessment that the work is ”certainly one of the most subtle novels of the homosexual world.” Baldwin continued his investigation of sexual politics in the novel Another Country (1962), which provoked even more debate. Although it received largely negative reviews due to Baldwin’s candid depiction of sexual relations, some commentators considered Another Country superior to Giovanni’s Room in terms of thematic scope and descriptive quality.
In the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961). Baldwin optimistically examined the condition of race relations in the United States and abroad. The essays that range from poignant autobiographical remembrances to scholarly literary and social criticism. He also used personal experience to address the problems artists face when drawn to political activism. His next nonfiction work, The Fire Next Time was a passionate plea for reconciliation between the races and a manifesto for black liberation. As racial tensions escalated in the mid-1960s, Baldwin’s vision of America turned increasingly bitter and his prose more inflammatory. After the publication of No Name in the Street (1972), Baldwin was faulted for abandoning his deft powers of persuasion in favor of rhetoric and was accused by some of racism.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have accorded Baldwin high praise for both his style and his themes. ”Baldwin has carved a literary niche through his exploration of ‘the mystery of the human being’ in his art,” observed Louis H. Pratt in James Baldwin. Saturday Review correspondent Benjamin De Mott concluded that Baldwin ”retains a place in an extremely select group: That composed of the few genuinely indispensable American writers.”
However, his work was also controversial in some quarters. Because Baldwin sought to inform and confront whites, and because his fiction contains interracial love affairs, he came under attack from writers of the Black Arts Movement, who called for a literature exclusively by and for blacks. Baldwin refused to align himself with the movement; he continued to call himself an ”American writer” as opposed to a ”black writer” and continued to confront the issues facing a multi-racial society. Eldridge Cleaver, in his book Soul on Ice (1968), accused Baldwin of a hatred of black people and a ”shameful, fanatical fawning” love of whites. What Cleaver saw as complicity with whites, Baldwin saw rather as an attempt to alter the real daily environment with which black Americans have been faced all their lives.
The publication of his collected essays, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 (1985), and his sub sequent death sparked reassessments of his career and commentary on the quality of his lasting legacy. ”Mr. Baldwin has become a kind of prophet, a man who has been able to give a public issue all its deeper moral, historical, and personal significance,” remarked Robert F. Sayre. Perhaps the most telling demonstration of the results of Baldwin’s achievement comes from other black writers. Orde Coombs, for instance, concluded that ”[because] he existed we felt that the racial miasma that swirled around us would not consume us, and it is not too much to say that this man saved our lives, or at least, gave us the necessary ammunition to face what we knew would continue to be a hostile and condescending world.” Playwright and poet Amiri Baraka offered similar thoughts in his eulogy to Baldwin. ”This man traveled the earth like its history and its biographer,” Baraka said. In a posthumous tribute for the Washington Post, Juan Williams wrote: ”The success of Baldwin’s effort as the witness is evidenced time and again by the people, black and white, gay and straight, famous and anonymous, whose humanity he unveiled in his writings.”
Baldwin had a difficult time getting Giovanni’s Room published in the United States, largely because of the explicit depiction of homosexual relationships. Critical responses have been mixed to this endeavor to treat the physical and psychological aspects of male love: Anthony West acknowledged the solemnity of the story but advocated that it ”described a passade, a riffle in the surface of life, that completely lacks the validity of actual experience”; on the other hand, David Karp insisted that Baldwin had taken ”a very special theme” and treated it with ”great artistry and restraint,” and Stanley Macebuh praised the work as ”one of the few novels in America in which the homosexual sensibility is treated with some measure of creative seriousness.”
The varied critical response to the novel was Bald win’s introduction to the racialized literary world. Many reviewers, such as Leslie Fiedler, seemed disturbed that a novel by an African-American writer did not feature any African-American characters. In February 1957 James Ivy reviewed Giovanni’s Room for The Crisis, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, under the title ”Faerie Queens.” He lamented the fact that Baldwin, already known as an advocate for African-Americans, wasted his talent writing about a homosexual affair involving white men.
The Fire Next Time
Many critics view Baldwin’s essays as his most significant contribution to American literature. Works such as The Fire Next Time ”serve to illuminate the condition of the black man in twentieth-century America,” according to Louis H. Pratt. Highly personal and analytical, the essays probe deeper than the mere provincial problems of white versus black to uncover the essential issues of self-determination, identity, and reality. South Atlantic Quarterly contributor Fred L. Standley asserted that this quest for personal
identity is indispensable in Baldwin’s opinion and the failure to experience such is indicative of a fatal weakness in human life.” C. W. E. Bigsby elaborated in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama: ”Baldwin’s central theme is the need to accept reality as a necessary foundation for individual identity and thus a logical prerequisite for the kind of saving love in which he places his whole faith.” Ultimately, The Fire Next Time very likely helped ”in restoring the personal essay to its place as a form of creative literature,” as John Henrik Clarke has asserted.
- Champion, Ernest A. Mr. Baldwin, I Presume: James Baldwin—Chinua Achebe, A Meeting of the Minds. Lanham: Md.: University Press of America, 1995.
- Eckman, Fern Marja. The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. New York: M. Evans, 1966.
- Gottfried, Ted. James Baldwin: Voice from Harlem. New York: F. Watts, 1997.
- Kenan, Randall. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
- King, Malcolm. Baldwin: Three Interviews Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985.
- Kinnamon, Kenneth, ed. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
- O’Daniel, Therman B. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977.
- Standley, Fred, and Nancy Standley. James Baldwin: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
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