- Greg Miller
- North American Literatures
As a teenager James Baldwin abandoned the pulpit after a year and a half, but it would be fair to say that he always remained a preacher. For Baldwin, the life of an artist was a higher vocation, and he plunged into that life with inexhaustible, at times desperate, fervor. While he insisted that the writer's primary responsibility is to his or her craft, he was equally adamant that the writer has an obligation to serve as witness for society; in doing so, the writer plays an essential role in the construction of a better future. Baldwin certainly demanded of himself this double purpose, and when the two are in accord—often in his essays, occasionally in his fiction—it is easy to see his work as among the most important in twentieth-century American literature. For many, though, Baldwin's early promise as a novelist was never fully realized; according to this not entirely unsound perspective, the tumult of the 1960s took a heavy toll on the writer and rendered his fiction didactic and disheveled. His reputation sagged, not least among black radicals who considered Baldwin to have been co-opted by the (white) literary establishment. Years after his death, opinion is still divided over the merits of Baldwin's fiction and even his later essays. What Baldwin wrote in his essay, Alas, Poor Richard (1961), published after the death of Richard Wright, could be said of himself: “The fact that [Wright] worked during a bewildering and demoralizing era in Western history makes a proper assessment of his work more difficult.”
In a 1959 review of a Langston Hughes collection, Baldwin concluded that Hughes was “not the first American Negro to find the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable,” and here, too, Baldwin could have been speaking of his own struggle. The key words here are “all but,” a phrase that allows for a narrow passageway, an elusive but not wholly inaccessible path that may be likened to a spiritual journey. Baldwin's way forward, his own literary project of reconciling the social with the artistic, was indeed arduous. If Baldwin was only fitfully successful, this does not detract from the quality of his best work; one might even argue that Baldwin's so-called failures are equally instructive and, given his refusal to sanitize or streamline the unpleasant realities of American society, equally exemplary.
From the beginning of his writing career, American literature's most famous former preacher would speak in terms of “vision” and “revelation.” In his first great essay, Everybody's Protest Novel (1949), Baldwin is already insisting that it is the “power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.” The artist must provide vision, he states in The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy (1961), because “where there is no vision the people perish.” And in his essay “The Creative Process” (1962), he writes: “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover's war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.” Baldwin's primary theme as novelist, playwright, and essayist is the redemptive power of love. His invocation of “a lover's war” in the above quote is by no means metaphorical: the romantic entanglements of his fictional protagonists, their restless relationships and trysts and obsessions, should be seen as simultaneously personal and social, intimate and political, as complex movements toward a more meaningful reality. Such is Baldwin's literary territory. At times he approaches melodrama and at times he seems to lose control of form, but he writes beautifully and his vision has lost none of its urgent power.
Baldwin was born in Harlem on 2 August 1924. He never knew the identity of his biological father; the man whom he always called his father, David Baldwin, married his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, in 1927. David Baldwin was a severe man, an introverted and increasingly bitter minister. In his autobiographical essay, Notes of a Native Son (1955), Baldwin starkly declares of his father: “I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home.” It was a tense, poverty-stricken household. From an early age Baldwin was torn between his love of reading and his father's expectation that his sensitivity and intelligence would serve ministerial ends. Although Baldwin's childhood hardly seemed favorable for a budding artist, his precociousness attracted fortuitous attention, beginning with Countee Cullen, who oversaw the literary club at Baldwin's junior high school. Another crucial influence was Orilla (“Bill”) Miller, a young white female teacher who took the boy under her wing, exposing him to theater and film—and, crucially, provided a lasting counterexample to his father's demonization of all white people. He soon developed an enthusiasm for writing, and while his father distrusted this side of his son, Baldwin's instructors were encouraging (and one of his poems even brought a congratulatory letter from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia). In 1938 Baldwin began to preach at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly in Harlem. That same year, he began attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He showed flair as a preacher; indeed, his impassioned, poetic sermons drew away many from his father's congregation. But he was also a gifted student, and in his sophomore year Baldwin stopped preaching to concentrate on extracurricular activities, foremost among them his work as coeditor (with classmate Richard Avedon) of the school literary magazine. Upon graduating from high school, Baldwin made the difficult, yet inevitable decision to renounce the ministry altogether. He knew he wanted—in fact, needed—to become a writer; in the meantime, he began working at a railroad in New Jersey. David Baldwin died in 1943 after struggling with mental and physical illness. The next year, James Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village.
