JAMES BALDWIN Biography - Writers


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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, as 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.                                         
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 village. He realizes that the people of the           
village 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           
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         
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. EVIDENCE OF THE       
THINGS 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.