“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” —James A. Baldwin
Today is the birthday of James Baldwin, one of the most critically acclaimed African American writers of the 20th century. Below is a excerpt from Baldwin’s author entry in Short Story Criticism: Volume 199.
(Born James Arthur Jones) American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and short-story writer. The following entry provides criticism of Baldwin’s complete short-fiction career. For additional information about Baldwin, see SSC, Volumes 10 and 98; for additional information about the short story “Going to Meet the Man,” see SSC, Volume 134; for additional information about the short story “Sonny’s Blues,” see SSC, Volume 33.
Widely regarded as one of the most distinguished and influential African American writers after World War II, James Baldwin was a preeminent social critic of his era and continues to be hailed as a figure of towering importance in twentieth-century literary history. He frequently addressed the institutional and psychological effects of racism on both its victims and its perpetrators, and his highly praised evocations of the prejudices faced by black Americans—and of African American life in general—had a seminal effect on the work of many subsequent authors. Likewise, his literary explorations of homosexuality, both within and outside African American communities, are regarded as landmark works in queer literary studies.
In contrast to his work as a novelist and essayist, Baldwin was not a prolific author of short fiction. The eight-story collection Going to Meet the Man (1965) encompasses most of his output in the genre. Nonetheless, many scholars regard these stories as an integral part of Baldwin’s corpus, both for their intrinsic merit and for the insight they provide into the author’s literary and social concerns. “The Outing,” for example, represents Baldwin’s first fictional treatment of homosexuality, a topic he later addressed in much greater detail in his novels. “Previous Condition” and “Going to Meet the Man” are particularly well regarded, as is the much-anthologized “Sonny’s Blues,” which is often used as an introduction to his writings.
Baldwin was born James Arthur Jones in Harlem in New York City on 2 August 1924, the illegitimate son of Emma Berdis Jones. He never knew his biological father. Three years after his birth, his mother married David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher with whom she eventually had eight children, and David adopted James, changing the boy’s surname. The relationship between the two was frequently strained throughout Baldwin’s childhood and adolescence, a fact reflected in much of his subsequent literary output. Baldwin read copiously as a child, and his writerly aspirations were encouraged by the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, one of his teachers at Frederick Douglass Junior High School. At the age of fourteen, he underwent a religious conversion, and for the next three years, he served as a preacher at Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. In 1938, he began attending the DeWitt Clinton High School, where he worked on the school literary magazine with Richard Avedon, Emile Capouya, and Sol Stein. Later, Capouya, a successful African American editor and writer, served as an important aspirational figure for the young writer. In 1940, Capouya introduced Baldwin to the Modernist painter Beauford Delaney, who in turn exposed him to blues and jazz music, which were forbidden by his stepfather.
Baldwin received his high-school diploma in January 1942, by which time he had left the church. He worked briefly in construction and meatpacking. His stepfather died of tuberculosison 29 July 1943 after a long period of physical and mental deterioration, and later that year Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village to focus on his literary efforts. In 1944, he made the acquaintance of novelist Richard Wright, who read an early draft of Baldwin’s novel-in-progress and helped him secure a $500 grant from the Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Trust. The relationship between the two writers later became strained when Baldwin publicly criticized the older author’s novel Native Son (1940). In the late 1940s, Baldwin began publishing book reviews, then nonfiction essays, and, in October 1948, his first short story, “Previous Condition,” appeared in the magazine Commentary. A month later, he moved to Paris, where he encountered acceptance of both his race and his homosexuality, though he also spent eight days in prison after a friend stole a bedsheet from a hotel, an experience Baldwin later related in the essay “Equal in Paris.” After nine years in France, Baldwin returned to the United States to contribute to the civil rights movement. During the mid-1960s, he lived in Turkey, France, and the United States. He called himself a “transatlantic commuter.”
Baldwin’s first and most famous novel, the semiautobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953 to widespread acclaim and was followed in 1955 by his first essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. Numerous publications over the following years consolidated his reputation as a preeminent African American writer. Baldwin became an increasingly visible social critic in the 1960s, allying himself with the civil rights movement and giving numerous public addresses on the subject of racial equality. His short-story collection, Going to Meet the Man, appeared in 1965. By then, the overall importance of his career was widely acknowledged, and he remained a controversial literary and public figure for the rest of his life. Baldwin died of esophageal cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, on 1 December 1987.
MAJOR WORKS OF SHORT FICTION
The most famous of Baldwin’s short stories is “Sonny’s Blues,” which combines several of his characteristic themes, including those regarding family, human frailty, racial prejudice, and the transformation of suffering through art, specifically, the power of black music to transform suffering and create community, which became an increasingly important theme in his work. The story begins as the narrator, a conservative black algebra teacher with middle-class aspirations, learns that his estranged brother, Sonny, a jazz pianist, has recently been arrested for heroin possession. Deeply troubled, the narrator does not contact Sonny for a long time but is eventually moved to do so after his own daughter dies of polio. The narrator invites Sonny to stay at his home, meanwhile reflecting upon their tumultuous upbringing, their fraught past relationship, and their late mother’s request that the narrator take care of Sonny. The two brothers have a discussion about the endurance of suffering in which they fail to see eye to eye, but the narrator finally comes to understand his brother’s distress and the means he uses to find relief as he watches Sonny play a wrenching piano solo at a jazz club.
Human suffering is depicted in much harsher terms in “Going to Meet the Man,” which emphasizes the psychological connection between racism and sexual passion. The story tells of a white sheriff who, while in bed with his wife after viciously beating a black civil rights demonstrator earlier in the day, finds himself unable to perform sexually. He thinks back to a childhood experience, when his parents took him to watch a lynching in which a black man was castrated and burned to death. This reverie restores his sexual potency, and he initiates intercourse with his wife while whispering racial epithets to her.
Other stories by Baldwin are less well known, but all have attracted attention. “Previous Condition,” about a black actor evicted from a room in a white neighborhood that has been rented for him by a Jewish friend, explores the affinities and the barriers that can arise between members of different minority groups, the constraints of white liberalism, and the ambivalence that African Americans can feel about their own cultural backgrounds. Characters from Go Tell It on the Mountain appear in “The Outing,” which depicts an adolescent boy’s homosexual awakening during a church picnic; “The Rockpile,” an early version of an episode from that novel; and “The Death of the Prophet,” an uncollected story that takes place after the novel’s events. “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” in which an African American actor living in Paris reflects on his life in the United States as he faces a return tour, draws on Baldwin’s experiences as an expatriate in France. “The Man Child” is an allegorical tale of dispossession, paternalism, and violent revenge among white farmers, and “Come Out the Wilderness” portrays a failing relationship between a black woman and a white man.