He instantly took to the Village; indeed, where else in the United States could a black, openly homosexual artist thrive? He was introduced to Richard Wright, who discerned the young writer's potential and was instrumental in setting Baldwin on track. Baldwin began work on a first novel, “In My Father's House” (which would become Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953). Largely on Wright's recommendation, Baldwin was awarded a literary fellowship in 1945. His first published work was a book review on Maxim Gorky in 1947 for The Nation. His work began to appear in various magazines: reviews and essays in The Nation and The New Leader, along with essays and a first short story (Previous Condition, 1948) in Commentary. Baldwin was awarded another fellowship in 1948, and later that year he moved to Paris. Although never a permanent exile, Baldwin experienced more freedom abroad. He was on the verge of becoming both a major writer and a public figure and stateside pressures (racism, of course, not least among them) made him happy to spend the majority of his time abroad for the rest of his life.
His time in Paris gave him a more nuanced perspective of his country's particular racial problems, and no doubt the distance was also helpful psychologically. Baldwin began to find his literary voice. He published essays that would be collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955). In Everybody's Protest Novel, Baldwin argues that American protest novels are in fact only radical on the surface; for Baldwin, the protest novel makes the mistake of favoring theoretical frameworks rather than “the man of the flesh,” and in doing so, it ultimately becomes “an accepted and comfortable aspect of the American scene.” That Baldwin uses Wright's Native Son (1940) as his contemporary case is perhaps a pure example of anxiety of influence. In any event, Baldwin found himself alienated from Wright when the essay was published, and the rift was never effectively repaired. His next significant essay, Many Thousands Gone, was published in 1951 in the Partisan Review. Here Baldwin extends his discussion of Wright in more positive terms. More important, the essay serves as Baldwin's first sustained meditation upon race in America. “Negroes are Americans,” writes Baldwin, “and their destiny is the country's destiny. They have no other experience besides their experience on this continent and it is an experience which cannot be rejected, which yet remains to be embraced.” Baldwin would always insist upon the entwined destinies of black and white Americans; this was an arranged marriage, with no possibility of divorce.
The Novelist Emerges
Together, Everybody's Protest Novel and “Many Thousands Gone” sketched out an aesthetic of a black American fiction that might broaden the prescribed territory and so render black experience without succumbing to the self-defeating reactivism that, to Baldwin's mind, had marred even the best work of its kind (such as Native Son). If Baldwin's essays to date had helped him think through his own approach to fiction, they had also set the stakes imposingly high. Baldwin sensed the quality of the novel on which he was currently working, but was finding it difficult to finish, and so he jumped at an opportunity to leave behind the distractions of Paris for an extended stay in a Swiss village. In Switzerland, with his beloved Bessie Smith records playing in the background, he finished Go Tell It on the Mountain. It was received with enthusiasm and earned a National Book Award nomination in 1953, the year of its publication.
Many find Baldwin's first novel to be his best. Certainly it is an impressive debut. Baldwin skillfully presents the semiautobiographical narrative from several points of view and demonstrates a firm structural command that he would not equal in subsequent novels. On the other hand, Baldwin's astonishing, insightful lyricism depends on a somewhat ramshackle foundation—or, at least, moments of excess—and on the whole Go Tell It is too polite, too self-consciously literary to achieve such heights. The book's correspondence to Baldwin's own life should not be overemphasized, and yet connections clearly exist. John Grimes, the novel's protagonist, is born into the poverty of Harlem, as was Baldwin; like Baldwin, his father is an intimidating preacher, and John is expected to follow suit. The senior Grimes considers all whites to be wicked, and he makes fun of his son's physicality (he calls John “frog eyes,” for example, as did Baldwin's stepfather). John Grimes inherits his father's hatred, and the thrust of the plot involves John's overcoming of this inheritance, achieved by a mixture of the flesh and the spirit. James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), which Baldwin had read a few years back, is an obvious influence. The other main influences would remain so throughout his career: the language and imagery of Christianity (especially the King James Version of the Bible); music (spirituals, blues, and jazz), and Henry James. The influence of James would grow stronger and more varied in future works; in Go Tell It, the characterization bears a Jamesian mark.
