James Baldwin: Background
Baldwin was born James Arthur Jones on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York, to Emma Berdis Jones, a single mother. A few years later Emma married David Baldwin, who adopted the boy, who then took his stepfather's surname. From an early age Baldwin was interested in reading and writing, and he cited such authors as Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Dickens among his major literary influences. Although he wanted to pursue writing full-time, Baldwin had to set aside his literary ambitions in order to help his parents support their ever-increasing family. He had a contentious relationship with his evangelical preacher father, and this, coupled with a burgeoning sense of his own sexuality, deeply affected Baldwin. Struggling to find acceptance for himself while attempting to reconcile his sexual preferences within the context of his religious background, Baldwin underwent a dramatic religious conversion at the age of fourteen. Eventually he turned away from religion, but the conflict between his sexual orientation and traditional spirituality, as well as his difficult relationship with his father, were themes that resonated in Baldwin's later work.
Although he could not devote himself to the effort fully, Baldwin did begin to write while he was still in school, viewing it as an escape from the burdens of his everyday life. In middle school Baldwin had the opportunity to meet Countee Cullen, a famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, who encouraged him to apply for admission to DeWitt Clinton, a prestigious high school in the Bronx. Baldwin continued his literary efforts in high school, from which he graduated in 1942. Once again he was constrained by financial circumstances, and he could not attend college or contemplate a full-time career as a writer. Instead he continued to help support his family financially by working various jobs. Eventually, however, the strain of working, the conflict with his father, and the stress of not being able to pursue his writing dreams took its toll, and in 1943 Baldwin made the decision to move to Greenwich Village. Here, he continued to work a series of odd jobs, but also launched a determined effort to pursue a literary career. He began by writing book reviews for various magazines, and also started work on a novel.
During this time Baldwin was introduced to Richard Wright, a contemporary African American writer, who had published his novel Native Son to great success. Wright read a draft of what would become Baldwin's first book, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952), and helped him obtain a grant that allowed him to pursue his writing more fully. In 1948 Baldwin published his first short story, “Previous Condition” in Commentary magazine. That same year Baldwin moved to Paris. He has explained in his essays that this move was in equal parts a response to the racial prejudice he encountered in America and the greater acceptance of homosexuality he found in France. Although he visited the United States following the publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain, for the most part Baldwin lived in France for the remainder of his life, continuing to write fiction and essays. Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, of cancer, in his home in St. Paul-de-Vence, France.
Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain was a professional and personal triumph, receiving great critical acclaim upon its publication. The book draws upon many events and situations from Baldwin's own life, including the protagonist, John Grimes', difficult relationship with his father, and the impact of religion on his life. Many critics view young John's struggle to gain acceptance in the eyes of his father as a reflection of Baldwin's own grappling with his own racial and sexual identity. Following the publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain Baldwin entered a highly productive period. He began work on his first play, The Amen Corner, finishing it, along with Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni's Room, between 1954 and 1955.
In The Amen Corner Baldwin focuses on the Black church, telling the story of Sister Margaret, a preacher endowed with enormous charm and leadership abilities. Margaret is a forceful advocate for her church, but at the beginning of the play her leadership is challenged due to her heavy-handed methods. As the action unfolds it becomes clear that Margaret had immersed herself in the church as an escape from the tragedy in her own life rather than from a true sense of vocation. Produced in 1955, the play was received extremely well by audiences and critics. Baldwin's reputation as a noted Black commentator was established following the publication of his first anthology of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955). The first half of this book focuses on representations of African Americans in literature and film, while the second half is devoted to relaying actual experiences of Black people in the United States, especially on the impact of racism in their lives.
Despite his success with The Amen Corner and the earlier acclaim he had received for Go Tell It on the Mountain Baldwin had great difficulty finding a publisher for his next novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), due to its overtly homosexual theme. When he did manage to get the book published, contemporary reviewers reacted negatively to the novel, which features a young protagonist's struggle to come to terms with his own sexuality. In the years since, critics have acknowledged Giovanni's Room as one of Baldwin's most finely crafted works.
Baldwin's next major work of fiction was Another Country (1962). Once again he used his writing to explore American racial and sexual attitudes. The novel contains several narrative threads, each featuring characters attempting to come to terms with their identity. The story begins with the tale of Rufus Scott, a Black jazz drummer who has been brutally punished because of his race. In fact Rufus's experiences have been so horrific that he can no longer distinguish between real and imagined assaults. Thus when he finally establishes a relationship with Leona, a Southern white girl, he is unable to accept her love or even imagine that he deserves such compassion. Devastated by his suffering, Rufus eventually drives Leona insane and commits suicide. Rufus's story and death serve as the catapult for the action in the remainder of the novel, which eventually concludes on an optimistic note—the title of the book alludes to the altered, more positive state of the character's lives at the end of the book.
