James Baldwin: His Life and Work

james-baldwin-molly-crabapple

This portrait of James Baldwin is the work of the incredible Molly Crabapple.

NOTE: Written in December 1965 for a 12th grade honors English class. Miss McCabe gave it “94 – Well done.” I have resisted the temptation to edit for political correctness or sentence structure. 

James Baldwin: His Life and Work

James Baldwin is one of the most well-known and controversial literary figures on the American scene today. One writer has said of him, “No Negro writer or spokesman has had so great in impact on the entire white liberal world…And rarely, in fact, has any American writer had so much public renown.”1

James Baldwin was born in Harlem on August 2, 1924. His father was David Baldwin, a preacher; his mother, Berdis Emma Baldwin. At the age of 14 young Baldwin, seeking escape and salvation from the bleak realities of murder, drunkenness, prostitution, and the “numbers” all around him, and his fathers domination, ran to religion and became a preacher. 2 This phase ended when he was 17. Immediately after graduation in 1942 from the DeWitt Clinton High School, he left home for Belle Mead, New Jersey. 3 While employed at a defense plant there he was many times refused service in the cheap lunchroom where the workers ate. One day he threw a pitcher of water at a waitress’s head, was surrounded and beaten by whites, and “kicked his way to freedom and ran.” 4

By the time Baldwin was 21, he had finished enough of a novel to qualify for a Eugene Saxton Fellowship. The novel turned out to be unsalable. 5

For next few years, he washed dishes, waited on tables, and wrote book reviews, “mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro Problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” 6 (Of all the magazines available for study at the Niagara Falls Public Library, only one, the Saturday Review of February 8, 1964, contains an article written by James Baldwin as a writer rather than as a Negro writer.)

With Theodore Pelatowski, Baldwin wrote a book about store-front churches of Harlem, which was also a failure but which resulted in a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948. He then left for Paris, where Go Tell It on the Mountain was written and published by 1953. On the merit of this novel, he was elected a Guggenheim Fellow in 1954 and immediately produced Notes of a Native Son. Giovanni’s Room was finished in 1956 after Baldwin was awarded a Partisan Review Fellowship. In 1956, he was also the recipient of the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Another Country was completed at the McDowell Colony in Petersboro, New Hampshire. 7

During his years in Paris, James Baldwin befriended James Jones and Norman Mailer. He is a member of the PEN Club, the Dramatists’ Guild and the Actors’ Studio. In December of 1963, he visited Africa as guest of honor at the Kenyan independence celebration. He is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Congress of Racial Equality and belongs to the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. James Baldwin has conferred with Robert Kennedy, appeared often in radio and television panel discussions, and was active in the Americans Abroad for Johnson campaign while in Paris. During the 1963 he delivered 15 lectures for CORE in Harlem and on the west coast. 8

Mr. Baldwin has been featured by Time magazine in a cover story (May 17, 1963).

From the time he was old enough to observe his surroundings, there was no doubt as to his vocation in Baldwin’s mind. He has written, “I was going to be a writer, God, Satan and Mississippi notwithstanding,” 9 and again, “I was icily determined never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me.” 10 He has accomplished his objectives, clawing his way out of Harlem, becoming a widely-known author, and earning the sincere respect of many white men for doing so.

However, James Baldwin has found that renown and success can also have drawbacks. He has said, “Fame can lead to just ask many disasters as poverty. Since I got to my grits – I mean, since I’ve had enough to eat – around two years ago, I’ve been as lonely as I ever was in my life.” 11

Works

James Baldwin is one of the “Negro Revolution’s” most militant and articulate spokesmen. His style of writing was influenced by Henry James and Richard Wright, whose books he read as a child. While working on Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin met Wright, who helped him get a Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust Award in 1945. 12

At times, Baldwin speaks with almost humorous irony. An example of this characteristic is his comment on the slowness of civil rights progress: “At the rate things are going, all of Africa will be free before we can get a lousy cup of coffee.” 13 However, Baldwin’s usual style is bitter. He has written, “The civil rights issue is not a Negro problem but a white man’s illness… What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a nigger in the first place. I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, that means you need it.” 14 Langston Hughes has called him “one of the most racial of our writers, in spite of his analysis of himself as otherwise on occasion.” 15

lyndon-johnson-quoteIn fact, Baldwin’s caustic style seems to have begun a whole new trend among young Negro writers. Irving Kristol reported, “At the moment it is the fashion to ‘Baldwinize’ the Negro experience in America, presenting it is something irretrievably degrading… But Baldwin himself has not always thought this way – his earlier writings are markedly different from his more recent ones in this respect.” 16

Another critic made excuses for Baldwin’s apparently unforgiving attitude when he wrote, “One cannot help but be aware of the agony of the Negro artist and intellectual. Clearly, the world puts upon that man more than any world should put upon any man.” 17

Baldwin’s major works include essays, novels and plays. The essays tend to be well-informed, the novels sensational, and the plays radical. Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays that first appeared in such periodicals as Commentary, Harper’s, Partisan Review, and The New Leader. It begins with a few pages of autobiographical notes in which Baldwin compares himself to Caliban who, addressing Prospero, said, “You taught me the language and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.” 18 Baldwin praises Ralph Ellison as the first Negro novelist able to “utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life,” 19 and concludes with the words, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” 20

A second book of essays is Nobody Knows My Name, in which Baldwin explores his own problems in adjusting to the situation of a Negro writer, and various aspects of the racial conflict in America and the world.

