In This Article James Baldwin

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

African American Studies James Baldwin
by
Magdalena J. Zaborowska
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0031

Introduction

Among the most important 20th-century American and best-known black queer writers, James Arthur Baldwin (b. 1924–d. 1987) became the star African American intellectual in the United States and abroad in the 1960s. His “Letter from a Region in My Mind” took up the whole issue of the New Yorker in 1962, his face appeared on the cover of Time in 1963, and he was widely interviewed on the civil rights movement speaking circuit. Baldwin resisted being seen as merely a “Negro writer,” preferring a designation as a “poet” and “prophet,” who foretold the demise of white-dominated Western cultures. Reviewers praised his early works and usually dismissed the experimental and decidedly more sexually explicit later ones. Recent scholarship overcomes unhelpful divisions of his oeuvre into early versus late, gay versus black, or essay versus fiction, and parses out Baldwin’s considerable theoretical contributions to identity and cultural studies. Born poor in Harlem, disciplined by his Pentecostal preacher stepfather, he helped to raise his eight stepsiblings. His hard-working parents could not nurture his intellectual talents, but at P.S. 24, Orilla Miller, a feminist communist with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) introduced him to the theater, cinema, and novels, especially Charles Dickens. An adolescent preacher for three years while attending DeWitt Clinton High School, Baldwin left the church to become a full-time writer in Greenwich Village, where he worked menial jobs and began drafting a novel while publishing essays and book reviews. His autobiographically inflected works portray the United States as a “house of bondage” for blacks and whites alike, probing the nation’s psychosexual, political, social, cultural, and historical dependence on intersectionalities of race, gender, class, and religion in a transnational context: six novels, seven volumes of essays, a short story book, a photo-essay with Richard Avedon, a children’s book, three plays, and poetry and journalism. Beginning in 1948, when he went to Paris on a fellowship recommended by Richard Wright, Baldwin lived as a self-proclaimed “transatlantic commuter,” in exile from the United States and its brand of racism and homophobia. From the Swiss Alps, where he finished his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), he went back to France, the setting of his second and, partially, third novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962), which dealt with homosexuality and interracial love. From 1961 to 1971 he spent prolonged stays in Turkey, where he wrote copiously and directed a play. He then moved to St. Paul-de-Vence in the south of France, where he found a home for the last, prolific years of his life. The majority of the writer’s papers still rest with the Baldwin Estate; limited access to some manuscripts and letters can be obtained at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture in New York, and at the libraries at Yale, Emory, and Harvard Universities.

General Overviews

Leeming 1994 belongs with every Baldwin fan, with Elam 2015, Dickstein 2011, Field 2009, Field 2011, and Zaborowska 2009 offering more recent biographic and scholarly perspectives. Kinnamon 1974 and O’Daniel 1977 collect early takes, often controversial, on all Baldwin’s works to date, offering valuable bibliographic information. Other earlier academic studies unproductively divide Baldwin’s works into brilliant early and waning later ones, usually divorcing the gay from the black writer, with Porter 1989 (cited under Early Criticism) tracing somewhat belabored comparisons with Henry James, whom Baldwin acknowledged as an important influence, and Bloom 1986 and Standley and Burt 1988 (both cited under Early Criticism) compiling mixed bags of essays, reviews, and impressionistic pieces that elucidate how controversial and difficult Baldwin was to his contemporaries. Cleaver 1967 and Crouch 1990 (both under Early Criticism) provide examples of homophobic and hostile approaches that have been taken to task in recent critiques. Harris 1985 (under Early Criticism) is the first book-length feminist reading of women characters, and Bobia 1998 (under Early Criticism) traces important French reception of his works. The James Baldwin Review (cited under Journals) promises annual updates on research and resources. Newer studies include Scott 2002 (under Recent Criticism), the first extensive treatment of Baldwin’s undervalued later fiction and its importance within the literary and historical scenes of the period. Hardy 2003 (under Recent Criticism) examines Protestant black religiosity in his works, while Zaborowska 2009, a crossover book, relates his little-known, prolific Turkish decade. Of interest to those in law, political science, social theory, and rhetoric are Balfour 2001 and Miller 2012 (under Recent Criticism), and Shulman 2008 (under Notable Scholarly Articles and Chapters), which highlight Baldwin’s preoccupation with the US racist judicial system, with Miller offering a long-overdue analysis of the underappreciated The Evidence of Things Not Seen (Baldwin 1985a, cited under Essays and Nonfiction). Brim 2014 (under Recent Criticism) examines Baldwin’s problematic links with queer studies, Field 2015 (under Recent Criticism) probes deeply into the writer’s important leftist connections, and Pavlić 2016 (under Recent Criticism) poetically deconstructs his musical influences and improvisational practices. Several edited collections, and the chapters in them, mark a turn in the Baldwin scholarship toward more balanced and sharply theoretical approaches by some of the authors mentioned above. They give Baldwin’s readers and scholars a wide view of his legacy within and outside of the United States, and also emphasize his currency and lesser-known and lesser-examined works, his teaching stints at US colleges, and locations where he wrote and lived: Chametzky 1989, McBride 1999, Miller 2000, Kaplan and Schwartz 2011, Elam 2015 (all under Edited Volumes), and Zaborowska 2015. On 2 August 2014 (Baldwin’s ninetieth birthday) 128th Street between 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue in Harlem was named James Baldwin Place; in October 2015 a plaque was placed on 81 Horatio Street, where Baldwin once lived in the late 1950s.

