James Baldwin had a way of sometimes signing off at the end of his books—“Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961,” “New York, Istanbul, San Francisco, 1965-1967,” or “Oct. 12, 1973, St. Paul de Vence.” Maybe the words spoke to Baldwin about the labor of composition, suggesting rooms where he’d worked, nights when he’d struggled. Think of “Dublin 1904/Trieste 1914.” As a way of signing off along the road Baldwin was traveling, such markers also said something about the glamour and cosmopolitanism that being a writer had always meant to him.

Baldwin said that throughout his adolescence, hemmed in at home and hemmed in by Harlem, he’d “read books like they were some kind of weird food.” But when he told Richard Wright he’d been dreaming of France since he was twelve years old, maybe he was tugging at an older person’s heartstrings a little. He doesn’t seem to have had any special feeling for French culture or for legends of the Lost Generation, though traces of Hemingway have been detected in his earliest stories. Similarly, Harlem Renaissance lore about Countee Cullen taking classes at the Sorbonne or Langston Hughes waiting tables in Montmartre doesn’t seem to have played much part in Baldwin’s dream of France either. Paris, as the capital of Baldwin’s personal and literary freedom, existed in the future that Wright suddenly projected for him. He followed Wright in 1948, determined to prevent himself from “becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” That was the language of universalism before people accepted that black writers had been speaking it all along.

Around the time that Baldwin left Harlem’s churches, New Jersey’s industrial marshes, and Greenwich Village’s bars for Paris, Henry James was returning to Europe in the luggage of a new generation of American expatriates. Otto Friedrich, a young recent Harvard graduate writing a novel in Paris, remembered that at Christmas in 1949 Baldwin gave him a copy of F.O. Matthiessen’s edition of James’s Notebooks inscribed with lines from The Middle Years that he himself had first quoted to Baldwin.1

Matthiessen challenged the position, made popular by Van Wyck Brooks in the Twenties, that James made a fatal mistake when he became an expatriate, because he cut himself off from his material and produced tempests in “exquisite teapots.”2 Matthiessen argued that James offered a robust examination of American values and the American character, raising themes about “the eternal outsider” and “the passionate pilgrim” that were pertinent to Baldwin. For Baldwin, James’s Americans, searching for experience, transcended their backgrounds in “deep and dark” Europe.

Toward the end of his life Baldwin recalled the isolation of not knowing French his first year in Paris. He was thrown back onto his own speech, which was closer to that of Bessie Smith than it was to that of Henry James, he said.3 But in his hunt for a model, it’s not hard to see the appeal that an American martyr to sensibility would have had for Baldwin, a deracinated young black writer seeking to ally himself with an aesthetic that held the protest tradition to be confining. And yet, for all that, too much romantic emphasis can be given to James’s influence on Baldwin’s work.

In the beginning Baldwin set the bar very high, and maybe one of the reasons his fiction generally doesn’t give off the effortless authority of his essays is that he was somewhat inhibited by how much he felt he needed to achieve as a novelist in order to consider himself validated as a writer. He came of age in the days of the quest for the Great American Novel, the definitions of which can seem old-fashioned or middle-brow in the present era. But the conventional literary novel, with its responsibility to reflect something profound about society, was Baldwin’s ennobling venture, his chosen form.

As a first novel worked on and worked on, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) hung over Baldwin’s head for as long as Invisible Man (1952) had over Ralph Ellison’s. But Baldwin was working with a third-person voice that was much less liberated than Ellison’s on-the-edge first-person narrator. For Baldwin, whose fictional imagination answered to a jealous creed of being true to experience, the autobiographical elements of Go Tell It on the Mountain were perhaps less than a blessing for a first novelist.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is about a religious family in Harlem so clearly based on Baldwin’s own that he no doubt had to think about appeasing or failing to appease the shadows of the real people that fell across his characters. By becoming a writer he meant to make the home folks proud, but grime in the remembered, then disguised, shabby living room can be wounding to a working mother and to siblings still calling that living room home. Baldwin’s mother was said to have been especially worried about how her husband was depicted in her son’s work. In the title essay of Notes of A Native Son (1955), Baldwin talks about his fraught relationship with his father, but gives no indication that Baldwin senior was not his natural father. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, the youthful main character is illegitimate, but hasn’t been told that the father who hates him is really his stepfather.