The success of Go Tell It on the Mountain made Baldwin's publishers eager for a follow-up novel, but the last thing Baldwin wanted to do was to become pigeonholed. He was especially eager to make it as a playwright (another similarity with Henry James, and Baldwin was only marginally more successful in this regard), and he completed his first play, The Amen Corner, in 1954. When Baldwin's publishers passed on it, the novelist-playwright (as he considered himself) oversaw its performance by the Howard University drama troupe; it had a fairly successful run in Europe, but the play was not published for more than a decade. Meanwhile, some of Baldwin's essays were collected and published in 1955 as Notes of a Native Son. The book attracted enormous attention, most of it positive. Besides Everybody's Protest Novel and Many Thousands Gone, the book's high points are the title essay and Stranger in the Village. The latter, drawn from Baldwin's time spent in Switzerland, begins strikingly: “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came” (p. 159). Baldwin goes on to provide a shrewdly elegant examination of the “Negro problem” from a European vantage point. It was in Europe that Baldwin learned to accept his inevitable identity as American. While the black American has “arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past,” American whites, claims Baldwin, long for a recovery of their European innocence, a time “in which black men do not exist” (p. 174). Baldwin concludes by cautioning against the desire for racial separation, and he eloquently links this desire with larger concerns of identity and the desire to take refuge in an apolitical netherworld:
It is only now beginning to be borne in on us—very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will—that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.(p. 175)
Baldwin insists that America's racial drama has led to the creation of a new kind of black person and also a new kind of white. The last sentence of the essay—and the last sentence of the book—asserts that the “world is white no longer, and it will never be white again” (p. 175).
“Notes of a Native Son,” surely one of Baldwin's finest pieces of writing, brilliantly moves between intimate memoir and polemic. In large part, the essay is a portrait of his stepfather, and of the writer's difficulty with the late man's legacy of hatred. Baldwin realizes that hatred, however justifiable, inevitably results in self-destruction, and the essay accordingly becomes a testament to Baldwin's survival as both man and artist. The concluding paragraph dialectically outlines the problem of how to live one's life in troubled times, and it is a passage that is essential for comprehending Baldwin's literary project:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.
The Role of the Writer
Baldwin was now firmly established as one of the most promising American writers, and Notes of a Native Son in particular made him almost overnight the representative black voice of his generation. Baldwin had no intention of playing this role, but it was one that he ultimately could not escape. With Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin sought not to repeat himself, but his American publishers were hardly enthusiastic about the result. (Indeed, since they initially passed on publication, the novel first appeared in England.) Although tame by later standards, Giovanni's Room was a landmark book in its frank depiction of homosexuality. For the first and only time, not a single black character makes an appearance. The novel concerns David, a young midwestern man who is in Paris while his fiancée, Hella, travels in Spain. David meets and falls in love with Giovanni, a handsome Italian who is primarily homosexual. David, who until now has mainly repressed his homosexual inclinations, cannot come to terms with his happiness, and he ends up shunning Giovanni when Hella returns from Spain. Giovanni becomes desperate; he prostitutes himself, commits murder, and is sentenced to be executed. David, meanwhile, is overcome with remorse. He is unhappy with Hella, and takes to picking up sailors in gay bars. His fiancée eventually catches David and leaves him. The narrative is related by David on the night before Giovanni's execution, as he prepares to return to America. Despite some overwritten passages, this may be Baldwin's finest novel. The theme is typical—a young American loses his innocence in Europe—but Baldwin imbues the story with a genuinely tragic, almost unbearably painful account of man's failure to pursue his nature. It is a moral failure; David lacks the strength to honestly confront and accept love when it comes into his life. The influence of Henry James upon Baldwin—always evident in Baldwin's comma-heavy, multiclause sentences—can be seen in Baldwin's complex rendering of Old and New World societies.
By now, Baldwin rarely stayed in the same place for more than a few months. He returned to the United States after the publication of Giovanni's Room, and in 1957 he visited the South for the first time. His personal life was becoming cluttered and chaotic. Ceaseless socializing (and important friendships with, among others, Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron, and Marlon Brando) and painful romantic relationships took up much of his time. It would be another six years before he would finish his next novel.