  • Dickstein, Morris, ed. Critical Insights: James Baldwin. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2011.

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    With mostly reprinted, and some new, essays, this collection distances itself from recent theoretical approaches by reifying tired divisions between the early and late Baldwin, race, and gender, etc. Some noteworthy pieces (e.g., Miller, Field, Mickle, Gilbert, Harris) struggle mightily against the burden of homophobic ones that misread Baldwin through a racialized lens. As Reid-Pharr aptly terms such “settled” criticism, it tends toward “ossification . . . (mummification, one is want to say)” (Kaplan and Schwartz 2011, cited under Edited Volumes, p. 127).

  • Elam, Michele, ed. The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

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    Elam’s introduction deftly reevaluates and situates Baldwin as a 20th-century master for contemporary readers. The theoretically rich and nuanced, interdisciplinary scholarship evidenced in the essays collected here touches upon all of the major aspects of the writer’s life and work.

  • Field, Douglas, ed. A Historical Guide to James Baldwin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Part of an interdisciplinary series that historicizes notable writers, this volume brings together leading Baldwin scholars whose original essays examine key aspects of his life and work, especially the significance of his transatlantic identity, and the ways in which religion, music, the civil rights movement, immigration, and sexuality had an impact on his career and its reception between the 1940s and 1980s and into the early 21st century. Features a biographical chapter by Randall Kenan.

  • Field, Douglas. James Baldwin. Writers and Their Work. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2011.

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    A more up-to-date introduction to the writer than Dickstein 2011, especially for 21st-century readers, it takes into consideration the rich and diverse scholarship on the writer since the mid-20th century. A valuable and accessible map to the complexities and paradoxes of the writer, all his major works, and their reception, it can be approached as an excellent stand-alone guide, as well as an indispensable companion volume to Leeming 1994 for those beginning their study of Baldwin.

  • Kinnamon, Kenneth, ed. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

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    Kinnamon’s nuanced introduction situates Baldwin’s achievement to-date in the context of essays chosen for “diversity of perspective, approach, and conclusion” (p. 8). From Langston Hughes’s brief consideration, through Michele Fabre’s illuminating reading of Go Tell It on the Mountain, to Sherley Anne Williams’s reading of black musicians as emblematic 20th-century artists, this is an important volume for scholars interested in Baldwin’s transition from the 1960s to the 1970s.

  • Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

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    The best biography of Baldwin so far, it contains a faithful chronological account of his life and career, and thorough analyses of all his major works, including references to unpublished letters, manuscripts, and never-realized projects.

  • O’Daniel, Therman B, ed. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1977.

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    Covers the writer’s works through One Day When I Was Lost (Baldwin 1972, cited under Miscellaneous Works), and is an illuminating example of how he confounded and inspired his early scholarly critics. Deemed a “phallicist,” a failure as a scriptwriter of Malcolm X’s life or as the author of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (Baldwin 1968, cited under Novels and Short Stories), he is praised for his women characters, his essays, and his impassioned conversations with Mead and Giovanni in Rap on Race and Dialogue (see Published Interviews).

  • Standley, Fred L. and Louis H. Pratt, eds. Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

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    This compilation of many well- and lesser-known interviews with the writer traces his artistic development and views on his craft, exile, race, gender, and sexuality, as well as US politics, culture, and national identity from 1961, with the famous Studs Terkel interview introducing “the young Negro writer,” to the “Last Interview” with Quincy Troupe, conducted in 1987, just days before Baldwin’s death in his house in southern France.

  • Zaborowska, Magdalena J. James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

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    This groundbreaking study of the writer’s little-known, prolonged stays in Turkey, offers a succinct and informative introduction to the writer’s life and works through the lens of interdisciplinary literary and cultural studies. It refers to his complete oeuvre and reviews all existing scholarly sources, as well as offering a rich trove of visual material and an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources.

  • Zaborowska, Magdalena J. “No House in the World for James Baldwin: Reading Transnational Black Queer Domesticity in St. Paul-de-Vence.” In Spatial Perspectives: Essays on Literature and Architecture. Edited by T. Mulholland and N. Sierra, 215–247. Bern, Switzerland, and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015.

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    Discusses the meaning and impact on his works and late life in the context of Baldwin’s longest-lasting domestic abode, “Chez Baldwin,” in St. Paul-de-Vence in southern France, where he spent the last sixteen years of his life. References contemporaneous theories of domestic poetics and Baldwin’s last, unpublished play, The Welcome Table (1987).

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