Authors: James Baldwin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American expatriate writer known for his essays and novels dealing with US race relations

August 2, 1924

Harlem, New York

December 1, 1987

St. Paul de Vence, France

Biography

From the immediate critical success of Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s writings were well received by the intellectual community, but his fiction, which deals frankly and sympathetically with controversial issues such as civil rights and homosexuality, did not immediately win popular approval. Not until the 1974 publication of If Beale Street Could Talk did Baldwin make the best-seller list. In the meantime, he won awards ranging from a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948 to a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 to an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia in 1963 to election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.

Born out of wedlock in Harlem, Baldwin was the eldest of nine children, a fact that forced him to shoulder much of the day-to-day responsibility for his half brothers and sisters. In addition, his relationship with David Baldwin, his stepfather, was ambivalent at best. A carpenter and storefront preacher, David Baldwin intended to be both a good husband to Baldwin’s mother and a real father to young James. Yet Baldwin and his stepfather were never comfortable together, and home became an unbearable place for James, though his baby-sitting responsibilities required him to stay there most of the time.

James Baldwin

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(Library of Congress)

Young Baldwin fared little better outside the home, where his intellectualism and his physical unattractiveness alienated him from his peers and his blackness alienated him from the rest of society. Baldwin therefore turned inward for refuge, first to reading and then to writing. Though writing was not to be an easy escape, Baldwin soon realized that it was his only chance to get himself and his family out of the ghetto. Early aid from Richard Wright helped him secure a Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Award in 1945, and Baldwin began placing essays in The Nation, The New Leader, and Commentary. By 1948, he had gained enough recognition to win a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, which allowed him to escape to France, where he worked on his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Go Tell It on the Mountain, set in the 1930’s, deals with the dead-end existence of Harlem blacks. The novel tells the story of four people whose lives center on the Temple of the Fire Baptized, a storefront church like the one in which David Baldwin preached. The characters are desperate to change their fates, to escape Harlem’s limitations. Yet the available escapes seem worse than the conditions under which the characters live: Sex is a pleasant but temporary respite, drugs and alcohol relieve the symptoms but impoverish and finally kill their users, and stepping across the line into the white world is the most dangerous of all. Religion, says preacher Gabriel Grimes, provides the only real escape, but through the prayers of the adolescent John Grimes’s mother, stepfather, and aunt, Baldwin demonstrates that, ironically, religion may be the worst escape that these characters could choose.

Throughout this and his other novels, Baldwin probes the basic theme of isolation. His characters strive to establish an identity and to participate in activities that connect them with others. Society, however, keeps their lives fragmented and meaningless, and the racial stereotypes with which society labels these characters serve to deny them an individual identity by forcing a group identity on them. If “all blacks are alike,” then there can be no individual identity.

Sexuality, while it ultimately provides no escape, is nevertheless one way Baldwin’s characters fight against society’s impersonalizing pressures. In Baldwin’s works, sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is a way to assert one’s personhood and to establish individual, personal contact with an other. Baldwin skirted this issue in Go Tell It on the Mountain, but he dealt with it directly in the controversial Giovanni’s Room and expanded that treatment to its fullest in Another Country. In that work, Baldwin deplores the white culture, whose emphasis on success at any price alienates people by forcing them to compete against one another and by demanding that they conform to a cultural norm, an act that also forces them to deny their own identities. Within this context, sexual contact, whether with a person of the same or the opposite sex, the same or another race, the same or a different class, forces people to expose themselves, to get close to someone, to become vulnerable. Out of such moments, some, but by no means all, of Baldwin’s characters manage to build a whole life for themselves, a kind of refuge from the spite and the struggle of so-called normal society.

Baldwin’s heroes, therefore, are heroes because they succeed on a personal level, not because they bring about sweeping social change. In Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Baldwin uses Leo Proudhammer, an actor and civil rights activist, to demonstrate that it is these small successes that really matter, that if they are sustained, they eventually accumulate into a more powerful change than any one individual can bring. Thus, throughout his career, James Baldwin concentrated on individuals, allowing the social relevance in his novels to emerge as a result of the problems of his characters, rather than building his characters around a social issue. The result is a convincing, humane body of literature.