In the meantime, Baldwin remained prolific as essayist and short story writer. A fellowship from the Partisan Review gave him time to write Sonny's Blues (1957), a lengthy short story in which, once again, Baldwin powerfully examines the question of how one should live one's life. The story concerns two brothers (perhaps the central relationship in Baldwin's fiction from this point on) whose outlooks on life could hardly be more different. The unnamed narrator is Sonny's older brother.
As the story opens Sonny, a jazz musician, has just been arrested (again) for drug possession. The narrator has escaped the projects, and now works as a high school math teacher and lives with his wife. Although he had promised his mother that he would take care of his younger brother, he finds Sonny's world so mystifying and threatening that he has, guiltily, generally kept clear. When the narrator's little daughter dies, the narrator finds himself ready to reach out, as best he can, to Sonny. The story chronicles their relationship and ends as the brother watches Sonny perform for the first time, a scene that becomes an extended meditation upon the artist's invaluable yet sacrificial contribution to society: “Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own” (Going to Meet the Man, p. 138). Narratively complex yet never strained, Sonny's Blues also benefits from Baldwin's treatment of his protagonists' complicated, confused, and not entirely understood responses to a world that will not stay fixed. Their inner lives come through with a force and precision that for once makes comparisons with Henry James apt not only in manner but in quality.
Baldwin is not normally convincing as a short story writer; he needs a broader canvas than short fiction usually allows, so it makes sense that his best stories—Sonny's Blues and “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” (1960)—are nearly of novella length. In the years following “Sonny's Blues,” Baldwin increasingly applied himself to the national struggle for civil rights. Even though he lived mostly in Paris, Baldwin was the movement's most important spokesperson from the artistic ranks. His visit to the South resulted in numerous essays, and his views were continually sought on a wide range of topics. The 1961 collection, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, finds Baldwin in top form once again, addressing civil rights issues as well as (and sometimes simultaneously) Faulkner, Mailer, and Ingmar Bergman (“What he saw when he looked at the world did not seem very different from what I saw.”). In Notes for a Hypothetical Novel: An Address, Baldwin reasserts his view of the writer's social work in terms that reflect the escalating sense of urgency that the civil rights movement was developing:
Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me. I don't believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we're living in and we have to make it over.(p. 154)
Such expectations, for himself and for others, reveal Baldwin's inheritance of the romantic tradition. Like Shelley, Baldwin saw the artist as legislator of the world. But the decade ahead would bring bitter disappointment, and a wavering reputation.
The same year that Nobody Knows My Name was published (and became a best-seller), Baldwin wrote an essay on Martin Luther King Jr. for Harper's. He began to speak frequently with King and with Malcolm X, and traveled to Africa in 1962. Just before he left for Africa, Baldwin's next novel, Another Country (1962), appeared to mixed reviews, although it would be his most popular success. Another Country is primarily concerned with the redemptive possibility of love. The plot is perhaps insignificant; Baldwin instead explores the interrelationships of seven characters, most of them musicians or writers from New York City and Paris. They are black and white, heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual, and it seems that by novel's end virtually everyone has slept with everyone else. Baldwin himself felt he was losing the thread of the plot, and some of the sexual encounters seem to emit an image of the novelist throwing up his hands. Despite accusations of obscenity, however, Baldwin's perspective remains primarily ethical; the healing, enabling aspect of the sexual encounter was always stressed ahead of the physical release. While the writing is occasionally clumsy, Baldwin's evocation of New York City in the 1950s cannot be faulted. What comes through, finally, is the failure of the black and white characters to transcend their racial identity and connect as equals. Still, the title's metaphorical reference to the possibility of change conveys a strain of hope, and the overall effect of the book is powerful. For all its shortcomings, Another Country remains the clearest embodiment of Baldwin's contribution to the twentieth-century American novel. It is easy to see why it attracted the largest audience that Baldwin would ever have. Unfortunately, among Another Country's less impressed readers was J. Edgar Hoover; the FBI would keep an extensive file on Baldwin for the rest of his life, a file that swelled to nearly eighteen hundred pages.
The year 1962 also saw the publication of two essays in The New Yorker that would be published in book form the following year as The Fire Next Time. The book once again mixes personal memoir with overtly political passages, including Baldwin's negative impressions of the Black Muslim movement. It is the cautionary sermon of a brilliant man, and it signaled the sweeping, multilayered style of his later book-length essays. The Fire Next Time also reveals Baldwin hardening toward Christianity. In this striking passage, for instance, the author sounds almost Nietzschean:
Whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.
