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Sonny’s Blues

James Baldwin

Baldwin’s Style

Historical Context

Important Quotations Explained

Baldwin’s prose style is one of the most distinctive in American literature, known for both its eloquence and rhetorical force. The Bible was one of Baldwin’s earliest literary influences. Throughout his novels and stories, he constantly relies on biblical imagery and phrases to make his moral and political points. In “Sonny’s Blues,” there is the “cup of trembling” and the description of housing projects as “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea,” a phrase that could have been lifted directly from the Book of Revelations in the Bible. Baldwin’s sentences also contain a biblical tone and rhythm. For example, near the conclusion of “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin describes the effect that Sonny’s playing had on him: “I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.” The message and particular words that Baldwin employs also have a biblical tone. At the heart of the sentence is a desire for peace and salvation, ideas that occur repeatedly throughout the Bible.

Baldwin was a preacher before he became a writer, and there is a hint of this former preacher in much of his writing. At times, this background helped Baldwin to reach new heights of poetry and eloquence. At other times, however, Baldwin’s style was criticized for being too overbearing and direct in its use of moral statements. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin strikes a fine balance between employing the occasional rhetorical flourishes and creating morally complicated characters. The closing scene of the story highlights Baldwin’s talent as a stylist. Sonny’s performance is like a religious sermon, but instead of the words of a preacher, there is only the music. Baldwin describes the music’s effect on the narrator with as much grace as a preacher.

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