In addition to fiction, Baldwin wrote essays and nonfiction books dealing with racism and anti-Semitism, among other topics. He also made forays into drama and poetry, with three play scripts, one screenplay, and two volumes of poems to his name.

James Baldwin died of stomach cancer in St. Paul de Vence, France, on December 1, 1987. After his death, previously unpublished material was made publicly available through The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2011) and director Raoul Peck's 2017 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

Author Works Long Fiction: Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953 Giovanni’s Room, 1956 Another Country, 1962 Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, 1968 If Beale Street Could Talk, 1974 Just above My Head, 1979 Short Fiction: Going to Meet the Man, 1965 Drama: The Amen Corner, pr. 1954 Blues for Mister Charlie, pr., pb. 1964 A Deed from the King of Spain, pr. 1974 Screenplay: One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1972 Poetry: Jimmy’s Blues: Selected Poems, 1983 Gypsy & Other Poems, 1989 Nonfiction: Notes of a Native Son, 1955 Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, 1961 The Fire Next Time, 1963 Nothing Personal, 1964 (with Richard Avedon) Menschenwürde und Gerechtigkeit, 1969 (with Kenneth D. Kaunda) No Name in the Street, 1971 A Rap on Race, 1971 (with Margaret Mead) César: Compressions d'or, 1973 (with Françoise Giroud) A Dialogue, 1975 (with Nikki Giovanni) The Devil Finds Work, 1976 The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 1985 The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, 1985 Perspectives: Angles on African Art, 1987 Conversations with James Baldwin, 1989 (Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt, editors) Collected Essays, 1998 The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, 2011 (Randall Garrett Kenan, editor) James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, 2014 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood, 1975 Miscellaneous Vintage Baldwin, 2004 I Am Not Your Negro, 2017 (with Raoul Peck) Bibliography Balfour, Lawrie Lawrence, and Katherine Lawrence Balfour. The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Explores the political dimension of Baldwin’s essays, stressing the politics of race in American democracy. Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking Press, 1991. Narrative biography organized into five sections, each focusing on a particular period of Baldwin’s life. Places Baldwin’s work within the context of his times. Includes detailed notes and bibliography. Daniels, Lee A. "James Baldwin, Eloquent Writer In Behalf of Civil Rights, Is Dead." The New York Times, 2 Dec. 1987, p. 1. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-obit.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017. Discusses the content and tone of Baldwin's writing and recalls his activism. Includes quotes about him from contemporary writers and excerpts from several of his books. Fabré, Michel. “James Baldwin in Paris: Love and Self-Discovery.” In From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Discusses Baldwin’s Paris experiences. Brings biographical details to the European experiences of the bicontinental playwright, who owed France “his own spiritual growth, through the existential discovery of love as a key to life.” The notes offer interview sources of quotations for further study. Harris, Trudier, ed. New Essays on “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Collection of essays examines the composition, themes, publication history, public reception, and contemporary interpretations of Baldwin’s first novel. Some of the essays discuss Baldwin’s treatment of God, the American South, and homosexuality in the novel. Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974. An introduction to Baldwin’s early work featuring a collection of diverse essays by such well-known figures as Irving Howe, Langston Hughes, Sherley Anne Williams, and Eldridge Cleaver. Includes a chronology of important dates, notes on the contributors, and a select bibliography. Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. A biography of Baldwin written by one who knew him and worked with him for the last quarter century of his life. Provides extensive literary analysis of Baldwin’s work and relates his work to his life. McBride, Dwight A., ed. James Baldwin Now. New York: New York University Press, 1999. Collection of essays reevaluates Baldwin’s work, stressing the usefulness of interdisciplinary approaches in understanding Baldwin’s appeal, political thought and work, and legacy. The contributors maintain that Baldwin was not an exclusively gay, expatriate, black, or activist writer but instead was a complex combination of all of those things. Miller, D. Quentin, ed. Re-viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000. Collection of essays explores the ways in which Baldwin’s writing touched on issues that confront all people, including race, identity, sexuality, and religious ideology. Works analyzed include the novels Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Just Above My Head. O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981. This useful introduction to Baldwin groups essays in six categories such as “Baldwin as Novelist,” “Baldwin as Essayist,” and “Baldwin as Playwright.” Supplemented by a detailed bibliography, notes on contributors, and an index. Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Originally a doctoral dissertation; the author expanded his original material and published it following Baldwin’s death. Porter attempts to relate Baldwin to the larger African American tradition of social protest. Pratt, Louis H. James Baldwin. Boston: Twayne, 1978. This well-balanced evaluation of Baldwin emphasizes the artist and his literary art. Pratt firmly believes that Baldwin’s major contribution to American letters is in the essay form. Complemented by a chronology, a select bibliography, and an index. Romanet, Jerome de. “Revisiting Madeleine and ‘The Outing’: James Baldwin’s Revision of Gide’s Sexual Politics.” MELUS 22 (Spring, 1997): 3-14. A discussion of Baldwin’s story “The Outing” in terms of its contrast with André Gide’s Calvinist guilt. Discusses sexual identity in this story and other Baldwin fictions. Argues that Baldwin’s exile in France was as concerned with racial identity as with sexual emancipation. Sanderson, Jim. “Grace in ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” Short Story, n.s. 6 (Fall, 1998): 85-95. Argues that Baldwin’s most famous story illustrates his integration of the personal with the social in terms of his residual evangelical Christianity. Argues that at the end of the story when the narrator offers Sonny a drink, he puts himself in the role of Lord, and Sonny accepts the cup of wrath; the two brothers thus regain grace by means of the power of love. Scott, Lynn Orilla. James Baldwin’s Later Fiction: Witness to the Journey. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002. Analyzes the decline of Baldwin’s reputation after the 1960’s, the ways in which critics have often undervalued his work, and the interconnected themes in his body of work. Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review 32 (Winter, 1998): 691-705. A discussion of Houston Baker’s notion of the “blues matrix” in Baldwin’s story; examines the story’s treatment of black culture in America as reflected by jazz and the blues. Discusses how the “blues text” of the story represents how intracultural narratives have influenced the destinies of African Americans. Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. An attempt to anthologize the important criticism on Baldwin in one definitive volume. More than thirty-five articles focus on Baldwin’s essays, fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. This overview of Baldwin’s work provides an aesthetic perspective, a bibliographical summary, and an analysis of individual works, with greatest emphasis given to Baldwin’s plays, novels, and short stories. Tomlinson, Robert. “‘Payin’ One’s Dues’: Expatriation as Personal Experience and Paradigm in the Works of James Baldwin.” African American Review 33 (Spring, 1999): 135-148. A discussion of the effect of life as an exile in Paris had on Baldwin. Argues that the experience internalized the conflicts he experienced in America. Suggests that Baldwin used his homosexuality and exile as a metaphor for the experience of the African American. Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. Contains eighteen essays by and about Baldwin, five of which were written for this collection, and homage and celebration from many who were profoundly influenced by him, including Pat Mikell’s account of Baldwin’s last days in St. Paul de Vence. With a foreword by Wole Soyinka. Tsomondo, Thorell. “No Other Tale to Tell: ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and ‘Waiting for the Rain.’” Critique 36 (Spring, 1995): 195-209. Examines how art and history are related in “Sonny’s Blues.” Discusses the story as one in which a young musician replays tribal history in music. Argues that the story represents how African American writers try to reconstruct an invalidated tradition. Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989. Lengthy personal reminiscence of Baldwin by a close friend who calls his biography a portrait. Based on conversations with more than one hundred people who knew Baldwin. Rich in intimate detail; reveals the man behind the words.

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