In the 1960s Baldwin's literary focus changed. He became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement, directly addressing the issue of Black equality in America in several speeches. In 1963 he published The Fire Next Time, an anthology of essays in which he stated that the future of the United States was inextricably linked to the manner in which it treated its Black citizens. This book catapulted Baldwin to center stage for a whole new audience, one that was unfamiliar with his fiction. It was a difficult period in Baldwin's life: Surrounded by admirers and deluged with attention for his work, he struggled to maintain a balance between his position as a spokesperson for the Black community and his own artistic needs.
During this turmoil Baldwin released his next novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), to mixed reviews. Through the story of the protagonist, Leo Proudhammer, a Black actor, Baldwin attempts to deal with the civil rights movement in the context of Black artists. As Leo achieves professional success, he finds himself feeling alienated on two fronts—he is ostracized from the Black community because of his success, and he is excluded by the white community because of his race. Faced with this dichotomy Leo must make a choice either to take part in or sit out of the civil rights movement swirling around him. Many critics have viewed Leo's struggle as being reflective of the struggle Baldwin waged within himself, attempting to reconcile his role as an artist/writer/celebrity with his status as a civil rights spokesperson for his community.
Baldwin continued to write about and discuss issues of race during the 1970s, including a famous series of conversations with anthropologist Margaret Mead that were published as A Rap on Race in 1971, as well as a dialogue with poet-activist Nikki Giovanni in 1973. He also continued to write prose, including No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976). Later novels by Baldwin include If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Just Above My Head (1979). In recognition of his status as a major American literary figure, a two-volume edition of Baldwin's works, edited by Toni Morrison, was issued by the Library of America in 1998.
Early criticism of Baldwin's work focused heavily on the autobiographical nature of his writing, as well as his status as an important voice on Black issues in America. Although Baldwin did not view himself as a spokesperson for his race, his essays about race relations served to establish him as a major intellectual and political voice of his time. Thus, many of Baldwin's contemporaries reviewed his writing primarily through the filter of his position as an advocate for Black rights. When Baldwin revealed ambivalence towards prevailing Black rhetoric regarding Black liberation, he was accused of being inconsistent, and some Black critics even accused him of hating African Americans. As a result his stature declined in the late 1960s, especially when contrasted with the more militant writers of the civil rights movement. Recent critical evaluations of Baldwin's works have shifted their focus from evaluating his work in the context of his position vis-à-vis the civil rights movement; instead they study the complex nature of Baldwin's views on race and sexuality, recognizing that his writing was an evolving process, and was used to explore his complex feelings about race, sexuality, and the role of the artist.
In an essay detailing Baldwin's literary career, Terry Teachout has noted that Baldwin's rise and fall from fame resulted in part due to confusion regarding his role as a protestor versus his own view of himself as an author trying to express himself fully through his work. Both Teachout and Rosemary Bray have lauded Baldwin's work as a novelist, but concur that he was a truly gifted essayist, and it is in these writings that Baldwin is at his best, revealing complex ideas about race, culture, gender, and sexuality. Michelle Cliff has commented on the difficulty of writing about race in general, noting that Baldwin's views on the subject were particularly informed by his personal experiences.
Another important theme that critics have explored in Baldwin's works is that of alienation. According to Robert Tomlinson, Baldwin used his own expatriate experience in France as a paradigm for the Black experience in America, noting that the sense of loneliness and alienation felt by Baldwin's characters mirrors the isolation felt by Black people and homosexuals in America, who view themselves as social and sexual exiles. Similarly, David Wright also has discussed Baldwin's use of the alienation motif in his works, noting that, like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Baldwin used language to create alternate landscapes in his short stories to convey imagined freedom for his characters.
In addition to evaluating Baldwin in the context of his social and political milieu, critics have studied his literary technique, use of allusion and symbolism, and the way in which he translated his personal experiences into his writing. In an essay analyzing “Sonny's Blues,” Sandy Morey Norton has noted that Baldwin uses the social stigma attached to heroin addiction as a means to challenge mainstream values in 1950s America. According to Norton, Baldwin used drug addiction as a metaphor to create a discussion about other difficult issues in society, highlighting the importance of openly talking about difficult issues in order to overcome them. Similarly, Kemp Williams has re-examined Giovanni's Room as an excellent example of Baldwin's stylistic artistry, noting his use of physical objects to convey his characters' sense of confinement within social constrictions. Baldwin's work continues to be studied and praised for its eloquence and incisive writing style, and the nuanced complexity of Baldwin's ideas as well as his skillful use of language