Thursday, September 2, 2010

James Baldwin

image Raised during the Harlem Renaissance, James Baldwin established his reputation with his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain  in 1953, an autobiographical tale of growing up in Harlem. He became one of the leading African-American authors of his generation, known for novels and essays that tackled black-white and hetero-homosexual relationships. He was particularly a noted essayist during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Baldwin turned to writing after being encouraged by Richard Wright, and, like Wright, left the U.S. after World War II and moved to France. His novels, including Giovanni's Room (1956), Another Country (1962) and Just Above My Head (1979), all deal with the struggle for individuality against intolerance. He also wrote several plays, including Blues For Mister Charlie (1964), and Evidence of Things Not Seen (1986), a book about racially-motivated child murders in Atlanta.

imageA groundbreaking novel for its exploration of homosexuality, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956) holds a unique place in the American and African American literary traditions. Baldwin published it against the advice of Alfred Knopf, who published his acclaimed debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953); editors warned Baldwin that he would jeopardize his potential as a ““Negro”” author by writing a book about white male sexual and cultural identity. However, the determined Baldwin found a British publisher, Mark Joseph, and Dial Press eventually published Giovanni's Room in America.

The first-person narrative centers around David, a white American attempting to “find himself” in France. The novel opens in the present with David recalling his internecine upbringing and an adolescent homosexual encounter. In Paris awaiting the return of his girlfriend and possible fiancée, Hella, David engages in a torrid affair with Giovanni, an Italian bartender. Giovanni loves him unashamedly, and they live together for two months; however, David transforms Giovanni's room into a symbol of their “dirty” relationship. Upon Hella's return from Spain, David abruptly leaves the imagedestitute Giovanni, who has been fired by bar owner Guillaume, a “disgusting old fairy.” David's desertion psychologically destroys Giovanni, who enters a sexually and economically predatory gay underworld. Giovanni eventually murders Guillaume, who reneges on a promise to rehire him in exchange for sex; he is later caught and sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, David, despondent over his mistreatment of Giovanni and the truth about his homosexuality, attempts to rejuvenate himself via marriage. But upon discovering him and a sailor in a gay bar, Hella vows to return to America, wishing “I’d never left it.” The novel's closing tableau replicates its opening: David ponders Giovanni's impending execution and his complicity in his erstwhile lover's demise.

Giovanni's Room fuses the personal, the actual, and the fictional: Baldwin exorcises demons surrounding his own sexual identity while simultaneously capturing the subterranean milieu he encountered in Paris during the late 1940s and early 1950s; he bases the murder plot on an actual crime involving the killing of an older man who purportedly propositioned a younger one; and he weaves a Jamesian tale of expatriate Americans fleeing their “complex fate” in search of their “true” selves. The novel received favorable reviews, many critics applauding imageBaldwin's restrained yet powerful handling of a “controversial” subject. Ultimately, the book is more than a study of sexual identity, as Baldwin himself posited: “It is not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.” Giovanni's Room maintains a seminal place in American, African American, and gay and lesbian literary studies.

Giovanni's Room was the first gay novel I ever read.  I found it utterly fascinating and it began my life long pursuit and love of gay novels. It is not a happy novel, but it is well worth reading.  Baldwin became and inspiration to me.  Recently while listening to NPR, Morning Edition did a story about a a new collection of his works edited by Randall Kenan called The Cross of Redemption.  Here is an excerpt from the transcripts of this story:

The writer James Baldwin once made a scathing comment about his fellow Americans: "It is astonishing that in a country so devoted to the individual, so many people should be afraid to speak."

As an openly gay, African-American writer living through the battle for civil rights, Baldwin had reason to be afraid — and yet, he wasn't. A television interviewer once asked Baldwin to describe the challenges he faced starting his career as "a black, impoverished homosexual," to which Baldwin laughed and replied: "I thought I'd hit the jackpot."

I wish that all of the GLBT population in the world could feel each day like they’d “hit the jackpot."


G said...

baldwin has also become an inspiration to me - thanks for this post as I didn't know of his new book... his work speaks eternally of a wounded body, and soul, but also of a resilience, a beautiful passion...

JoeBlow said...

The new book does sound interesting. He is such a great writer. I know he was not technically part of the Harlem Renaissance, but I couldn't leave him out.