Although James Baldwin today holds a secure position in the canon of twentieth-century literature, more than twenty years after his death he still remains one of America's most illusive authors. An eloquent writer who wanted to be more than just "a Negro novelist," he nevertheless became one of the country's most prominent African American leaders when Time magazine emblazoned his image across its cover in 1963. The body of his work-six novels, a handful of short stories, and five major essay collections along with three plays and a book of poetry-is wide-ranging, complex, and occasionally contradictory, the product of a mind in a tireless dialogue with itself and its paradoxical and swiftly changing culture. Edited and with an introduction by Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and senior fellow of the Center for the Humanities, this volume in the Critical Insights series brings together a wide variety of insightful and provocative essays on Baldwin's novels, short stories, essays, and plays.
Dickstein's introduction considers the rise and fall of Baldwin's remarkable career and the unique space the author carved for himself in American letters. Writing on behalf of The Paris Review, Richard Beck meditates on the many varieties of homelessness that Baldwin-a sometime expatriate always at odds with mainstream American culture-embodied in his work and his life. For those studying Baldwin for the first time, a series of introductory essays acquaint readers with the key themes and contexts of his work. Douglas Field situates Baldwin within the culture and politics of his time, and James Campbell describes how Baldwin's flight to Paris in 1948 influenced two of his most important essays, "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Preservation of Innocence." Horace A. Porter then explores Baldwin's relationship with two of his literary forebears, Richard Wright and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mildred R. Mickle offers a comparative analysis of the depiction of faith in works by Baldwin, Phillis Wheatley, Tananarive Due, and Octavia E. Butler. D. Quentin Miller traces the arc of Baldwin's popular and academic reception up to the present day.
A collection of classic and contemporary essays then deepen readers' understanding. A number of pieces are dedicated to Baldwin's essays and their cultural and political contexts. Geraldine Murphy examines how the New York Intellectuals, with whom Baldwin regularly appeared in the pages of Commentary and Partisan Review, influenced the formation of his early political views, and Douglas Field explicates Baldwin's complex alliance with black nationalism and how its rhetoric affected his later work, a subject F. W. Dupee also takes up in his assessment of The Fire Next Time. Baldwin's individual literary works are also treated in a variety of essays. Charles Scruggs and Peter Kerry Powers both examine Baldwin's first and most popular novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and its themes of regret, recollection, and confession. John M. Reilly considers one of Baldwin's most frequently anthologized short stories, "Sonny's Blues," and Tiffany Gilbert analyzes the themes of nostalgia and sexual desire in close readings of Giovanni's Room and "Going to Meet the Man." Lionel Trilling offers an assessment of Another Country, and C. W. E.
Bigsby in turn considers the merits and flaws of one of Baldwin's few plays, Blues for Mr. Charlie. If Beale Street Could Talk is the subject of two essays, one by Yoshinobu Hakutani and one by Trudier Harris. Rounding out the volume are two highly readable and insightful essays, by Darryl Pinckney, on Baldwin's inimitable mind and the value of his work, as well as a brief biography of Baldwin, a chronology of his life, and a bibliography of resources for readers wishing to learn more about this fascinating author. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources: A chronology of the author's life A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication A general bibliography A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor Notes on the individual chapter authors A subject index