James Baldwin

James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. As the center of African American culture at that time, Harlem was at once a culturally vibrant community of artists and musicians and a neighborhood deeply affected by poverty and violence. Baldwin’s mother, after being abandoned by Baldwin’s legitimate father, worked as a domestic servant and eventually married David Baldwin, a preacher whose strong influence on his stepson was evident not only in James Baldwin’s writing but also in his strong religious devotion. While still a teenager, Baldwin experienced a religious epiphany that led him to become a preacher, an experience that Baldwin used as the basis for his most famous novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952), and incorporated into his play The Amen Corner (1968) and much of his other writing.

Baldwin’s religious fervor had its complications. He had a difficult relationship with his stepfather, and while attending De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he grew to accept his homosexuality, further complicating his role in the church. At De Witt Clinton, Baldwin stood out for his literary talent and ambition. He began spending his spare time in Greenwich Village, the heart of the post–World War II artistic community. There, he met Richard Wright, who had already established himself as an author several years earlier with the publication of his most famous work, Native Son. Wright helped Baldwin win a fellowship to work on his first novel, which went unpublished.

Baldwin turned toward literary criticism as he struggled to make a career for himself as a writer. Frustrated with life in America, Baldwin left New York for Paris, where he met some of the most noted writers and philosophers of the era, including Saul Bellow and the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Baldwin also began to establish a name for himself through a series of essays, some of which were pointedly directed at Baldwin’s first literary mentor, Richard Wright. Despite the success of his essays, Baldwin had yet to fulfill his dream of publishing a novel. In 1951, he retreated to a small village in the Swiss Alps to write what would become his first and most celebrated novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Highly autobiographical, the novel is set in the Harlem of Baldwin’s youth and concerns the religious salvation of a young man, John Grimes, and his problematic relationship with his stepfather.

Go Tell It on the Mountain brought Baldwin wide recognition. The novel was nominated for a National Book Award and brought Baldwin into the forefront of American literature. A few years later, in 1956, Baldwin published his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, which describes an American expatriate in Paris struggling with his homosexuality, as well as Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays that focused on race in America. The civil rights movement had just burgeoned into a national struggle, and Baldwin became one of its most outspoken and eloquent advocates. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and published another highly regarded essay collection, The Fire Next Time (1963). Baldwin’s third novel, Another Country (1962), received mixed reviews but went on to sell millions of copies nonetheless.

Baldwin reached the peak of his fame and popularity as the civil rights movement began its gradual decline, after a number of major victories and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Baldwin continued to turn out an almost relentless series of books, both fiction and nonfiction. Although none of his new books were as well received as his earlier writing, Baldwin’s work continued to express the dominant themes and images from his life. Racial segregation, Harlem, and the nearly overwhelming obstacles faced by young Black men raised in poverty occur again and again throughout his work. 

In his later years, Baldwin spent less of his time in America. In December 1987, at age sixty-three, Baldwin died of stomach cancer at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France.

Background on “Sonny’s Blues”

“Sonny’s Blues” was one of Baldwin’s earliest short stories. Originally published in the Partisan Review in 1957, “Sonny’s Blues” follows the narrator as he comes to discover who his drug-addicted, piano-playing younger brother, Sonny, truly is. Set in Harlem, like many of Baldwin’s other work, “Sonny’s Blues” is a constant struggle between light and darkness, failure and redemption. The story was included in the short-story collection Going to Meet the Man (1965). The collection, which spans more than a decade’s worth of Baldwin’s stories, is notable for the insight it gives into Baldwin’s development as a writer. Like much of Baldwin’s later fiction, the collection was met with mixed reviews by critics, who noted that in many of these stories Baldwin was revisiting the same themes he had covered in his previous work. Nonetheless, the stories in the collection, “Sonny’s Blues” in particular, demonstrate Baldwin’s ability to transform his social and political concerns into art. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin takes on Harlem’s deterioration, religion, drug addiction, and post–World War II America all at the same time. The story, like the characters in it, literally struggles under the weight of so much pressure.