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James Arthur Baldwin Biography English Literature Essay

We live in an increasable sophisticated educated world where new choices compete for our attention daily. James Baldwin understand that with his themes of writings: the failure in a Christian church; difficulty family relationships; the failure of the promise of American democracy; questions of sexual and racial identity’s; political and social world; and shaping of the American Negro, then despite of him for that shaping.

In our ever changing world we are faced with uncertainty of our identity, a reoccurring and prominent them in the works of James Baldwin.

James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, in extremely trying circumstances as the son of a domestic worker named of Emma Berdis Jones, newly arrived in Harlem from Maryland. Never to know his real father, his mother married a factory worker, David Baldwin, who was also a storefront preacher from New Orleans. He also was and evangelical preacher, strict and disciplining, he showed James little love. As John W. Roberts put it in the Dictionary of Literary Biography,” the relationship between the youngster and his stepfather, served constant source of tension during James form, years and informs some of his best mature writings.

James was also named after his stepfather, who died eventually in a mental hospital in 1943.

Emma and her husband brought him up in Harlem the eldest of nine children reared. Responsible for the care and upbringing of his siblings. The demands of caring for younger siblings and his stepfather’s religious conventions in large parts shielded the boy from harsh realities of the Harlem streets during the 1930’s. During his youth Baldwin read constantly and slipped away as often as he dared to and even to plays. Although perhaps some sheltered from the perils of the streets, Baldwin knew he wanted to be a writer and thus observed his environment very closely. He grew up in a environment of religious religion observations dire poverty. He became a rival of his stepfather by gibing his first sermon at age 14 (and his last at 17). While on the pulpit, Baldwin practiced dramatic skills and laid a spiritual foundation that would influence his writing and his lecturing. In his childhood James Baldwin was a voracious reader. Baldwin started composing short novels and stories as soon as he could write. At twelve his first story appeared in a church newspaper. He was a bright student who attracted the attention of his principal and his teachers. His principle later attributed his writing’s success to his mother, whose use of language was impressive. One white teacher, Orilla Miller, encouraged his education and artistic expressions. She brought him to New York plays, which angered his father, although Baldwin’s mother approved.

James Baldwin attended Fredrick Douglas Junior High School in 1937. He became editor in 1937, where he published his first essay ”Harlem Than And Now”. As and editor and contributor to school publications, he published poems, short stories, and short plays. He graduated from Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx at age 17 in 1911. Then after that he left home still being 17. After graduation from high school, he worked in several ill-paid jobs and started his literary apprenticeship. It was at this time that he met the black artist Beauford Delany, who was instrumental in helping Baldwin forge and African American artistic identity.

The years after high school were difficult ones. Unable to attend college, Baldwin took a number of laboring jobs trying to support himself and his family. In 1943 he worked as a railroad hand in Belle Meade, New Jersey, for the U.S. Army; there he was subjected to episodes of severe racism. Moving to green which village, Baldwin publicly declared his bisexuality at about this time. His fathers died in 1943, and the funeral occurred on Baldwin’s 19th birthday during the moment of a riot in Harlem. This conflation of events later proved inspiration for his famous essays.

During his defense work in Belle Meade, New Jersey, and in 1943 he began writing full-time. His book about the storefront churches in Harlem with the photographer Theodore Pelatowski did not gain success. In 1945 he had his first encounter with the FBI, in Woodstock, Where he was living in a cabin in the woods. He was interrogated by two men about a deserter. Baldwin had met him at a party, very briefly, and gave the agents the name, Teddy. Afterwards Baldwin felt like being gang-raped,”but they made me hate them, too, with a hatred like hot ice….”(from the Devil Finds Work, 1976)

Although publishers rejected his work, Baldwin’s book reviews and essays in the New Leader, The Nation, Commentary, and Partisan Review, together with the help

of Richard Wright, won him a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948. One day Baldwin approached Richard Wright and asked him to read an early version of his first novel, Wright helped Baldwin obtain the Eugene F. Saxton memorial award of five hundred dollars. Baldwin’s strained relation ships with his stepfather, problems over sexual identity, suicide of a friend, and racism drove him in 1948 to Paris and London. Armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter Baldwin finished the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in Switzerland. It was followed by the play The Amen Corner (1995). Baldwin lived in Europe ten years, mainly in Paris and Istanbul, and later spent long periods in New York. In 1957 he returned to the U.S. in order to become involved in the Southern school desegregation struggle.