Go Tell It on the Mountain has a self-conscious, guarded formality that Baldwin didn’t need after this attempt to make peace with the ghosts in his father’s house. He tells a sadistic story, but there is an underlying gentleness in his farewell to the Harlem he came from. Kindness to his own sympathy is in the exculpatory psychology and also in the tone that announces the wish to make Lenox Avenue the setting for high art, to credit people who are socially marginal with being as capable of refined inner dramas and complex feelings about the ordering principles of their lives as any bourgeois family in fiction. The careful texture of Baldwin’s realism may explain why Langston Hughes concluded that Baldwin had written “a low-down story in a velvet bag.” Hughes’s criticism showed how little attuned to the black church the ear of the blues poet could be. Baldwin’s first novel is saturated with Scripture and the rhetoric about Judgment Day as a settling of earthly accounts that still has a special meaning for black congregations.

Baldwin wanted Go Tell It on the Mountain to be about black people, not about the race problem. The tender age of his protagonist helps to distance his Harlem story from the protest fiction he had criticized Wright and Chester Himes for writing. The novel opens in 1935, on the fourteenth birthday of Johnny Grimes, who has been marked by his family and their Pentecostal church to be a preacher. His severe father is a deacon, a “holy handyman.” Johnny faces an evening “tarry service” at the storefront church, Temple of the Fire Baptized, at which he is expected to “come through” to the Lord, to rise from “the threshing floor” as one of God’s anointed. The rituals of the all-night service will signal not only Johnny’s surrender to God, but also his submission to his father’s authority, after which his destiny in the church will be, so he fears, “irrevocable.”

Johnny’s father, Gabriel, once had a mighty reputation as an evangelist, but his work on the preaching circuit has long since been curtailed by the factory job he needs to support his family. Gabriel is consumed with hatred for whites and looks forward to the day when whites will show Johnny that to them he also is just another “nigger.” As interpreter of the Lord’s Word, Gabriel slaps Johnny’s long-suffering mother and savagely whips his rebellious, street-inclined younger brother. Johnny recognizes that his intelligence is a shield from, if not a weapon against, his father.

The question of Johnny’s place in US society is off in the future, but he knows enough to have decided that he will not be like his father, “or his father’s fathers.” There are libraries downtown that he hasn’t yet the confidence to enter, but he believes that if he can conquer the world his father has failed in, then he can put in place of the love his father denies him the approval of white people who despise black men like his father. He excels in school and has been told by white teachers that he “might become a Great Leader of His People,” though he has no interest in his people or in “leading them anywhere.” His father only tells him that he’s “ugly” and that he has “the face of Satan.”

Johnny can’t reconcile his attraction to the larger world with what his family has taught him is the will of God. The path to the experiences he craves seems to lead to sin’s precipice, which can mean the movies, not to mention his sexual awakening. His memories of going to church on Sunday include seeing people still in their Saturday night clothes and being curious about what the “muddy-eyed” men and harsh-voiced women did in the cathouses. The eldest of four children, Johnny has heard his parents in their bedroom “over the sound of rats’ feet,” and remembers the first time his mother disappeared and returned with a little stranger. A fifth child is on the way. Johnny is also preoccupied with the reason for his confusion in the presence of his new Sunday school teacher, the pastor’s seventeen-year-old sinewy nephew from Georgia who has already been censured for the sin that is waiting in his flesh.


The biblical-sounding vocabulary of “lewdness” and “loins” may be corny now, in the way that sexual terminology dates faster than most other things in fiction, but it isn’t coy. The attempt not to be shy about the “trembling,” “moaning,” and “mewing” is very much in character with the familiar-with-the-low but high-minded realism in that era of the daring but sober Problem Novel. A woman’s vagina is “her secrecy,” this being Baldwin, and she may find herself in the act of “uncovering some black boy’s hanging curse” for the same reason.

Sin, not racism, is the subject most discussed in Go Tell It on the Mountain, though the novel makes it clear that the people who debate the nature of sin have frustrated and brutal lives because they are black and poor. Their fear of sin is an expression of their having internalized the social controls that afflict blacks in segregated US society, which is why the seemingly arbitrary renunciations of the “holy life” offend Johnny in a way he cannot yet articulate. Church doctrine takes over from and embellishes the larger society’s rules. At the same time temptations to sin represent the limited chances blacks have to make choices as individuals. Sin presents itself to Johnny’s mind as a form of human potential.

Baldwin gathers his main characters at the tarry service where Johnny is to enter into the communion of the saints. While the elders watch Johnny go into a deep trance of prayer and emotion at the altar, Baldwin interrupts the action to give chapters to Johnny’s Aunt Florence, to his father, Gabriel, and then to his mother, Elizabeth. Their thoughts travel away from the church service and back to the South of the turn of the century and World War I. They remember their own journeys to the Lord and the blighted promises of their youth. They are only one generation away from slavery. Their memories show that Baldwin’s Harlem of the Great Depression is still an insecure migrant community.