Baldwin’s other book of opinion, The Fire Next Time, contains two long essays, “My Dungeon Shook” and “Down at the Cross,” in which he “tried to directly show the community what Negroes are thinking and feeling.” 21

Penelope Gilliatt wrote of the effect of this book, “James Baldwin is very seriously regarded in England. The polemic rhythms of The Fire Next Time have rung through the country like a leper’s bell.” 22

Baldwin has three novels to his credit. One is Go Tell It on the Mountain, the largely autobiographical story of a boy’s religious conversion.

Giovanni’s Room is the history of a homosexual love affair that could almost have been an early outline for the Yves – and – Eric saga in Another Country. It is regarded by most critics to be insignificant.

The novel that has attracted most attention is Another Country. It concerns itself with drug addiction, homosexuality, suicide, insanity, miscegenation, and ordinary pre- and extra-marital sex, depicting the ugliness and futility of life in Harlem and Greenwich Village.

The inhabitants of the strange Country include Ida Scott and her brother Rufus. He hurls himself from a bridge at the beginning of the book, but is, nevertheless, the main character. The novel has been widely criticized on the grounds that it is unrealistic. John Ciardi wrote, “I was reading James Baldwin’s Another Country a while ago and finding myself appalled as I usually am by the world and people of Baldwin’s imagination.” 23

However, the author reported in an interview with another writer that Rufus, at least, was drawn from life. “When Baldwin was twenty-two a friend, Eugene Worth, who had been disastrously involved with a white girl, jumped from the George Washington Bridge; eventually Worth became the model for Rufus.” 24

The play The Amen Corner was first produced at Howard University during the 1954-55 season. In 1964 it was staged at the Robertson Playhouse in Beverly Hills, directed by Frank Silvers. The Amen Corner was the United States entry in the 1965 Festival of Vienna. 25

Critical opinion ranged from scornful to enthusiastic. Ivan Morris in Vogue called it plodding, banal and shamelessly maudlin. 26 Newsweek reported “several affecting moments in The Amen Corner.” 27 When the play appeared at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, critic John McCarten wrote of Baldwin, “He proves that he can put the Negro vernacular to eloquent purposes and that he can create cleverly assorted sad and funny vignettes.” 28

The same critic voiced a different opinion when confronted with Baldwin’s second play. “Mr. Baldwin,” he wrote, “is an unquestionably eloquent man, but the plot he has contrived for Blues for Mr. Charlie is fairly familiar… Mr. Baldwin’s whites are all paste-board creatures.” 29 Regardless of critical disapproval the play shared with Arthur Miller’s After the Fall the Foreign Press Association’s dramatic award for 1963-64. 30

Henry Hewes’s review of Blues for Mr. Charlie summed up not only that play but the spirit behind all Mr. Baldwin’s works in these words: “…one cannot help but respect its attempts to paint the country’s current racial strife with contemporaneity and with new departures from the well-worn formulas…” and “…perhaps more important than the play’s imperfections are the glimpses it gives us of the spirit that moves militant young Negroes to assert their individual rights and let Mr. Charlie – the white man – sing the blues for a change.” 31

baldwin-quote-dangerousbaldwin-quote-america

Footnotes

1 Marvin Elkoff, “Everybody Knows His Name,” Esquire, August 1964, p. 59

2 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, New York: Bantam Books, 1959, p.1

3 Current Biography, 1964, New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1964, p.22

4 Richard Bardolph, The Negro Vanguard, New York: Rinehart and Company Inc., 1959, p. 281

5 Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, p.2

6 Ibid.

7 Current Biography, 1964, p. 22

8 Ibid.

9 Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, p. 12

10 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, New York: Dell Publishing Company Inc., 1962, p. 37

11 Jane Howard, “The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are,” Life, May 24, 1963, p. 16

12 Current Biography, 1964, p. 22

13 Louis Lomax, The Negro Revolt, New York: The New American Library, 1962, p. 88

14 James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, New York: Dell Publishing Company Inc, 1963, p.61

15 The New Negro, ed. By Mathew H. Ahmann, Notre Dame, Indiana: Fides Publishers, 1961, p.113

16 Irving Kristol, “A Few Kind Words for Uncle Tom,” Harper’s, February, 1965, p. 52

17 John Ciardi, “Choose Something Like a Star,” Saturday Review, January 11, 1964, p. 16

18 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, p. 3

19 Ibid., p. 5

20 Ibid., p. 6

21 Granville Hicks, “A Gun in the Hand of a Hater,” Saturday Review, May 2, 1964, p. 27

22 Penelope Gilliatt, “The Actors’ Studio in London,” Harper’s, September, 1965, p. 34

23 John Ciardi, “Choose Something Like a Star”

24 Gloria Steinham, James Baldwin, an Original,” Vogue, July, 1964, p. 78

25 Current Biography, p. 22

26 Ivan Norris, Vogue Notebook: Theatre,” Vogue, June, 1965, p. 68

27 “Amen,” Newsweek, April 26, 1965, p. 90

28 John McCarten, “Tabernacle Blues,” New Yorker, April 24, 1965, p.85

29 “Grim Stuff,” New Yorker, May 9, 1`964, p.143

30 Current Biography, p. 22

31 Henry Hewes, “A Change of Tune,” Saturday Review, May 9, 1964, p. 36

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About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website VirtualVenice.info and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for Earthblog.net
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