One of the reasons Baldwin escaped to London and Paris was to find his sexual identity. Through some difficult financial and emotional periods, Baldwin undertook a process of self-discovery that included both an acceptance of his heritage and an admittance of his bisexuality. In tri-quarterly Robert A. Bone conclusion that Europe gave the author many things,” it gave him a world perspective from which to approach the question of his own identity. It gave him back himself. The immediate fruit of self recovery was a great creative outburst”, in a short order Baldwin complete his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, and a plays, The Amen Corner.

In the summer of his fourteenth birthday, Baldwin under went a dramatic religious conversion during a service at his father’s church. The experience tied him to the Pentecostal faith even more closely; he then became a popular junior minister, preaching full sermons while still in his teens. Students of Baldwin’s writing see this period as an essential one in his development. The structure of and evangelical semmon, with its fiery language and dire warnings, would translate well on the page when the young man began to write. As he grew older however, Baldwin began to ask questions about his involvement in Christianity. His outside readings led him to conclusions that blacks should have little to do with a faith that had been used to enslave them. Questioning mental instability had crippled his stepfather and the family was desperate.

James Baldwin wrote on family hardships because, his stepfather was strict and never had a real relationship with James at all. The only thing they shared in common was the church and the same last name. This is why James Baldwin commonly used the theme of difficulty of family hardships.

In American society on the eve of the civil rights era. Baldwin probed the issues of race with emphasis on self-determination, identity, and reality. In the fifties C.W.E. Bigsby wrote that Baldwin’s central theme in his essays was “the need to accept reality as a necessary foundation for individual identity and thus a logical prerequisite for the kind of saving love in which he places his whole faith… Baldwin sees this simple progression as an urgent formula not only for the redemption of individual men but also for the survival of mankind. In this at least black and white are as one and the Negro’s much-vaunted search for identity can be seen as part and parcel of the American’s long- standing need for self-definition.”

Baldwin’s essays tackled complex psychological issues but remained understandable. His achievements enhanced his reputation both among America’s intellectuals and with the general public. In the mid- 1950’s he returned to America and became a popular speaker on the lecture circuit. The author quickly discovered, however, that social conditions for American blacks had become even bleaker. As the 1960’s began and violence in the south escalated he became increasingly outraged. Baldwin realized that his essays were reaching a white audience and as the civil rights movement gained momentum he sought to warn whites about the potential destruction their behavior patterns might wreak. In 1963 he published a long essay, The Fire Next Time, in which he all but predicted the outbursts of black anger to come. The Fire Next Time made bestseller lists, but Baldwin took little comfort in that fact. The assassination of three of his friend’s civil rights marcher Medgar Evers, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and black Muslim leader Malcolm X shattered any hopes the author might have had for racial reconciliation. Completely disillusioned with the United States, he returned to France in the early 1970s and made his home there until his death in 1987.

Go Tell It on the Mountain was based on the author's experiences as a teenage preacher in a small church. Baldwin had found release from his poor surroundings through a Pentecostal church. He was converted at age fourteen and served in the church as a minister for three years. Baldwin depicted two days in the life of the Grimes family. The 14-year- old John is a good student, religious, and sensitive. "Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself." He has a long series of conflicts with his brutal stepfather, Gabriel, a preacher, who had fathered an illegitimate child in his youth. His mother has her own secrets. John's spiritual awakening unites the family but only superficially - John becomes ready to carry his own weight.