Baldwin had not yet visited the South when he was writing Go Tell It on the Mountain. Perhaps that is why this region, as Johnny’s relatives remember it, is a generalized place of sketchy interiors, frosty yards, weeping gates, anonymous fields, starry nights, unspecified taverns, and roads that lead to nowhere. However, for Baldwin’s purposes, in his novel he almost didn’t need to have been South. The contrast with the descriptions of the everyday urban environment reinforces the message that a legacy of confinement was fading for Johnny’s generation. His uptown streets are quick with sensation and possibility while the South is the landscape of the dimly remembered, although ultimately inescapable.

Memories of devastated love and transgressions yet to be atoned for make the grown-ups in Johnny’s family somewhat like lifers eyeballing a short-timer on his way to his parole hearing. Even when Baldwin shows the congregation on a boat ride and at a picnic, the sanctified church is as isolated and hierarchical as a prison. But the Bible gives the generations a common language. The longings of the present and the sorrows of the past find steady distillation in the metaphors of the gospel songs, spirituals, and hymns that either come up within each chapter or stand as epigrams for chapters. Baldwin assigns his characters a sharp theological awareness and liturgical fluency. They know the Books of Deuteronomy, Luke, or Matthew as coldly as he did. Johnny himself hasn’t much private language or kid slang. Instead, phrases borrowed from passionate seekers after the City on the Hill supply fuel for what the unquenchable fire of adolescence wants to say.

And still, on the summit of that hill he paused. He remembered the people he had seen in that city, whose eyes held no love for him. And he thought of their feet so swift and brutal, and the dark gray clothes they wore, and how when they passed they did not see him, or, if they saw him, they smirked. And how their lights, unceasing, crashed on and off above him, and how he was a stranger there. Then he remembered his father and his mother, and all the arms stretched out to hold him back, to save him from this city where, they said, his soul would find perdition.

In the end Johnny is saved. He has a fleeting vision of God. After much weeping and raging, “the Lord laid him out.”

The story Baldwin tells in The Fire Next Time (1963) of how he left the church when he was seventeen makes it tempting to regard flight from the church as the eventual outcome for Johnny, too, regardless of the note of acceptance with which Go Tell It on the Mountain ends. Johnny’s rebellion can only have been postponed, because in most development-of-a-sensibility novels individual freedom is a secular dream. Some commentators have argued that in his novel Baldwin views the church as a form of escapism, like sex and drugs, and that the novel’s religious aspects are just part of its larger culture. But where Baldwin’s portrayal of his church was once spoken of as an expression of migration’s trauma and the adaptability of urban blacks, now it is just as likely to be taken as proof of continuity with the Southern past, especially since rediscovered nineteenth-century spiritual narratives about the conversion experience have provided a literature for the history of the religion of blacks.4

Baldwin’s solemnity about the black church leading a supplicant from the bondage of sin into the blessings of sanctification hadn’t been seen in fiction by blacks for some time. The piety of African-American literature was a constraint that Harlem Renaissance writers had thrown off. Countee Cullen’s One Way to Heaven (1932) turns on the falseness of the con artist hero’s conversion. “A Christian must learn to lap water like a dog.” Zora Neale Hurston steps aside to explain the social anthropology of the raucous back-country services and the visions of heaven, “the rim bone of nothing,” that accompany the conversion of the womanizing preacher-hero in her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934). But Baldwin never cracks a smile at the expense of his church, as if to say that by his time black people had been laughed at enough on stage and in movies for being on their knees. Then, too, maybe humor did not seem sufficiently literary to Baldwin. In any case Baldwin’s realism reasserts the dignity of the African-American religious idiom. It was as though, in France, Baldwin had contracted an existential seriousness about rebellion against God.


The sad conclusion of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), finds God still on the side of the narrator, David, a white American expatriate telling, in a series of extended flashbacks, the story of his passionate affair with Giovanni, an Italian youth who had tried to survive in the after-hours economy of Paris. Baldwin’s gutsiness, considering the 1950s and the hidden risks to his name as a writer, is apparent in the premise of queer love between white characters who are not sorry in the expected way for that love. Though Giovanni commits a murder and is condemned to the guillotine, David doesn’t think that just because he fell in love with Giovanni he has sacrificed the “heavy grace of God.” Rather, he blames himself for having failed Giovanni, for abandoning him to the life in which violence between the hustling and the hustled is not unknown.

