The iconic American author, essayist, poet and playwright turned his life’s struggles into brilliant literary works, as relevant today as when they were written. Here’s a guide to his best books to start with, by the author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today.
Born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem Hospital in New York City, James Baldwin grew up poor in the heart of the Great Depression, the oldest in a family of nine children – yet he would become one of America’s most significant and celebrated authors.
Throughout his lifetime as a novelist, essayist, poet and playwright, Baldwin brilliantly chronicled his tortuous relationship with his stepfather, his crisis of faith, his sexuality, and his intense desire to tell the stories that swirled around in his head. Baldwin left the United States in 1948 for Paris – “My luck was running out,” he archly asserted in a 1984 interview for The Paris Review; “I was going to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed” – where he became the poet who would fearlessly “describe us to ourselves as we are now”, as he put it. He willed himself into becoming one of the world’s most important writers and the most insightful critic of American democracy and race this country has ever produced.
Anyone interested in beginning a journey through Baldwin’s body of work will have to move across genres, but one can hear the distinctiveness of his voice in any form. Here are five suggested books that offer a wonderful point of entry to his writings and demonstrate his ongoing relevance to our troubled times.
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
Baldwin’s first novel is the coming-of-age story of John Grimes in 1930s Harlem, a teenager who struggles with his stepfather, his own sexuality, and his faith. In many ways a semi-autobiographical work, Baldwin renders the difficult relationship between John and his stepfather, and the challenges facing him and his family in a country shaped by racism. The difficulty of love – of loving oneself and of being loved properly – emerges as a central theme of the book.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is also a kind of migration story. Through the characters in the novel, Baldwin charts the journey of Black Southern migrants to New York City and the challenges that followed. In this sense, the novel offers a richly textured account of African American history, as the reader witnesses Grimes’ struggle for an authentic way of being in the world. You will get a sense here of Baldwin’s use of language, his distinctive syntax, and the rhythm of his writing.
Notes of a Native Son (1955)
A collection of ten essays published in 1955, Notes of a Native Son announced to the literary world the power of Baldwin as an essayist (and as one of the innovators of literary journalism). Readers of his nonfiction should begin here, because, in so many ways, the book announces the themes that will preoccupy Baldwin for the rest of his life: love, identity, history, and rage all animate these pages. The title essay, ‘Notes of a Native Son’, is a brilliant autobiographical piece that juxtaposes the death of his stepfather with the Harlem Riot of 1943.
‘Many Thousands Gone’ provocatively criticizes Richard Wright’s Native Son, and ‘Stranger in the Village’ poignantly explores, among other things, the problem of Black identity. One of Baldwin’s most insightful formulations, which remains relevant today, sits among the pages of this book: “Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. Those categories which were meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged us into chaos; in which limbo we whirl, clutching the straws of our definitions.”
Giovanni’s Room (1956)
Giovanni’s Room is Baldwin’s second novel. After the success of Go Tell It on the Mountain, publishers wanted Baldwin to write another novel with similar themes about African American life, but Baldwin refused – and that refusal reveals the depth of his courage and his relentless commitment to his own literary project. Instead, he wrote Giovanni’s Room, a love story which explores the themes of identity, masculinity, vulnerability, and how the categories of sexuality can imprison us.
David, whose girlfriend has left him for Spain, is alone in Paris and has an affair with an Italian bartender, Giovanni. Baldwin examines the power and perils of this love affair, of same-sex desire. In 1956! Reading Giovanni’s Room prepares one to track how the themes of love and desire shape Baldwin’s work. What does it mean to love and to be love – to consider oneself lovable – and how does one act on one’s desires in a country so repressed that it makes us all, potentially at least, monstrous?
The Fire Next Time (1963)
Baldwin is perhaps best known for this small but powerful book. As an essayist, he is at the height of his powers in The Fire Next Time. Drawing on autobiography and social criticism, Baldwin pens a searing criticism of America at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
At the heart of the book is what one might refer to as his radical inversion. Baldwin insists to his nephew and to the reader that the American race problem does not rest with Black people, but with those who continue to believe the lie of whiteness: “Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.…There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is not basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.”
The themes of love, identity, history, and rage evident in Notes of a Native Son take on a particular urgency here, as Baldwin brings the full weight of his literary talents on the political moment and as he prophesies to a nation about the fires to come. Harlem exploded in 1964, and we would do well to heed Baldwin’s words today.
No Name in the Street (1972)
This is Baldwin’s first book after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. If The Fire Next Time was prophecy, No Name in the Street was the reckoning. Here, Baldwin offers a tragic assessment of the Black Freedom movement and an unsparing judgment of the nation’s betrayal of that movement. In many ways, the book is about the trauma of loss, the fragmentation of memory, and the desperate struggle to hold on to hope.
One cannot help but notice Baldwin’s anger in No Name; it drips from the page. His focus also shifts: unlike in Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, Baldwin seems less concerned about white America – they will have to save themselves. Instead, he writes to pick up the pieces and offer his readers reasons to continue to fight for what he calls elsewhere “a New Jerusalem”.
The book innovates at the level of form. Baldwin writes without concern for the white gaze, mirroring trauma and fragmented memory in the very way he structures the book. Time folds back on itself; he repeatedly shifts between the past and present. Linear narrative is cast aside. Reading No Name in the Street today offers us resources to survive the latest American betrayal, and inspires us to imagine how we might begin again.
[Originally published on January 13, 2021 via Penguin Random House UK]