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James Baldwin (James Arthur Baldwin) Biography

(1924–87), (James Arthur Baldwin), Congress on Racial Equality, Go Tell It on the Mountain

American novelist, dramatist, and social critic, born in New York City, where he was educated. He was on the National Advisory Board of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality). From 1948 onwards he divided his time between New York and France. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), inspired by his own childhood, is a modern classic of Black American literature. His second, the skilfully structured and economically narrated Giovanni's Room (1956), is the confessional monologue of a white American and probably the first novel to deal so openly with tragic homosexual love. It is, almost exclusively in Baldwin's work, unconnected with issues of race or interracial sexual and social relationships, unlike his most impressive novel, Another Country (1962), which conflates and adds to the psychological and political concerns of his earlier works. His poignant short stories are collected in Going to Meet the Man (1965).

Baldwin's early fictions represent his finest imaginative work and alone would ensure him a place in American literary history. However, later novels only repeat in flashes the evident creative genius of his youth; although they are lyrical and compelling, they are held by some critics to be flawed, because of their strongly polemical content and somewhat repetitive nature. These include Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), the tragic love story of a black prisoner. Just Above My Head (1979), about the blighted destiny of a gospel singer, has much of the strength of Baldwin's earlier fictions, but by then he had been displaced by a younger generation of writers black and white, and was largely identified with his frequently fiercely polemical writings on race, politics, and sexuality. These provocative and highly influential essays earned him a lasting reputation as one of America's greatest essayists of the twentieth century; they are collected in several volumes including Notes of a Native Son (1955), which contains a seminal essay on Richard Wright; Nobody Knows My Name (1961); The Fire Next Time (1963); and No Name in the Street (1972). The Devil Finds Work (1976) is an incisive essay on American movies. The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) is a grim meditation on the racially motivated series of child murders in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1979. These works are collected, with additional material, in The Price of a Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction 1948–1985 (1985). A Rap on Race (1971) and A Dialogue (1973) contain, respectively, conversations with anthropologist Margaret Mead and writer Nikki Giovanni. At his imaginative peak, Baldwin also wrote two successful plays: Amen Corner (1958, performed 1965), praised by Caryl Phillips as his finest; in both secular and religious terms; and Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), distantly based upon the case of Emmett Till who, after he was acquitted of it, confessed to a racist murder. Baldwin was also the author of One Day When I Was Lost (1972), a play about Malcolm X, and of Jimmy's Blues: Selected Poems (1983). Biographies are Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, by James Campbell (1991), and James Baldwin: A Biography, by David Leeming (1994). See also Ethnicity.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Houston A. Baker (Houston Alfred to Sally Beauman Biography