Boys are more afraid of affection than they are of lust, Baldwin has David observe at one point: an example of how, when dealing with the category “homosexuality,” Baldwin usually ends up being more concerned with masculine desire and ideas of masculinity in general. In an essay published in Zero, a small Paris magazine in 1949, Baldwin goes beyond his wintry Protestantism to declare that homosexuality was not condemned by nature so much as it was a crime in the sight of God, “man’s most intense creation.” He suggests that those who abhor it judge their own morality instead, in much the same way that in his essays on race he refused to let the subject put him on the defensive and threw the need to explain back onto whites. He ridicules American novels that unwittingly present the queer as someone who could “wear down the resistance of a normal man,” pointing out that such novels are concerned not with homosexuality but with “the ever-present danger of sexual activity between men.”

However, in a much less bold essay, published in 1954,5 Baldwin raises the themes that Giovanni’s Room elaborates on: the rigid concepts that make masculinity a prison; the woman as fact in male life and warden of doubtful reform; the sexual underworld as a trap. At the beginning of their affair Giovanni asks David why he doesn’t accommodate both sexes. But bisexuality isn’t an option for David. He is fixed instead on what he sees as the miserable social destiny that openly expressed love for a man would impose on him.

David begins his story in the south of France, where he is waiting for Giovanni’s execution and preparing to go back to the US. Hella, the girl he nearly married, is already on the high seas homeward. David regrets that he once lied to Giovanni, saying he’d never slept with a man before. He is moved to relate the history of his “self-contempt,” starting with a boy on Coney Island and the anguish after they’d been together that he had done something monstrous. Unwanted knowledge of himself sat in his mind like a “decomposing corpse.” In San Francisco, living with his father and aunt, he sank into a life of weary drinking, unhappy women, and low-level jobs. He managed his routine of ordinariness by refusing to admit what “shamed and frightened” him. In his heart, however, he knew why he left for France.

His second year in Paris, broke and aimless, he meets the dark and “leonine” Giovanni. David, good-looking and blond, sometimes gets dinner invitations from an older businessman who has introduced him to an ill-lit bar that has too “emphatic” a reputation. Giovanni enters the scene along the same lines, given work papers by the bar’s predatory patron alert to the value of a beautiful barman. David and Giovanni accept favors without being obligated or defining themselves outright, using men who would exploit them if given the chance, maybe even humiliate them in retaliation for wanting young men who have no desire for them.

Giovanni’s Room is mean to the middle-aged and even meaner to its male characters who aren’t butch. As David and Giovanni slide in an evening from being regular guys to being boys with a “vocation,” they are closely watched by “les folles,” the bar’s habitués who resent that their own youthful discoveries are long past. Baldwin presents the doomed love of Giovanni and David sympathetically, but David as a first-person narrator is also a guide to the supposedly unhappy sexual underworld. He encounters the sort of painted customers who filled Gustav von Aschenbach with foreboding.

David says in retrospect that he was unable to resist the storm of his instant connection with Giovanni, after which the metaphor of Giovanni being dangerous water develops quickly. Giovanni’s squalid maid’s room, far from the city center and smelling of an alcohol-burning stove, becomes their retreat. David feels that life there is taking place beneath the sea. He waits a month before he tells Giovanni about Hella. A late winter and an entire spring of improvised life with Giovanni brings about the dreaded change in David. The day comes when they are out walking and David is attracted to a passing youth who likes the attention. But another day, when by himself, David stares at a sailor and is intimidated by the answering sneer. Once he was a guy whose contempt put in their place guys like the one he has become.

Giovanni loses his job because of the patron’s jealousy, and increasingly David feels as though he is being dragged to the bottom of their private sea. He begins to resist Giovanni’s spell, to reject their apparent future of talks, cigarettes, walks, and cognac. The relationship of stumbling home drunk together becomes a power struggle. David accuses Giovanni of wanting to make him into a housewife because, he says, Giovanni lacks the nerve to find a real one. In the early summer David gets word of Hella’s return to Paris. He walks out of the room without telling Giovanni where he is going. Three days later he comes across Giovanni by chance and Hella doesn’t understand his rudeness to a friend who’d taken him in, so he told her, when he could no longer afford his hotel. Though David says he’d come to regard women as solid ground and Hella as a post he could moor himself to, throughout Baldwin’s novel women come off as clueless in a male world of covert signals and shaded conversations, unless they are shrewd crones keeping watch over the cash register.

