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by Bamber Gascoigne

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James (Arthur) Baldwin (1924-1987)


American writer, noted for his novels on sexual and personal identity, and sharp essays on civil-rights struggle in the United States. Baldwin also wrote three plays, a children's storybook, and a book of short stories. He gained fame with his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a story of hidden sins, guilt, and religious torments. In this and subsequent works Baldwin fused autobiographical material with analysis of social injustice and prejudices. Several of his novels dealt with homosexual liaisons.

"If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sigh, No more water, the fire next time!" (from The Fire Next Time, 1963)

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, the son of a domestic worker. Illegitimate, he never knew his own father and was brought up in great poverty. When he was three, his mother married a factory worker, a hard and cruel man, who also was a storefront preacher. Baldwin adopted the surname from his stepfather, who died eventually in a mental hospital in 1943. In his childhood Baldwin was a voracious reader. When he was about twelve his first story appeared in a church newspaper. At the age of 17 Baldwin left his home. After graduation from high school, he worked in several ill-paid jobs and started his literary apprenticeship.

"And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son, I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father's vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along. I had inclined to be contemptuous of my father for the conditions of his life, for the conditions of our lives. When his life had ended I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own." (from Notes of a Native Son, 1955)

In the early 1940s Baldwin was in defence work in Belle Meade, New Jersey, and in 1943 he began writing full-time. His book about the store-front churches in Harlem with the photographer Theodore Pelatowski did not gain success. In 1945 he had his first encounter with the FBI, in Woodstock, where he was living in a cabin the the woods. He was interrogated by two men about a deserter. Baldwin had met him at a party, very briefly, and gave the agents the name, Teddy. Afterwards Baldwin felt like being gang-raped, "but they made me hate them, too, with a hatred like hot ice..." (from The Devil Finds Work, 1976)

Although publishers rejected his work, Baldwin's book reviews and essays in The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary, and Partisan Review, together with the help of Richard Wright, won him a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948. Baldwin's strained relations with his stepfather, problems over sexual identity, suicide of a friend, and racism drove him in 1948 to Paris and London. Armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter Baldwin finished the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in Switzerland. It was followed by the play The Amen Corner (1955). Baldwin lived in Europe ten years, mainly in Paris and Istanbul, and later spent long periods in New York. In 1957 he returned to the U.S. in order to become involved in the Southern school desegregation struggle. While living in Istanbul, he drafted early parts of the never finished play The Welcome Table (1987) and worked on No Name in the Street (1972), a memoir and a damnation of European and American politics. "The principal reason that I now find myself in Istanbul is that I am a writer, and I find it easier to work here than I do elsewhere. I am left alone here," he explainen in an interview. Baldwin's Turkish friends included Sedat Pakay, who made a black-and-white short film on the author, entitled Baldwin: From Another Place (1973).

Go Tell It on the Mountain was based on the author's experiences as a teenage preacher in a small church. Baldwin had found release from his poor surroundings through a Pentecostal church. He was converted at age fourteen and served in the church as a minister for three years. Baldwin depicted two days in the life of the Grimes family. The 14-year- old John is a good student, religious, and sensitive. "Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself." He has a long series of conflicts with his brutal stepfather, Gabriel, a preacher, who had fathered an illegitimate child in his youth. His mother has her own secrets. John's spiritual awakening unites the family but only superficially  John becomes ready to carry his own weight.

Feelings of strangeness and helpless anger troubled Baldwin during his years in Europe. In an essay, 'Stranger in the Village' (1953), he depicts his visit to a tiny Swiss community. He realizes that its inhabitants cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world. The children consider him an exotic rarity and shout Neger! Neger! in the streets without being aware of his reaction under the smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you routine. Despite the saluts and bonsoirs, which Baldwin changed with his neighbors, he also sees in their eyes paranoiac malevolence   there is no European innocence, and the ideas which American beliefs are based on, originated from Europe. "For this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarcely Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconquered continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time."

In Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), the theme was a man's struggle with his homosexuality. David, the narrator, tells his story on a single night. He is a young, bisexual American, Giovanni is his Italian lover, who is to be executed as a murderer, and Hella his would-be wife. "But people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life." 

Nobody Knows My Name (1962), a collections of essays, explored among others black-white relations in the U.S., William Faulkner's views on segregation, and Richard Wright's work. Wright had encouraged Baldwin when he was an aspiring writer but they never became close friends. The book became a bestseller as The Fire Next Time (1963), in which the author appraised the Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) movement, and warned that violence would result if white America does not change its attitudes toward black Americans.

Baldwin's reports on the civil rights activities of the 1960s made him special target of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, that alone accumulated a 1750-page file on him. In the title essay of Notes of a Native Son (1955) Baldwin took examples from his own family and the Harlem riot of 1943 to describe the experience of growing up black in America. Another Country (1962), a novel, was criticized for its thin characters. The protagonist is a black jazz drummer, who kills himself in despair after disappointments in love and life.

Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) was according to Mario Puzo "a simpleminded, one-dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters." (The New York Times, June 23, 1968) Again Baldwin had an artist as the protagonist: he is now Leo Proudhammer, a famous actor. Leo's early years in Harlem are depicted in flashbacks. He shares in Greenwich Village a living space with a white, unmarried couple, Barbara and Jerry. Leo and Barbara become lovers but ultimately Leo gains a new life through his love for a young black militant named Christopher, a Malcolm X-like figure.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and drawbacks in civil-rights movement, Baldwin started bitterly to acknowledge that violence may be the only route to racial justice. Some optimism about peaceful progress would later return, but in the early 1970s he also suffered from writer's block. "Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent--which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it." (Baldwin in Collected Essays, 1998)

In a review of Alex Haley's novel Roots Baldwin looked the work through the possibilities of a presidential election year and stated that "the black people of this country bear a mighty responsibility--which, odd as it may sound, is nothing new--and face an immediate future as devastating, though in a different way, as the past which has led us here: I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the black diaspora, which mean that I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the world as we have suffered it until now" (The New York Times, September 26, 1976).

