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Baldwin, Jamesfree

(02 August 1924–30 November 1987)
  • Ann Rayson

James Baldwin

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42481).

Baldwin, James (02 August 1924–30 November 1987), author, was born James Arthur Baldwin in Harlem, in New York City, the illegitimate son of Emma Berdis Jones, who married the author’s stepfather, David Baldwin, in 1927. David Baldwin was a laborer and weekend storefront preacher who had an enormous influence on the author’s childhood; his mother was a domestic who had eight more children after he was born. Baldwin was singled out early in school for his intelligence, and at least one white teacher, Orrin Miller, took a special interest in him. At PS 139, Frederick Douglass Junior High School, Baldwin met black poet Countée Cullen, a teacher and literary club adviser there. Cullen saw some of Baldwin’s early poems and warned him against trying to write like Langston Hughes, so Baldwin turned from poetry to focus more on writing fiction. In 1938 he experienced a profound religious conversion at the hands of a female evangelist/pastor of Mount Cavalry of the Pentecostal Faith, which he later wrote about in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), in his play The Amen Corner (1968), and in an essay in The Fire Next Time (1963). Saved, Baldwin became a Sunday preacher at the nearby Fireside Pentecostal Assembly.

In 1938 Baldwin entered De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx; he graduated in 1942. There Baldwin was challenged intellectually and was able to escape home and Harlem. He wrote for the school magazine, the Magpie, and began to frequent Greenwich Village, where he met black artist Beauford Delaney, an important early influence. Torn between the dual influences of the church and his intellectual and artistic private life, Baldwin finally made a choice. At age sixteen he began a homosexual relationship with a Harlem racketeer and later said he was grateful to the older man throughout his life for the love and self-validation he brought to the tormented and self-conscious teenager. As a preacher, Baldwin considered himself a hypocrite. At this same time, he discovered that David Baldwin was not, in fact, his real father and began to understand why he had felt deeply rejected as a child and had hated and feared his father. Fearing gossip about his homosexual relationship would reach his family and church, Baldwin broke with both the racketeer and the church. Now eighteen, he also moved away from home, taking a series of odd jobs in New Jersey and spending free time in the Village with artists and writers, trying to establish himself. He returned home in 1943 to care for the family while his stepfather was dying of tuberculosis. A few hours after his father’s death, his youngest sister was born, named by James Baldwin, the head of the family. The Harlem riot of 1943 broke out in the midst of this family upheaval, all of which Baldwin described eloquently in Notes of a Native Son (1955).

After his father’s funeral Baldwin left home for the last time, determined to become a writer. In 1944 he met Richard Wright, who helped him get a Eugene F. Saxon Fellowship to work on his first novel, then titled “In My Father’s House.” He gave part of the $500 grant to his mother and tried to start his literary career. Although Baldwin’s first novel was rejected by two publishers, he began to have some success publishing book reviews and essays, establishing a name and a reputation. At the same time, he had difficulty extracting himself from the influence of Richard Wright, who became for Baldwin the literary father that he had to reject as David Baldwin had been the punishing stepfather to be overcome. With what was left of the Rosenwald Fellowship he had received in 1948, Baldwin, frustrated by the fits and starts of his writing career and tired of America’s racism, bought a one-way air ticket to Paris and left the United States on 11 November.

In Paris, Baldwin met writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, and Saul Bellow. He garnered notice as a critic with the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which came out in Partisan Review in 1949. Although mostly a critique of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this was the first of a series of three essays in which Baldwin attacked his literary mentor, Wright. Baldwin followed with “Many Thousand Gone” in 1951 and, after Wright’s death, “Alas Poor Richard” in 1961. But not until he took himself, his typewriter, and his Bessie Smith records to a tiny hamlet high in the Swiss Alps in 1951 did Baldwin begin to work in earnest on his first and best novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. In this autobiographical family novel, fourteen-year-old John Grimes undergoes an emotional-psychological-religious crisis of adolescence and is “saved.” Go Tell It on the Mountain explores the histories and internal lives of John’s stepfather Gabriel, mother Elizabeth, and Aunt Florence, spanning the years from 1875 to the depression and including “the Great Migration” from the South to Harlem. It was well received and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1954; Baldwin said in an interview with Quincy Troupe that he was told it did not win because Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had won in 1953 and America was not ready to give this award to two black writers in a row.

Baldwin won a Guggenheim grant to work on a second novel, published in 1956 as Giovanni’s Room, about a homosexual relationship and with all-white characters in a European setting. Baldwin’s American publisher turned it down for its honesty, so Baldwin had to publish Giovanni’s Room first in London. It was a book Baldwin had to write, he said in an interview with Richard Goldstein, “to clarify something for myself.” Baldwin went on to say, “The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality.” The central character, David, a young American living in Paris, is forced to choose between his fiancée, Hella, and his male lover Giovanni. David rejects Giovanni, who is later tried and executed for the murder of an aging homosexual. Racked with guilt, David reveals his true homosexual nature and breaks his engagement, making Giovanni the injured martyr and moral pole in the novel.

