| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Perhaps more than any other writer who came to
prominence after 1950, James Baldwin represented the process by which a person
at odds with the country of his birth seeks to reconcile him- or herself to it,
and to a status as less than a first-class citizen. Through the essays that
became his trademark, Baldwin pricked the conscience of an America that had
distorted the original conceptions of democracy. He encouraged Americans to
retrieve those seeds and bring them to fruition. Through his life and his art,
Baldwin repeatedly bore witness to the injustices heaped upon black Americans, and
consistently urged healing of the social fabric before it is torn beyond
to Emma Berdis Jones (a single mother) in Harlem, New York, Baldwin would make
art of the pain of illegitimacy and the problems he had with his stepfather,
David Baldwin, whom his mother married when he was three. As his mother bore
eight more children, Baldwin cared for them, and tried to escape the anger of
his stepfather by excelling in school. Relationships between parents and
children, particularly between fathers and sons, formed the theme of many of
Baldwin’s works, including “Sonny’s Blues” and others of his stories collected
in Going to Meet the Man, 1965. The religious fanaticism of his stepfather also
became a dominant subject for his fiction.
by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Charles Dickens, and Horatio
Alger, Baldwin read voraciously. In fact, he read through the Harlem libraries,
and moved into other territories within the city. He edited the junior high
newspaper, and shared editorial duties on the Magpie at DeWitt Clinton High
School, a predominantly white Bronx secondary school. When Baldwin was 14, he
underwent a religious conversion which led to ministerial duties until he was
17. The whole religious experience was partly to defy his stepfather, but it
too recurred throughout his later writing.
Baldwin published some scattered pieces in the 1940s, he made his debut in 1953
with Go Tell It on the Mountain, a chronicle of three generations of a black
family plagued by slavery and internal strife. Young John Grimes, in the
present generation of the novel, serves as Baldwin’s fictional creation of his
crisis of the spirit. He dealt in subsequent fiction with homosexuality (among
white characters), racial and sexual identities, problems of the Civil Rights
movement, life in Harlem, and religion. While his fiction was well received,
the essay may be Baldwin’s strength, and his collections of essays were
sometimes better sellers than his novels.
Baldwin’s plays, two continue the religious and political themes of his other
works. The Amen Corner focuses upon the influence of the church in the lives of
black Americans; Blues for Mister Charlie is loosely based on the case of
Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black boy who was killed in Mississippi in
1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Although Baldwin was quite
active in the Civil Rights movement, he participated only by returning to the
States in the 1950s and 1960s from France, a country to which he had bought a
one-way ticket in 1948. After that time, he moved back and forth, never staying
in the States for an extended period. Whatever his vantage point, Baldwin
continued to prod Americans into better behavior, for he genuinely loved the country
that was less willing than he would have wished to return that love.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the Heath Anthology
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Notes of a Native Son
Nobody Knows My Name
The Fire Next Time
Blues for Mister Charlie
Going to Meet the Man
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
The Amen Corner
No Name in the Street
A Dialogue (with Nikki Giovanni)
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Devil Finds Work
Just Above My Head
The Evidence of Things Not Seen
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Books and Writers
A brief biography.
James Arthur Baldwin
A chronology, information about his plays, what the critics have to say, and a selected bibliography.
James Baldwin, 1962
A photo by Carl Mydans from LIFE Magazine.
More on James Baldwin
Articles, reviews, and audio interviews from the archives of the New York Times.
F. Eckman, The Furious Passage of James Baldwin, 1966
Trudier Harris, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, 1985
Trudier Harris, ed., New Essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1996
Cyra Johnson-Roullier, Reading on the Edge: Exiles, Modernites, and Cultural Transformation in Proust, Joyce, and Baldwin, 2000
Dwight A. McBride, ed., James Baldwin Now, 1999
D. Quentin Miller, ed., Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, 2000
Therman P. O'Daniel, ed., James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, 1977
Horace Porter, Stealing the Fire: The Art and protest of James Baldwin, 1989
Fred L. Stanley and Nancy V. Burt, eds., Critical Essays on James Baldwin, 1988
Fred. L. Stanley and Louis H. Pratt, ed., Conversations with James Baldwin, 1989
Carolyn W. Sylvander, James Baldwin, 1981