Novelist, Essayist, Playwright
Born in New York City, James Baldwin turned to writing after an early career as a boy preacher in Harlem's storefront churches. He attended Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Harlem and later graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was editor of the school magazine. Three years later, he won a Eugene Saxton Fellowship, which enabled him to write full-time. After leaving the United States, Baldwin resided in France, as well as in Turkey.
Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953, and received critical acclaim. Two years later, his first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, again won favorable critical acclaim. This was followed, in 1956, by the publication of his second novel, Giovanni's Room. His second collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Names, brought him into the literary spotlight and established him as a major voice in American literature.
In 1962, Another Country, Baldwin's third novel, was a critical and commercial success. A year later, he wrote The Fire Next Time, an immediate best seller regarded as one of the most brilliant essays written in the history of the black protest.
Since then, two of Baldwin's plays, Blues for Mister Charlie and The Amen Corner, have been produced on the New York stage, where they achieved modest success.
His novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, was published in 1968. Baldwin himself regards it as his first "grown-up novel," but it has generated little enthusiasm among critics.
Much to the distress of this public, Baldwin then entered an extended fallow period and the question of whether he had stopped writing was widely debated. After a silence of several years, he published the 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. In this work, the problems besetting a ghetto family, in which the younger generation is striving to build a life for itself, are portrayed with great sensitivity and humor. Baldwin's skill as a novelist is evident as he sets and solves the difficult problem of conveying his own sophisticated analyses through the mind of his protagonist, a young woman. To many critics, however, the novel lacks the undeniable relevance and fiery power of Baldwin's early polemical essays.
Baldwin's other works include Going to Meet the Man (short story); No Name in the Street; One Day When I Was Lost, a scenario based on Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X; A Rap on Race with Margaret Mead; and A Dialogue with Nikki Giovanni. He was one of the rare authors who worked well alone or in collaboration. Other books by Baldwin are Nothing Personal (1964) with photographs by Richard Avedon; The Devil Finds Work (1976), about the movies; his big sixth novel Just Above My Head (1979); and Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1977), a book for children. He wrote 16 books and coauthored three others. There are six books about Baldwin's life and writings including a reference guide and bibliography.
Just Above My Head, published in 1979, dealt with the intertwined lives from childhood to adulthood of a gospel singer, his brother and a young girl who is a child preacher. The next year Baldwin's publisher announced Remember This House, described as his "memoirs, history and biography of the civil right movement" interwoven with the biographies of three assassinated leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Meanwhile, in his lectures, Baldwin remained pessimistic about the future of race relations.
His last three books were The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) about the killing of 28 black youths in Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1980s; The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction 1948-1985 (1985), and Harlem Quartet (1987).
Baldwin spent most of the remainder of his life in France. In 1986, the French government made him a commander of the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian award. He died at his home in France, on November 30, 1987, at the age of 63.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Gale.