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James Baldwin: A Life

Baldwin’s writing career began in earnest in the mid 1940s when he moved from Harlem to Greenwich Village, New York, and began writing essays, book reviews, and short stories. In 1948 he expatriated to Paris, France where he completed his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, in 1953.

In 1955 Baldwin published a collection of non-fiction essays with Beacon Press, Notes of a Native Son, which was positively reviewed but did not rise to prominence until the paperback edition appeared in 1957. In 1956 he published Giovanni’s Room, a novel set in Paris, and in fall of 1957 he returned to New York and traveled to the southern United States to write essays commissioned by the Partisan Review and Harper’s Magazine. These essays display Baldwin’s deep commitment to the movement for Civil Rights, and they were 1961’s Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. During this era Baldwin also began to experiment with writing in the voices of women, first in the short story “Come Out the Wilderness,” and then in his next novel, Another Country, published in 1962.

The 1960s saw Baldwin catapulted into the national spotlight as an author, celebrity, and agitator. He wrote “Down at the Cross,” an essay which would be published in the November 17, 1962 issue of The New Yorker and which comprised the bulk of his most famous and enduring work of non-fiction, 1963’s The Fire Next Time.

The murders of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963 and Malcolm X on February 21, 1965 had a tremendous impact on Baldwin. In 1964 he dedicated a play, Blues for Mister Charlie, to Evers’ widow Myrlie Evers, and their children, as well as the four young girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. Baldwin left the States for Istanbul, Turkey in late 1965 looking for a place to rest and recover his creative voice.

Beginning with a visit in 1961, Baldwin spent nearly a decade living on and off in Istanbul. These years saw the publication of his next novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone in 1968 and the script of a film biography of Malcolm X titled One Day When I Was Lost in 1972. As the late sixties became the early seventies, Baldwin wrestled with issues of race, masculinity, and sexuality in an essay collection, No Name in the Street, and he completed his first novel in six years, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Baldwin’s 50th birthday arrived in August, 1974, and he wrote to his brother, David, “Pray for the Old Warrior … weary, but not downcast.” (Leeming, 330) Within the following year he would complete a children’s book, Little Boy, Little Boy, with the artist Yoran Cazac, as well as a reminiscent book mixing film criticism and memoir, The Devil Finds Work. Both would be published in 1976. During this time he also began work on his last major novel, Just Above My Head, which he would complete in early 1979.

During the early 1980s Baldwin took several trips to the southern United States, writing a series of essays reporting from Atlanta that would eventually become Evidence of Things Not Seen, published in 1985. By the summer of 1986 Baldwin’s health had deteriorated significantly, and he retired to the small village of Saint-Paul de Vence in France, where he rented, then owned, a house. He wrote two deeply important essays on sexuality and androgyny for Playboy in these later years, “To Crush the Serpent,” and “Here Be Dragons,” both reprinted in a volume of his collected nonfiction titled The Price of the Ticket.

In 1986 Baldwin began experiencing symptoms of esophageal cancer, and it quickly spread to other areas of his body. By 1987 it had spread to his liver, which was then diseased. Baldwin granted his last interview to Quincy Troupe in October 1987, and he continued to work on two unpublished pieces, a memoir of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. titled Remember This House, and a fictional scene titled The Welcome Table.

Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, and upon his death David Baldwin played “Amazing Grace” on the record player, filling the house in France with song. A funeral was held one week later at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a church who had a decade earlier honored Baldwin as a “prophet of the twentieth century.” When James Baldwin died he was only 63 years old.