His tone had become increasingly prophetic; as an essayist he was in complete control. Baldwin did not know it, but he would never command such influence or widespread acclaim.
A long essay, Nothing Personal (1964), was released in book form accompanied by the photographs of former high school friend Richard Avedon. It is a trenchant essay that reveals Baldwin's increasing pessimism about race relations in the United States. In a society that “permits one portion of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed,” Baldwin warns, “then, very soon, no one in that society is safe.” His ambitions as a playwright were realized when Blues for Mister Charlie was staged in 1964 under the direction of Burgess Meredith. The play itself is a rather tedious treatment of the Emmett Till murder, and its primary interest today resides in the manner in which Baldwin seems to be staging his own vacillation between the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the less conciliatory approach of Malcolm X. The Foreign Drama Critics named it the best play of the year; stateside reaction was less enthusiastic, and Baldwin's increasingly confrontational political tone, however justified, was beginning to bother his white liberal readers.
Times were changing. Baldwin's aesthetic debt to the white literary canon was not unnoticed by his black readership. Baldwin's own increasing radicalism affected his aesthetic sensibility as well. His always shaky relationship with religion had become almost hostile during the tumultuous 1960s, especially after the assassinations of King and Malcolm X, and he was less likely to dwell upon the Bible's literary influence on his writing. As for James and other important canonical influences (Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald), Baldwin's willingness to discuss them depended on the audience. He was now more interested in stressing the African-American tradition; to this end, Baldwin wanted his fiction to sound like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith. No other writer of his time could make such a claim, but Baldwin's prose justifies such comparisons. Still, one suspects other reasons for Baldwin's shift in emphasis: a new generation of black artists and activists was beginning to find Baldwin irrelevant, and they certainly were not interested in hearing about the novelist's reverence for The Portrait of a Lady (1881). More cynically, one might relate his public identification with musicians rather than other writers to the opening passage of Baldwin's early essay, “Many Thousands Gone”: “It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story” (Notes of a Native Son, p. 24). Baldwin deeply cared about the opinion of others, so much so that his work sometimes suffered as a result. He was particularly wounded by criticism from black leftists—some of the militants began referring to him as Martin Luther Queen—since his influence among that segment had once been so great.
His next novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), was written at the lowest point in Baldwin's life. Its narrator, Leo Proudhammer, is an obvious stand-in for Baldwin, and the book may reasonably be read as Baldwin's attempt to make sense of his own fractured existence. Proudhammer is a famous actor who is recovering from a massive heart attack. The narrative drifts from flashbacks that take place throughout his life to ruminations on his present state. The novel's most successful, most moving passages involve Leo's boyhood relationship with his brother Caleb. Stylistically, the novel can be read as a parable despite its length and its autobiographical bent. Leo is representative of the “successful” black American artist, but his heart attack signals the profound sickness of American society. The latter, somewhat bewildering section of the novel chronicles Leo's complicated relationship with a black activist. Baldwin was clearly not interested in shaping Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, and there are passages that, to quote Baldwin reviewing a collection by Langston Hughes, “a more disciplined poet would have thrown into the waste-basket.” Oddly, though, the novel's formal sloppiness manages to convey the narrator's confusion—which is not to say that the result is a great novel, but simply that the emotional experience of reading the book is somehow intensified as a result. The reviews, though, were the worst of Baldwin's career.
The reviews of his next publication, the long essay No Name in the Street (1972), were scarcely better. This was particularly unfortunate, since No Name in the Street is one of Baldwin's finest books. Formally, it bears resemblance to The Fire Next Time: an admixture of the personal and the polemic, and a roving survey of subtopics. The main difference is that, whereas the earlier book was sad yet hopeful, in No Name in the Street grief often becomes fury. It is Baldwin's survey of the 1960s and early 1970s, and it offers this stinging summation of its author's disillusionment regarding American democracy:
The necessity for a form of socialism is based on the observation that the world's present economic arrangements doom most of the world to misery; that the way of life dictated by these arrangements is both sterile and immoral; and, finally, that there is no hope for peace in the world so long as these arrangements obtain.