When David goes back for his things, the discarded Giovanni, having little left to fight for and no longer interested in the moral upper hand, reveals that he left his village and vineyard for Paris the day he buried his stillborn child and made his woman and mother scream by spitting on the family crucifix. In Paris, he, the blasphemer, was suffering God’s punishment. David closes the door on Giovanni’s tears and reproaches. After that, whenever he runs into him, David notes that Giovanni’s clothes are shabbier and his mannerisms off-putting in their camp theatricality. Finally, a hostile look before a newsstand is the only communication between them.

David has no identity apart from being an American, a child of conformity, abroad in that very American sense of being in flight from himself. Travel, as a form of breakdown and recuperation, permits the shattering, then restorative liaison that must be renounced upon reentering the adult world. As he looks back he sees Giovanni as a street kid whom he could not save.

Time goes by; the stones of Paris turn gray again; and a face comes back to haunt David. Giovanni is wanted for the murder of the patron. David imagines Giovanni’s desperate act, his stored-up rage that made him lash out at the patron who, David speculates, coerced Giovanni into sex, debased him, and then laughingly refused to give him his job back. Baldwin sacrifices the patron so that the story doesn’t have to have a predictable suicide—not that a queer murder isn’t also predictable in what was at the time a literary tradition of inevitably tragic heroes. Perhaps Baldwin decided that attacking an exploiter and being executed by the state gave Giovanni more masculine nobility than would dying by his own hand from a broken heart.

Giovanni’s Room has a fast-moving plot—rare in Baldwin’s fiction. The compression of its prose conveys a sense that the best lines about love have behind them two or more about the pain of love. There is some period scenery, showing a city slowly emerging from postwar austerity, but mostly the stone-softening mist, scalding sun, or lightless gray of Paris has a function like that of a soundtrack, indicating the moods of David’s deteriorating affair. He has been in love with the city and has got sick of it. Moreover, because it is a story retold, Baldwin is free to move immediately into the elegiac and valedictory, the tone that gives his personality as a writer the most command:

Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them: in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.

This is the fatalism of first love—after the apprenticeship to love is over, so is love itself.

Of all Baldwin’s novels, Giovanni’s Room, with its theme of the failure of innocence, offers the most straightforward connection to his reading of Henry James. David’s Americanness, as a cultural impediment, Baldwin likened to Lambert Strether’s New England heritage in The Ambassadors. As though he had heard Strether’s advice, “Live!,” David admits that his difficulty was in saying “Yes” to life. His affair with Giovanni even covers the same span of seasons, from winter to summer, as Strether’s rescue mission of young Chad Newsome. David’s being white further intensifies the connection to James. His Americanness can be set against the Old World without the complications of race.

Baldwin’s all-white cast also seemed a factor in the novel’s bravery when it was first published, though Leslie Fiedler pointed out at the time how weird it was that there was not a single black in David’s Paris, their presence being one of the things the city had long been known for among Americans.6 The exclusion of blacks from Giovanni’s Room may be the result of the trouble Baldwin had with editors over early drafts of Go Tell It on the Mountain, when they objected to Johnny’s recognizing his homosexuality. Perhaps Baldwin told himself he could do either blacks or queers, but not both. Moreover, David’s whiteness gave Baldwin the camouflage he needed in order to let David speak out about homosexuality.

There were notable precedents of blacks using whites as protagonists. For black writers at the turn of the century, such as Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, the “non-racial” or “raceless” novel was a commercial venture, usually a love story. Later, in the 1930s, novels by blacks that feature whites as main characters were influenced by the works of naturalism that had brought the ethnic working class into American literature, which meant that they were not “raceless” in the old-fashioned sense. William Attaway’s first novel, Let Me Breathe Thunder (1937), about two train-hopping hoboes in the American Northwest, has a homoerotic element in the devotion of the first-person narrator to his feckless buddy. Chester Himes’s first novel, finished in 1937, Yesterday Will Make You Cry,7 is an autobiographical account of his prison life, which makes it surprising that the college-educated narrator, stifling his love for a fellow inmate, is white. Willard Motley’s first novel, Knock on Any Door (1947), follows the son of Italian immigrants, from altar boy in Denver to a life of crime and the execution chamber in Chicago.8 It is telling that these novels are about whites who have lost caste.

