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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Baldwin

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 repair.

Born 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.

Influenced 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.

Although 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.

Of 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.

Trudier Harris
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Sonny's Blues (1948)

Other Works
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
Notes of a Native Son (1955)
Giovanni's Room (1956)
Nobody Knows My Name (1961)
Another Country (1962)
The Fire Next Time (1963)
Blues for Mister Charlie (1964)
Going to Meet the Man (1965)
Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968)
The Amen Corner (1968)
No Name in the Street (1972)
A Dialogue (with Nikki Giovanni) (1973)
If Beale Street Could Talk (1974)
The Devil Finds Work (1976)
Just Above My Head (1979)
The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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