Every writer hopes to be survived by his work. In the case of James Baldwin, the 32 years since his death seem only to have increased the relevance of the writing he left behind. Consisting of novels, essays, and even a children’s book, Baldwin’s body of work offers different points of entry to different readers. Many begin with with Go Tell it on the Mountain, the semi-autobiographical debut novel in which he mounts a critique of the Pentecostal Church. Others may find their gateway in Baldwin’s fictional treatment of desire and love under adverse circumstances: among men in Paris in Giovanni’s Room, for example, or teenagers in Memphis in If Beale Street Could Talk. But unlike most novelists, Baldwin’s name continues to draw just as many accolades — if not more of them — for his nonfiction.
Those looking to read Baldwin’s essays would do well to start with his first collection of them, 1955’s Notes of a Native Son. In assembling pieces he originally published in magazines like Harper’s and the Partisan Review, the book reflects the importance to the young Baldwin of what would become the major themes of his career, like race and expatriate life.
Though resident at different times in Turkey, Switzerland, and (right up until his dying day) France, he never took his eyes off his homeland of the United States of America for long. Nor, in fact, did the United States of America take its eyes off him. “Over the course of the 1960s,” says Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer in the animated TED-Ed introduction to Baldwin above, “the FBI amassed almost 2,000 documents” as they investigated his background and activities.
That the U.S. government saw Baldwin as so politically dangerous is reason enough to read his books. But as one of America’s most prominent men of letters, he could hardly be written off as a simple firebrand. Though known for his incisive views of white and black America, he believed that everyone, whatever their race, “was inextricably enmeshed in the same social fabric,” that “people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” As he found receptive audiences for his arguments in print and on television, “his faculty with words led the FBI to view him as a threat.” But that very faculty with words — inseparable, as in all the greatest essayists, from the astuteness of the perceptions they express — has assured him a still-growing readership in the 21st century. Contending with the most volatile social and political issues of his time certainly didn’t lower Baldwin’s profile, but any given page of his prose suggests that whatever he’d chosen to write about, we’d still be reading him today.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.