The intellectual reach in No Name in the Street, the clarity of prose and the inspiring vision, are quintessential Baldwin; it is the ideas themselves that gave reviewers trouble, but then leftist thought has never gone down easily in the United States. In the years since his death, however, Baldwin's views have become increasingly relevant. In many ways, he is America's Orwell.
Baldwin seems to have listened to critics of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone; his next novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), is a model of brevity. For the first time, Baldwin tells his story exclusively through a female narrator. The twenty-one-year-old Tish lives with her family in Harlem; she is pregnant with the child of her lover, a Puerto Rican man who is in prison on false charges of rape. Critics have often found fault with the tendency for Baldwin's narrators to echo Baldwin the essayist. But these narrators usually resemble their creator enough so that the asides and conjectures actually enrich Baldwin's fiction. Tish, however, could hardly be more dissimilar than her creator, so in this case the effect is wholly jarring. Many passages are moving but, as with most of Baldwin's short stories, the brevity renders the narrative too schematic. Baldwin returned to form with The Devil Finds Work (1976), an extended reflection on American cinema (focusing on representations of African Americans) and an absorbing work of cultural film criticism. The book was briefly prefigured at least twice, in an essay for Commentary, On Catfish Row: Porgy and Bess in the Movies (1959), and in a delightful scene in Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, in which Leo and Caleb go to the movies and are subjected to King's Row (1942). The Devil Finds Work is not on the same level as Baldwin's best essays (he too often resorts to generalities), but his insights into such films as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and The Exorcist (1973) are of much interest.
Baldwin had high hopes for his last novel, the ambitious Just above My Head (1979). In this book Baldwin's prose is leaner (to the unfortunate extent that a sense of place, always a strong aspect of Baldwin's fiction, is nearly absent), and for the first time his characters converse in black English. The novelist seems to be consciously providing a summation of his philosophy and themes, and the result is paradoxically both bloated and threadbare, although the novel has its admirers.
James Baldwin died at age sixty-three on 1 December 1987, in St. Paul de Vence in southern France. He was buried a week later in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. On the bottom of the memorial program was this passage from Sonny's Blues:
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country and a new depth in every generation.(Going to Meet the Man, p. 139)
- Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
- Notes of a Native Son (1955)
- Giovanni's Room (1956)
- Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961)
- Another Country (1962)
- The Fire Next Time (1963)
- Blues for Mister Charlie (1964)
- Nothing Personal (1964)
- Going to Meet the Man (1965)
- The Amen Corner (1968)
- Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968)
- No Name in the Street (1972)
- One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1972)
- If Beale Street Could Talk (1974)
- The Devil Finds Work (1976)
- Just above My Head (1979)
- The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985)
- The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction, 1948–1985 (1985)
- Balfour, Lawrie. The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001. A valuable consideration of Baldwin's continued relevance within the context of political theory.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. James Baldwin. New York, 1986. Baldwin's fiction and nonfiction are examined in eleven essays.
- Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. London, 1991. The best critical—though surely too critical—biography of Baldwin.
- Harris, Trudier, ed. New Essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain. Cambridge, 1996.
- Johnson-Roullier, Cyraina E. Reading on the Edge: Exiles, Modernities, and Cultural Transformation in Proust, Joyce, and Baldwin. New York, 2000. The author looks at Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni's Room.
- Köllhofer, Jakob, ed. James Baldwin: His Place in American Literary History and His Reception in Europe. Frankfurt, Germany, 1991.
- Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York, 1994. Leeming was Baldwin's secretary and friend, and this is probably the most sensitive and complete treatment of Baldwin's life and thought. Baldwin's work, however, is dealt with too uncritically.
- McBride, Dwight A., ed. James Baldwin Now. New York, 1999. A wide-ranging collection of essays intended to reassess the writer along the interconnected lines of race, class, and gender. Particularly valuable regarding Baldwin's later works.
- Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston, 1988. Includes scholarly essays alongside popular book reviews. Baldwin's fiction, nonfiction, and plays are covered.
- Standley, Fred L., and Louis H. Pratt, eds. Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson, Miss., 1989. An excellent collection of interviews from 1961 to 1987.
- Washington, Bryan R. The Politics of Exile: Ideology in Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Boston, 1995.