Feelings of strangeness and helpless anger troubled Baldwin during his years in Europe. In an essay, 'Stranger in the Village' (1953), he depicts his visit to a tiny Swiss village. He realizes that the people of the village cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world. The children consider him an exotic rarity and shout Neger! Neger! In the streets without being aware of his reaction under the smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you routine. Despite the salutes and bonsoirs, which Baldwin changed with his neighbors, he also sees in their eyes paranoiac malevolence - there is no European innocence, and the ideas which American beliefs are based on, originated from Europe. "For this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarcely Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconquered continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time."

In Baldwin's second novel, GIOVANNI'S ROOM (1956), the theme was a man's struggle with his homosexuality. David, the narrator, tells his story on a single night. He is a young, bisexual American; Giovanni is his Italian lover, who is to be executed as a murderer, and Hella his would-be wife. "But people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say yes to life." NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME (1962), a collections of essays, explored among others black-white relations in the U.S., William Faulkner's views on segregation, and Richard Wright's work. Wright had encouraged Baldwin when he was an aspiring writer but they never became close friends.

The book became a bestseller as THE FIRE NEXT TIME (1963), in which the author appraised the Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) movement, and warned that violence would result if white America does not change its attitudes toward black Americans. Baldwin's reports on the civil rights activities of the 1960s made him special target of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation that alone accumulated a 1750-page file on him. In the title essay of NOTES OF A NATIVE SON (1955) Baldwin took examples from his own family and the Harlem riot of 1943 to describe the experience of growing up black in America. ANOTHER COUNTRY (1962), a novel, was criticized for its thin characters. The protagonist is a black jazz drummer, who kills himself in despair after disappointments in love and life.

TELL ME HOW LONG THE TRAIN'S BEEN GONE (1968) was according to Mario Puzo "a simpleminded, one-dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters" (The New York Times, June 23, 1968). Again Baldwin had an artist as the protagonist: he is now Leo Proudhammer, a famous actor. Leo's early years in Harlem are depicted in flashbacks. He shares in Greenwich Village a living space with a white, unmarried couple, Barbara and Jerry. Leo and Barbara become lovers but ultimately Leo gains a new life through his love for a young black militant named Christopher, a Malcolm X-like figure.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and drawbacks in civil-rights movement, Baldwin started bitterly to acknowledge that violence may be the only route to racial justice. Some optimism about peaceful progress would later return, but in the early 1970s he also suffered from writer's block. "Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent--which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it." (Baldwin in Collected Essays, 1998)

In a review of Alex Haley's novel Roots Baldwin looked the work through the possibilities of a presidential election year and stated that "the black people of this country bear a mighty responsibility--which, odd as it may sound, is nothing new--and face an immediate future as devastating, though in a different way, as the past which has led us here: I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the black diaspora, which mean that I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the world as we have suffered it until now" (The New York Times, September 26, 1976). IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (1974) showed Baldwin's artistic renewal in a moving and poetic love story of a young talented sculptor, Alonzo Hunt, called Fonny, and his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, the narrator. Fonny is twenty-two, Tish is nineteen. He is accused of a rape, but he is innocent, and Tish struggles to get him free. Baldwin emphasized the importance of family bonds and the simple power of love as a means of survival.

Music, which played a minor role in Go Tell It on the Mountain, moved to the fore in JUST ABOVE MY HEAD (1979), Baldwin's sixth and longest novel. It focused on the lives of a group of friends, who start out preaching and singing in Harlem churches. Among the central characters is Arthur Montana, a gospel singer. His brother Hall, whose balanced middle-class life is far from the religious turmoil’s of the Grimes family, tells Arthur’s story, the decline of his career. African American music in general influenced deeply Baldwin, which is seen also from the titles of his books and their allusions to traditional African American songs. EVIDENCE OF THE THINGS SEEN (1983) was an account of unsolved murder of 28 black children in Atlanta in 1980 and 1981. The work, written mostly as an assignment for Playboy, again disappointed the critics.

James Baldwin was an extraordinary poet/ author who used many themes to connect with his audiences. James Baldwin understood we live in a ever-changing world where education, and new choices compete for our intentions. James Baldwin also understood that you are human no matter what race or sex you are.


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