If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) showed Baldwin's artistic renewal in a moving and poetic love story of a young talented sculptor, Alonzo Hunt, called Fonny, and his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, the narrator. Fonny is twenty-two, Tish is nineteen. He is accused of a rape, but he is innocent, and Tish struggles to get him free. Baldwin emphasized the importance of family bonds and the simple power of love as a means of survival.

Music, which played a minor role in Go Tell It on the Mountain, moved to the fore in Just Above My Head (1979), Baldwin's sixth and longest novel. It focused on the lives of a group of friends, who start out preaching and singing in Harlem churches. Among the central characters is Arthur Montana, a gospel singer. Arthur's story, the decline of his career, is told by his brother Hall, whose balanced middle-class life is far from the religious turmoils of the Grimes family. African American music in general influenced deeply Baldwin, which is seen also from the titles of his books and their allusions to traditional African American songs. The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1983) was an account of unsolved murder of 28 black children in Atlanta in 1980 and 1981. The work, written mostly as an assignment for Playboy, again disappointed the critics.

In 1983 Baldwin became Five College Professor in the Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He spent his latter years in St. Paul de Vence on the Riviera, France, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987. In her funeral address Toni Morrison said that Baldwin, like the Magi, had given her three gifts: a language to dwell in, the courage to transform the distances between people into intimacy, and the tenderness of vulnerability. (see James Baldwin, edited by Harold Bloom, 2006)

For further reading: The Furious Passage of James Baldwin by F. Eckman (1966); James Baldwin, ed. by Keneth Kinnamon (1974); James Baldwin, ed. by Therman O'Daniel (1975); James Baldwin, A Reference Guide by Fred L. Standley (1979); Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin by Horace A. Porter (1988); Conversations with James Baldwin, ed. Fred L. Strandley (1989); James Baldwin: The Legacy, ed. by Quincy Troupe (1989); James Baldwin: An Artist on Fire by W.J. Weatherby (1990); Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin by J. Campbell (1991); The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin by Jean-Francois Gounard (1993); Commitment As a Theme in African American Literature by R. Jothiprakash (1994); James Baldwin by Randall Kenan (1994); James Baldwin by Ted Gottfried (1997); Cliffsnotes Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain by Sherry Ann McNett (2000); Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, ed. by D. Quentin Miller (2000); The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy by Katharine Lawrence Balfour (2001); Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson by Keith Clark (2002); James Baldwin, edited by Harold Bloom (2006); James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile by Magdalena J. Zaborowska (2009) - American writers in Paris in the 1950s: Richard Wright, Chester Himes - See also: Baldwin and Alex Haley

Selected works:

  • Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953
    - Mene ja kerro se vuorille (suom. Reijo Tuomi, 1964)
    - TV drama 1985, prod. Learning in Focus, dir. Stan Lathan, starring Paul Winfield, Rosalind Cash, James Bond III, Roderick Wimberly, Olivia Cole
  • Notes of a Native Son, 1955
  • Giovanni's Room: A Novel, 1956
    - Huone Pariisissa (suom. Reijo Tuomi ja Matti Salo, 1964)
  • Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, 1962
    - Kukaan ei tiedä nimeäni (suom. Juhani Pietiläinen, 1965)
  • Another Country, 1962
    - Toinen maa (suom. Erkki Haglund, 1970)
  • The Fire Next Time, 1963
    - Ensi kerralla tulta (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1964)
  • Blues for Mister Charlie: A Play, 1964 (produced in 1964)
  • Nothing Personal, 1964 (photos. by Richard Avedon)
  • Going to Meet the Man, 1965
    - Musta blues (suom. Liisa Salosaari, 1967)
  • This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, 1967 (edited and annotated by Johannes Schütze)
  • The Amen Corner: A Play, 1968
  • Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, 1968
    - Sano minulle, milloin juna lähti (suom. Irmeli Sallamo, 1970)
  • A Rap on Race, 1971 (with Margaret Mead)
  • No Name in the Street, 1972
  • A Dialogue, 1973 (with Nikki Giovanni, foreword by Ida Lewis, afterword by Orde Coombs)
  • If Beale Street Could Talk, 1974
    - Jos tämä katu osaisi puhua (suom. Eero Huhtala, 1975)
    - film: A la place du coeur (1998), prod. Agat Films & Cie (France), dir. by Robert Guédiguian, starring Laure Raoust, Alexandre Agou, Ariane Ascaride
  • The Devil Finds Work, 1976
  • Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood, 1976 (illustrated by Yoran Cazac)
  • Just Above My Head, 1979
  • Jimmys Blues: Selected Poems, 1983
  • The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 1985
  • The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985, 1985
  • The Welcome Table, 1987 (play, prod.)
  • Perspectives: Angles on African Art, 1987 (with others;  interviewed by Michael John Weber, introduction by Susan Vogel)
  • Conversations with James Baldwin, 1989 (edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt)
  • Gypsy & Other Poems, 1989
  • Early Novels and Stories, 1998
  • Collected Essays, 1998 (ed. by Toni Morrison)
  • Vintage Baldwin, 2004
  • One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario based on Alex Haleys The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 2007
  • The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, 2010 (edited by Randall Kenan)

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