The strictly “raceless” novel returned with Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday (1954), one of the failures of his exile. Wright’s portrait of a New York insurance executive having a murderous breakdown was greeted in some quarters with the argument that in dealing exclusively with white characters Wright had denied himself what gave his work its ferocious animation. To a certain extent, criticism of Wright for being too abstract was an attack on his literary ambition. The raceless novel, in any case, or the novel with whites as main characters, figures, at least as an experiment, in the careers of the best-known expatriate black writers.9 They were, in effect, questioning the definitions of the black writer, if not of African-American literature itself, rather as black science fiction writers of the next generation would do in the 1960s.

In the Fifties black writers had few chances to demonstrate that they had any knowledge of life that did not have something to do with being black. Blacks did not impinge on the raceless novel written by blacks in the way that the white world suffuses the atmosphere of all-black novels. It’s easy to forget that in Go Tell It on the Mountain no whites really come into the picture, apart from a man Johnny bumps into on his way home from Central Park, which gives Baldwin the opportunity to rewrite the scene from Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator throttles the white man who jostled him because he didn’t see him. In Baldwin, the black youth and the elderly white are polite as they go their separate ways.


Giovanni’s Room was as much Baldwin’s goodbye to Paris as Go Tell It on the Mountain had been to Harlem. His experience of the old Modernist capital as a milieu made him bold once he got back to the US. He introduced his Harlem to his Paris in the Greenwich Village of Another Country (1962), which he began in Paris but apparently didn’t get far with until he returned to the US for an extended period in 1957. It is a dialogue-driven work about various kinds of love, particularly the interracial love affair kind. Baldwin is aggressive in depicting sexual relations between blacks and whites, as if to make up for the gentle metaphors that bridged the sexual waters in his first two novels.

He writes here as though he were dragging the subject of mixed-race romance from its traditional clandestine atmosphere. Sex scenes previously associated with dime-store novels or the avant-garde had been gradually making their way into the literary mainstream. Nevertheless, Baldwin was still trading in stereotypes, almost the only language then available with which to speak of the sexual fear of social equality and race mixing.

Baldwin never says so directly, but it can be worked out that Another Country opens in 1955, in the months after the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black youth with a speech impediment who had allegedly whistled at a white store owner’s wife in Money, Mississippi. Though weighted with a cotton gin chain, Till’s body rose to the surface of the Tallahatchie River. During the trial that became one of the most notorious of the decade, the defendants ate ice cream cones in court. Baldwin would base his play, Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), on Till’s murder. In Another Country the case is a scandal his characters would have been aware of. It is important, however, as part of Baldwin’s social context, a background that says his novel’s theme is serious, not exotic. The anxieties of freedom that his black and white characters brood on are set in a time when whites could still pretend that a black man accused of wanting to have sex with a white woman gave a jury sufficient grounds to acquit the white men who had killed him.

New York City is not America, many would have thought back then, but as Baldwin portrays it Greenwich Village, with its hostile landlords and adolescent gangs, was far from being a haven for blacks and queers. He sometimes places a resentful white policeman on the pavement, looking in at the mixed bar crowd. The interracial couples and same-sex partners rage a great deal about how strangers react to their anticonventional relationships. As Baldwin’s people of the sexual vanguard ride uptown and downtown, on subways and in taxis, in the company of their lovers or alone with their thoughts, they are like members of a resistance group or a political underground, alert that people who may not be on their side can read their minds.

Blacks and whites alike are victims of the country’s clotted sexual attitudes, Baldwin perhaps means to show, because his characters all carry such a punitive burden of assumptions about the sexual characteristics of blacks and whites. Baldwin’s people see themselves as living in a society in the process of breaking down, which leaves them individually responsible for setting and upholding new rules of behavior. This responsibility depends on scorching honesty about the Self and a humble belief in the redemptive power of Love. Much like the Christianity it is somehow intended to replace, Love, for Baldwin’s defeated hipsters and defensive bohemians, is a revelatory faith.

The realization that love matters more than race revenge has come too late for Rufus Scott, a black jazz drummer who reviews his descent into the hopelessness that has him trying to sell himself to men in Times Square for the promise of a warm bed. With Rufus, the novel enters the first of its many sprawling flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Seven months earlier: Rufus meets Leona, a Southern white girl, at a Harlem club. He takes her to a party of Charlie Parker music and marijuana. They have sex on the balcony overlooking Riverside Drive and Rufus forgets the tenderness inspired by her story of divorce, estrangement from family, and the removal of her child from her care. “Under his breath he cursed the milk-white bitch and groaned and rode his weapon between her thighs.” The “venom” shoots out of him, “enough for a hundred black-white babies.” She goes home with him to his Village apartment, to a relationship of booze, misunderstandings, violence, and more sex that is close to rape in his mind.

