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literature

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Baldwin, James Arthur (1924-1987)  
 
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While the main plot of the narrative defines the familial and racial histories that shape the identity of the fourteen-year-old protagonist, John Grimes, its subplot tracks the evolution of his sexual self. As John is increasingly drawn to Elisha, his seventeen-year-old Sunday school teacher, his barely articulated feelings of excitement and fear reveal his private struggle with his budding sexuality. Few novels in American literature provide a more subtle and graceful insight into adolescent gay consciousness.

This theme of sexual identity dominates Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956). Its all-white cast of characters and its candid treatment of homosexual romance disappointed many of Baldwin's readers, yet Giovanni's Room eventually helped secure Baldwin's central place in gay American literature.

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A lyrical novel of remembrance and atonement, Giovanni's Room focuses on David, a young American in Paris. There he falls in love with Giovanni, a handsome Italian. But David, unable to accept his own gay self, abandons Giovanni, who helplessly seeks refuge in the Parisian sexual underworld. In a rather sensational turn of events, Giovanni murders Guillaume, an employer who humiliates and exploits him; soon he is caught, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

The narrative begins on the eve of his execution and, in an extended flashback, David reconstructs his relationship with Giovanni and his own role in contributing to Giovanni's current plight. In David's recollections, Baldwin forcefully dramatizes the central dilemma of the protagonist: He is caught between cultural expectations of heterosexual conduct, which he himself has internalized, and his private sexual desire for other men. David fails to resolve the dilemma; because he is unwilling to accept his sexuality honestly, he is unable to live and love authentically.

Another Country, Baldwin's controversial bestseller, was published in 1962. A complex narrative, it explicitly combines racial and sexual protests. Its setting is mostly New York City; its plot is structured around the lives of eight racially, regionally, socioeconomically, and sexually diverse characters. This multicultural cast constitutes a microcosmic America; the conflicts among them, therefore, become emblematic of larger crises in American society.

But even as the novel projects a nightmarish vision of contemporary life, it extols the possibility of redemption through love. And for a pre-Stonewall novel, its treatment of homosexuality is remarkably sophisticated. Here homosexuality does not cause panic or produce guilt. True, it leads to suffering, as it does in the case of Eric--a gay Southern white male character who plays the most healing role in the novel--but in Baldwin's theology, suffering can lead to redemptive self-knowledge, to a more humane understanding of the self and the Other. Gayness, Baldwin suggests, has redemptive potential and can indeed be a valid basis to imagine and build a bold new world.

The idea that homosexuality may hold redemptive possibilities is articulated even more forthrightly in Baldwin's next novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968). It is the story of Leo Proudhammer, a bisexual, thirty-nine-year-old, highly successful black actor. While recuperating in a San Francisco hospital from a massive heart attack, Leo looks back at his life and imaginatively charts his journey from a bleak childhood in Harlem to his present status as a phenomenally successful artist.

He seeks through his recollections a pattern that would grant at least a semblance of order to his anarchic life. In his memory of his gay relationship with Christopher, a young black militant committed to revolutionary change, Leo ultimately recognizes the central justification for his life. Here, as in Another Country, Baldwin casts the homosexual in a redemptive role. Christopher's name itself, for example, suggests his role as a racial savior.

But Christopher is also comfortably and confidently gay. Thus by combining black militancy and gay sexuality in Christopher, Baldwin suggests that there is no fundamental conflict between the two traits. Such a suggestion may be at least in part a calculated response by Baldwin to the viciously hostile reaction his earlier gay-themed novels elicited from angry black militants who were uncomfortable with the increasingly visible role of Baldwin--an openly gay black man--in the civil rights movement.

There is in Baldwin's next novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), a conspicuous absence of gay themes. But in his sixth and final novel, Just Above My Head (1979), the focus is on the life of Arthur Montana, a recently deceased black gay gospel singer, as seen through the eyes of his surviving brother, Hall Montana. A lengthy narrative, Just Above My Head is Hall's love song for his brother, an attempt to understand his troubled life and lonely death.

Gay sexuality, as in Another Country and Go Tell, is one of the major themes in the novel; however, in contrast to those earlier works, here Baldwin treats it less self-consciously and less polemically. The gay theme, in fact, is more smoothly integrated into the narrative, and it is presented as an essentially unsensational, though problematic, aspect of Arthur's search for identity, meaning, and love.

Baldwin is a pioneering figure in twentieth-century literature. As a black gay writer in a culture that privileges those who are white and straight, he offered in his work a sustained and articulate challenge to the dominant discourses of American racism and mandatory heterosexuality. As an African-American writer, he ranks among the finest. As a gay writer, he occupies a preeminent place.

Long before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 helped liberate the gay literary imagination in the United States, he boldly made his sexuality a vital part of his artistic vision. Even more important, by insisting on honest and open explorations of gay and bisexual themes in his fiction, he made a sharp break from the established African-American literary conventions. Through such a radical departure from tradition, he helped create the space for a generation of young African-American gay writers who succeeded him.

Emmanuel S. Nelson

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    Bibliography
   

Adams, Stephen. The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction. London: Vision Press, 1980.

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Bigsby, C. W. E. "The Divided Mind of James Baldwin." Journal of American Studies 14 (1980): 325-342.

Bloom, Harold, ed. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991.

Cederstrom, Lorelei. "Love, Race and Sex in the Novels of James Baldwin." Mosaic 17.2 (1984): 175-188.

Cohen, William A. "Liberalism, Libido, Liberation: Baldwin's Another Country." Genders 12 (Winter 1991): 1-21.

Giles, James R. "Religious Alienation and 'Homosexual Consciousness' in City of Night and Go Tell It on the Mountain." College English 36 (November 1974): 369-380.

Harris, Trudier. Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974.

Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Lowenstein, Andrea. "James Baldwin and His Critics." Gay Community News (February 9, 1980): 11-12, 17.

Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: The Third Press, 1973.

Nelson, Emmanuel S. "James Baldwin." Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Emmanuel S. Nelson, ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. 6--24.

_____. "James Baldwin's Vision of Otherness and Community." MELUS 10.2 (1983): 27-31.

Sarotte, Georges-Michel. Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theatre from Herman Melville to James Baldwin. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.

Summers, Claude J. Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Trope, Quincey, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Nelson, Emmanuel S.  
    Entry Title: Baldwin, James Arthur  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 23, 2012  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/baldwin_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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