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Baldwin, James

(US, 1924–87)

Baldwin was born in Harlem, the eldest of a family of nine children. His stepfather was a Pentecostal preacher, and Baldwin himself served as junior minister at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly as a teenager. After the death of his stepfather in 1943 Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, determined to become a writer. Five years later he moved to Paris, in order to write more freely about the racial and sexual politics of America.

In a number of non-fiction books, Baldwin demanded revolution as the only solution to the despair and alienation of black Americans. In his fiction he also explores the theme of racial identity, but departed from the ‘protest fiction’ of writers such as Richard Wright, because of a need to explore the internal complexities of relationships within black society and the conflicting demands of sexuality, religion, and race. In Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a poor Harlem family is divided by born-again Christianity. Baldwin explores the mythic power of the victim, and its role in establishing cultural identity. Start with Giovanni's Room (1956), one of the first novels in America openly to explore homosexuality; the central figure has to choose between his mistress and his male lover. Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) describes the attempts of two brothers to escape the ghetto.

Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Alan Hollinghurst, Ralph Ellison.


Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (A-Bo)