Baldwin’s first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, appeared in 1955. These autobiographical and political pieces made Baldwin famous as an eloquent and experienced commentator on race and culture in America. Here he says on his father’s funeral,

This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped. That bleakly memorable morning I hated the unbelievable streets and the Negroes and whites who had, equally, made them that way. But I knew that it was folly, as my father would have said, this bitterness was folly. It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law. (Batnam ed. [1968], pp. 94–95)

Baldwin returned periodically to the United States throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but never to stay. He first visited the South in 1957 and met Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1961 he published the collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. By 1963 he was prominent enough to be featured on the cover of Time magazine as a major spokesman for the early civil rights movement after another collection of essays, The Fire Next Time, arguably Baldwin’s most influential work, appeared. His first play, Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), a fictionalized account of the 1955 Mississippi murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, followed. In The Fire Next Time Baldwin effectively honed his prophetic, even apocalyptic rhetoric about racial tensions in America, fusing his themes of protest and love. During this period Baldwin had also published his third novel, Another Country, in 1962. His influence in national politics and American literature had reached a peak.

Another Country took Baldwin six years to complete; it eventually sold 4 million copies after a slow start with negative reviews. It is considered to be Baldwin’s second-best novel. In it Baldwin portrays multiple relationships involving interracial and bisexual love through a third-person point of view. Again he looks for resolutions to racial and sexual tensions through the power of love. The characters, however, often have trouble distinguishing sex from love and sorting through their attitudes toward sex, race, and class. Though successful, the novel is somewhat unwieldy with nine major characters, dominated by black jazz drummer Rufus Scott, who commits suicide at the end of the first chapter. The conclusion leaves readers with the hope that some of these troubled characters can achieve levels of self-understanding that will allow them to continue searching for “another country” within flawed and racist America. As Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka wrote in 1989,

In the ambiguities of Baldwin’s expression of social, sexual, even racial and political conflicts will be found that insistent modality of conduct, and even resolution, celebrated or lamented as a tragic omission—love. … James Baldwin’s was—to stress the obvious—a different cast of intellect and creative sensibility from a Ralph Ellison’s, a Sonia Sanchez’s, a Richard Wright’s, an Amiri Baraka’s, or an Ed Bullins’. He was, till the end, too deeply fascinated by the ambiguities of moral choices in human relations to posit them in raw conflict terms. His penetrating eyes saw the oppressor as also the oppressed. Hate as a revelation of self-hatred, never unambiguously outward-directed. Contempt as thwarted love, yearning for expression. Violence as inner fear, insecurity. Cruelty as an inward-turned knife. His was an optimistic, grey-toned vision of humanity in which the domain of mob law and lynch culture is turned inside out to reveal a landscape of scarecrows, an inner content of straws that await the compassionate breath of human love. [Troupe, pp. 11, 17–18]

With the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the change in the civil rights movement of the late 1960s from integrationist to separatist, Baldwin’s writing, according to many critics, lost direction. The last two decades of his life he spent mostly abroad, particularly in France, which may have increased his distance from America in his work. In the essay collection No Name in the Street (1972), Baldwin discussed his sadness over the movement’s waning. At the same time, he found himself the subject of attacks by new black writers such as Eldridge Cleaver, much like his own rejection of Richard Wright in the 1950s. The Devil Finds Work (1976) is Baldwin’s reading of racial stereotypes in American movies, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), an account of the Atlanta child murder trials, was unsuccessful, although the French translation of this book was very well received. Baldwin also wrote a series of problematic novels in his later years: Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just above My Head (1979). In these novels Baldwin seems to go over the familiar ground of the first three novels: racial, familial, and sexual conflicts in flawed, autobiographical plots. He never again achieved the mastery of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, one of the key texts in all of African-American literature and of American literature as a whole.

After Baldwin died on the French Riviera, his funeral was celebrated on 8 December 1987 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, the French ambassador Emmanuel de Margerie, and other notables spoke and performed. Baldwin has generally been considered to be strongest as an essayist, though he published one outstanding novel, and weakest as a playwright because he became too didactic at the expense of dramatic art. His achievements and influence tended to get lost in the sheer productivity of his career, especially as his later work was judged not to measure up to his earlier work. After his death scholars were able to look at Baldwin’s contribution with perspective and a sense of closure, and his literary stature grew accordingly.

Bibliography

Baldwin’s personal papers and manuscripts are in the James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; the Berg collection at the New York Public Library; and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, among other repositories. Books by Baldwin not mentioned above include Going to Meet the Man (1965), A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1971), One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1972), A Rap on Race (with Margaret Mead [1973]), Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1976), Jimmy’s Blues: Selected Poems (1983), The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (1985), and Perspectives: Angles of African Art, ed. James Baldwin et al. (1987). There are a number of biographies, including David Adams Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (1994); James Campbell, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (1991); and W. J. Weatherby, James Baldwin: Artist on Fire (1989). Books on Baldwin and his work include Trudier Harris, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin (1985); Horace A. Porter, Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin (1989); and Jean François Gounard, The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin (1992; translated from French). Some earlier studies are Stanley Macebuh, James Baldwin, a Critical Study (1973); Karen Moller, The Theme of Identity in the Essays of James Baldwin (1975); and Therman B. O’Daniel, James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation (1977). There are also several collections of critical essays on Baldwin’s work, among them Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt, eds., Critical Essays on James Baldwin (1988), and Keneth Kinnamon, eds., James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays (1974). For interviews, see Standley and Louis H. Pratt, eds., Conversations with James Baldwin (1989), and Quincy Troupe, ed., James Baldwin: The Legacy (1989). The best bibliography of works by and about Baldwin is in Horace A. Porter, Stealing the Fire (1989), which includes a long list of bibliographies, dissertations, and obituaries as well as primary and secondary works; for bibliographies, see also Troupe, James Baldwin, and Standley, ed., James Baldwin: A Reference Guide (1980). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 2 Dec. 1987, Washington Post, 5 Dec. 1987, and the New York Review of Books 34 (Jan. 1988): 8.