Rufus’s friends watch helplessly as he scourges Leona and thus destroys himself. When Rufus’s best friend, Vivaldo, meets Leona, Rufus suspects him of flirting, of thinking that because Leona is with him, a black man, she is available to any man. Then he frets that Vivaldo might not think Leona attractive enough for white men. Rufus also resents the freedom to misbehave that Vivaldo has because he’s white, an “Irish wop” from the depths of Brooklyn. Vivaldo’s women can make drunken scenes because his presence protects them, whereas Leona is that much more vulnerable when out with Rufus. The racial sensitivities of white lovers and white friends have a period quality in the novel, as much as the hep lingo of cats, squares, you dig, dads, kicks, and pads. “I know—a lot of things hurt you that I can’t really understand,” the earnest Vivaldo admits to Rufus, who doesn’t like to be called “boy.”

One of Rufus’s fights with Leona starts when she, “a hard up white lady,” tries to tell him that there is nothing wrong in being “colored.” She knows that Rufus doesn’t think he’s good enough, even for her. She can’t compete with his unhappiness; she can only hurt along with him. She loses her waitress job and can’t get another, her appearance has so deteriorated. Rufus also stops working, has nothing left to pawn, and picks fights with white men. Apparently, this is his first affair with a white woman. Until he was with Leona he hadn’t thought about “the big world” and its power to hate. He feels that he is suddenly visible to whites because he is with a white woman. Still, it’s never entirely clear why this relationship should send a member of the sophisticated jazz scene into a frenzy of self-hate, racial fear, and sexual rage.

In the days before his death Rufus’s urban world becomes brutally eroticized; even subways seem to him to enter tunnels with “phallic abandon.” Perhaps it is enough for Baldwin to suggest that Leona is the fuse to an explosion that had been building in Rufus for some time. Battered by him, Leona is taken to Bellevue. In a paroxysm of guilt, Rufus leaps to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Rufus’s suicide comes early on in the novel. He is the one black character depicted largely through an internal point of view. After his funeral, the emotional emphasis of the novel shifts from how blacks feel in the white world to how the experiences of the white characters with and among blacks affect their feelings about the white world. Vivaldo will fall in love with Rufus’s sister, Ida, and she, the black woman, is to be observed from the outside, her thoughts guessed at by Rufus’s white friends, who scrutinize her intensely. The white characters in Baldwin’s novel become anxious over how they really feel about blacks when it comes to holding hands with a black person on the street and how they hope the blacks they know will see and judge them nevertheless.

Vivaldo is no stranger to uptown. He’s been rolled while trying to pick up women in Harlem. Even so, he persists in thinking that he belongs in those “dark streets…precisely because the history written in the color of his skin contested his right to be there.” For Vivaldo, associating with black people expresses his sense of escape from the “unexamined” life that he imagines is the lot of the multitudes around him. It is as though he is visible to himself when he’s with Ida, his portable Harlem. He is not uncritical of her, of her haughty and free manner. Vivaldo is proud of her in that “overt, male way,” but soon it is his turn to wonder, much as Rufus did, if white men are looking at Ida as a whore, if they regard him as having made nothing more than a back-alley conquest.

As a bohemian, Vivaldo looks down on television and takes an instant dislike to the agent and producer Ellis, whom he and Ida meet at a book party. However, he is threatened by Ellis’s power, especially when Ida responds too readily to Ellis’s offer to help her should she decide to pursue a career as a singer. Vivaldo, the bookstore clerk, believes that the possibility of becoming a true artist still exists for him, if he could only buckle down to the novel that Ida keeps him from working on when she’s at his Village apartment, turning up “the carnal heat.” Vivaldo’s chief literary ideal is Dostoevsky—and feverish Dostoevsky more than circuitous Henry James seems to have been in Baldwin’s mind for the hot-tempered talkathon about forgiveness that is Another Country.

Into the story of Vivaldo’s insecurity and Ida’s hurt, of bared teeth and bellies grinding “cruelly,” of whinnying, clinging, galloping, and bucking either like “an infuriated horse” or a “beached fish,” comes Eric, who has been living in France for three years, not getting far as an actor. Eric is an Alabama white boy with a history of loving black men. He is first seen in Another Country in the south of France, where Giovanni’s Room ends. But not for him David’s unhappy fate. Eric has Yves, a rent boy who reminds him of Rufus in his “brave, tough vulnerability.” He also has a decision to make: whether to return to New York to be in a Broadway play or to allow his sojourn in Europe to turn into “exile.”

