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From Barnes & NobleDues for Mr. Baldwin
James Baldwin, though one of the giants of 20th-century American letters, has often been marginalized, relegated to the ghetto of writers who write about race. This perception of Baldwin solely as a "black writer" -- and thus one whose interest lies primarily in the sociological or the documentary -- undercuts the real importance he has had in the development of postwar American literature. This month The Library of America celebrates Baldwin's place at the heart of American culture with two new volumes of Baldwin's most influential work.
The first of these two volumes, both edited by Toni Morrison, collects Baldwin's early fiction, including the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, and Another Country, and the short story collection Going to Meet the Man. The second brings together nearly all of his published essays, including those published in such earlier volumes as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, as well as many collected here for the first time.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the stepson of a Baptist preacher. He experienced his own conversion at age 14 and spent the next three years as a Pentecostal minister. By the time he was 17, however, he'd been introduced to the Greenwich Village art and music scenes. Baldwin left the church at the end of his senior year in high school, and began his life as an artist.
Baldwin is most remembered for his writings on race, which began (as he says in his autobiographical introduction to Notes of a Native Son) with a number of reviews of books on "the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert." Throughout his career, however, Baldwin concerned himself less with "the black experience" per se than with the entire milieu of beliefs and prejudices that foster the painful relations experienced between the races.
But even from his first novel, Baldwin complicated this view of race relations in America with the equally thorny problems of sexual relations. Baldwin, by the age of 18, thought of himself as homosexual; the first, inarticulate leanings of a young boy toward members of his own sex can be seen in Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953. Inspired by Baldwin's own experience, this novel portrays a young boy growing up in Harlem who buries his conflict with his parents -- and the inner conflict surrounding his feelings about a young preacher at his church -- by experiencing his conversion, finding himself "saved" from his sins, both actual and potential.
Giovanni's Room, published in 1956, takes up these latent issues of sexuality and masculinity and makes them the central area of exploration. David, the novel's narrator, attempts throughout the novel to account for a sexuality he perceives as aberrant, while telling the story of the young man, Giovanni, whose life has been destroyed by David's inability to deal honestly with him.
It is interesting to note, however, that in this first real exploration of the issues of sexuality, Baldwin used white characters -- as though he were equipped, at this early point in his career, to confront issues of either racial or sexual prejudice, but not both. By the time of Another Country, however, Baldwin has brought these two fields of inquiry together. This third novel, published in 1962, is perhaps his most complex evocation of an entire social milieu, fraught with conflicts over the battle lines of race and sex. In it, Rufus Scott, a promising young black jazz musician, is driven to suicide after a disastrous affair with a young white woman brings all of his uncontrollable anger about the division between black and white into his daily life. The fallout from his death, as it affects each person whose life he touched, creates a hostile, unstable world in which all such conflicts are dragged agonizingly to the surface.
In addition to being a novelist, Baldwin was a prolific essayist and playwright. He spent much of his life "commuting" between Paris and New York, as well as shuttling between genres. His essays demonstrate his deep involvement in both the literary and the political worlds, confronting the same set of interwoven conflicts as his novels, but in the turbulent social setting of postwar America. Published in 1963, The Fire Next Time is perhaps Baldwin's most influential work, a penetrating analysis of the racial divide in the United States that serves as both a message of hope and a warning:
"If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create the consciousness of others -- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. 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 sign, No more water, the fire next time!"
Baldwin died in 1987 of esophageal cancer, but while he was among us, he spoke loud and long about the many battle lines that divide our country. These new Library of America editions are the ideal format for that voice, which deserves to be preserved, treasured -- and most of all, read.