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James Baldwin

D. Quentin Miller

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0004
James Baldwin

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James Baldwin (b. 1924–d. 1987) was arguably the most important African American author of his time, particularly during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Baldwin rose from poverty and left his native Harlem, New York, in the late 1940s to become what he called “a transatlantic commuter,” spending time in Paris, Istanbul, and the South of France, returning to America intermittently. His literary output, like his life, is marked by restlessness: he constantly experimented with new forms, new subjects, and new perspectives. Critics debate whether Baldwin was more adept at fiction, based on his six novels and one story collection, or nonfiction, based on the same number of nonfiction volumes. He also wrote three plays (one unpublished), a film script, a children’s book, two collections of poems, and a handful of works that defy easy classification. He resisted labels and was reluctant to classify himself as any single type of writer, just as he resisted words such as gay to describe his sexual orientation, despite the frankness with which he wrote about same-sex love affairs. Baldwin’s reputation as a writer was augmented by his prominence as a speaker. His training as a boy preacher in a Pentecostal church prepared him to become a comfortable and formidable orator. During the turbulent early 1960s, Baldwin visited the American South not only to write about what he had witnessed, but also to speak, sometimes to huge audiences, about what had to be done to end America’s racial strife. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 and was summoned that same year to a meeting with the attorney general, Robert Kennedy, to discuss race relations in the United States. That year also marked the publication of his most famous book, The Fire Next Time, which was composed largely of a lengthy essay titled “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” about the Nation of Islam, black Christianity, and the future of race relations. Although Baldwin’s works published after 1963 did not receive universal praise, he continued to write prolifically and tirelessly until his death, of esophageal cancer, in 1987. Critics have begun to recover and appreciate some of Baldwin’s lesser-known works in the early 21st century. In addition to a sustained and ever-increasing body of published criticism, a biennial conference devoted to Baldwin’s life and work was initiated in 2007. All this scholarly energy demonstrates a robust critical interest in Baldwin’s work that shows no signs of abating.

Article.  6825 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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