Baldwin Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room depicts a gay relationship in a manner strikingly more explicit than previous works of fiction. It is a groundbreaking novel not merely because it is the first explicit account of gay sex in American fiction but also because it is the first American gay novel that tells the story of a man, not a “case study” or a “type.”

Summary of Event

When Giovanni’s Room appeared in 1956, James Baldwin was already a respected novelist, having enjoyed the critical and commercial success of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Go Tell It on the Mountain (Baldwin) in 1953. This first novel hints at homosexual themes in the coming-of-age story of its protagonist, fourteen-year-old John Grimes. Giovanni’s Room, on the other hand, is explicitly about a homosexual love affair and its protagonist’s tortured struggle with his sexual identity. [kw]Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room (1956) [kw]Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin Publishes (1956) Giovanni’s Room (Baldwin)[Giovannis Room] Literature;gay [c]Literature;1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room[0500] [c]Publications;1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room[0500] Baldwin, James

As the story opens, David, a white American man living in Paris, is engaged to a young woman named Hella, who is away in Spain on an extended vacation. While she is gone, David meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender at a gay bar. David and Giovanni immediately begin an intense love affair, and David moves in with Giovanni, who lives in a small rented room in a working-class section of Paris. Urban life;and gay literature[gay literature] For the many weeks that Hella is away, David and Giovanni live almost as a married couple, with Giovanni going off to work in the evenings and David taking “a kind of pleasure in playing the housewife.” Whenever he leaves the room, however, David is beset by an inner struggle that goes to the core of his identity.

James Baldwin.

( John Hoppy Hopkins)

For David, Giovanni’s room comes to represent his homosexual desires, which are a source of deep conflict for him: He is repulsed by his own behavior, even as he finds deep pleasure in sex with Giovanni. When Hella returns to Paris, David abandons Giovanni. He and Hella make plans to move together to the south of France, and they prepare for their wedding. Before Hella and David leave Paris, David visits Giovanni one last time and explains why he has returned to Hella.

“I can have a life with her.…What kind of life can we have in this room?—this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway?…You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food…and be your little girl.…And you take me because you haven’t got the guts to go after a woman, which is what you really want? . . .”

“But I’m a man…a man! What do you think can happen between us?”

“You know very well,” said Giovanni slowly, “what can happen between us. It is for that reason you are leaving me.”

As soon as David and Hella leave Paris, David loses all sexual interest in her, and before long she realizes why. When she leaves him, David is left alone and as confused as ever, paralyzed with indecision, unable to reconcile his sexual desires with his desire for a “normal” life.


James Baldwin encountered a great deal of difficulty in getting Giovanni’s Room published, mainly because of its sexual content. Although by no means the first major American novel to focus on a gay character or a gay love affair, Giovanni’s Room was at the time of its publication by far the most frank and explicit account of gay sex in American fiction.

Nevertheless, despite the publishers’ apparent doubts, the book was on the whole well received by critics in the mainstream press. In his review of the book for Saturday Review (“A Squalid World,” December 1, 1956), David Karp writes, “Mr. Baldwin has taken a very special theme and treated it with great artistry and restraint [and] has managed to instil in one reader, at least, a greater tolerance, a fresher sense of pity.” However, reviews in African American publications were mixed. For instance, James Ivy’s review in The Crisis, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, disparaged Baldwin for “wasting” his talent on a book about a white man’s gay love affair.

Critics also noted the difference between Giovanni’s Room and the gay fiction that had come before. To a number of critics, this difference made the novel superior to earlier gay literature. A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle (December 2, 1956), for example, thought that “David’s struggle has dignity and compassion that raise it far above a homosexual case study like Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar [1948],” and novelist Nelson Algren, writing for The Nation (December 1, 1956), saw the novel as “more than another report on homosexuality. It is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” Giovanni’s Room is the story of a man, not a “case study.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Dial, 1956.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeGout, Yasmin Y. “Dividing the Mind: Contradictory Portraits of Homoerotic Love in Giovanni’s Room.” African American Review 26, no. 3 (Fall, 1992): 425-435.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Escoffier, Jeffrey. “Homosexuality and the Sociological Imagination: The 1950’s and 1960’s.” In A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited with an introduction by Martin Duberman. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson-Roullier, Cyraina E. Reading on the Edge: Exiles, Modernities, and Cultural Transformation in Proust, Joyce, and Baldwin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leeming, David Adams. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levin, James. The Gay Novel in America. New York: Garland, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zaborowska, Magdalena J. “Mapping American Masculinities: James Baldwin’s Innocents Abroad, or Giovanni’s Room Revisited.” In Other Americans, Other Americas: The Politics and Poetics of Multiculturalism. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1998.

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1963: Rechy Publishes City of Night

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1975: First Novel About Coming Out to Parents Is Published

1980-1981: Gay Writers Form the Violet Quill

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

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Categories: History