Baldwin renders the sex between Eric and Yves as a matter of whispers and heartbeats like “the far-off pounding of the sea.” The romantic modesty contrasts sharply with the mattress- thrashing between men and women in the novel. Eric’s role is to be therapeutic, a layer-on of hands for the officially straight but emotionally weary. However, his importance in Baldwin’s scheme of black man-white woman/ white man-black woman is symbolic. In a novel of such committed psychological realism, where Baldwin piles assertion upon assertion about his characters’ states of mind, that Eric appears as an artificial presence has less to do with his sexuality than with his being unmixed as a character, unlike the others, who are a mess. Then, too, the ghost of Rufus keeps upstaging him, stealing his function as a prompter of self-examination in others.

Ida has been working as a waitress, but is perhaps on her way as an artist after her debut in a Village jazz bar, arranged by Ellis. The occasion is marred by Vivaldo’s jealousy. Ida and Ellis may be having an affair. As if tracing Rufus’s footsteps, Vivaldo pitches around Manhattan:

And summer came, the New York summer, which is like no summer anywhere. The heat and the noise began their destruction of nerves and sanity and private lives and love affairs. The air was full of baseball scores and bad news and treacly songs; and the streets and the bars were full of hostile people, made more hostile by the heat…. It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves. Whoever, in New York, attempted to cling to this right, lived in New York in exile—in exile from life around him; and this, paradoxically, had the effect of placing him in perpetual danger of being forever banished from any real sense of himself.

The story begins to accelerate. The drinking also picks up. Baldwin’s people put away as much as any Village denizen in a Dawn Powell novel. The Brandy Alexanders and highballs of that time and place are never far from needing hands as secrets come out. Baldwin inserts Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday lyrics throughout Another Country, hymns carrying the gospel that people tear one another limb from limb in the name of “that love jive.”

Ida turns out to be very conscious of herself as the agent of her brother’s retribution. She admits that revenge for what happened to Rufus just because he was black guides her dealings with Ellis and Vivaldo as white men. Black men uptown who could be of use to her in her vague plan to get back at the world don’t want her because she is too dark. They see women like her on Seventh Avenue every day. So, like Rufus, she has hit the A train for downtown:

I used to see the way white men watched me, like dogs. And I thought about what I could do to them. How I hated them, the way they looked, and the things they’d say, all dressed up in their damn white skin, and their clothes just so, and their little weak, white pricks jumping in their drawers.

Sometimes Vivaldo suspects that the black male musicians she works with aren’t offended by Ellis’s presence, because they can assume that Ida is using him. But Vivaldo, who can do nothing for her professionally, is therefore obviously her lover, and the black musicians show their hostility to him by ignoring him at her gigs. Black men are made uncomfortable by the couple or they accuse Ida of betraying and castrating them. However, as Ida reveals to Vivaldo, they are free to insult her, a black woman, even on stage. Reverse exploitation—a black woman using a white man—doesn’t work here. Ellis grins from the sidelines at Ida’s public humiliations and it suits him, married himself, that she, his girlfriend, always has to go home too.

Vivaldo tells Ida that suffering has no color. But she has made him suffer because of his color, even if she only has the power to do so because he is the more loving. Baldwin was too interested in the concreteness of racial experience to mean that love transcends race. Ida recognizes that she is being vengeful toward the wrong white guy, but he’s the only sort of white guy who would care why. Baldwin shows Ida in the act of “stroking” away Vivaldo’s “innocence,” but Vivaldo’s asking Ida to be more trusting of and less defensive with him is not the same thing as Ida’s teaching him what it’s like for her to be with a white guy or the cost for him of being with her. He must renounce his whiteness, even its hip version. But the racial conversion, so to speak, doesn’t work both ways. What is there for him if she gives up blackness? The sheer edginess of the situation is part of her attractiveness to him in the first place.

“I am Baudelaire and I love my brown mistress,” the narrator in Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, published four years before Another Country, exclaims of his lost “half Indian half Negro” love. Leo, as Kerouac dubs himself, first sees Mardou sitting on a car one night in San Francisco in 1953. The possibility of immersing his “lonely being” in the “warm bath and salvation of her thighs” inspires his crusade to overcome her distrust. Soon he is the “big gleeful hoodlum” proud to have a “nice strong little beauty to cut along the street with,” proud of her “thongs of sandals, dark eyes, little soft brown face,” her “part Negro highclass” and “bop generation” way of speaking, and especially pleased that the bop king himself, Charlie Parker, is “distinctly digging” her from the stage and noting that she is with him.

Leo worries what his mother, her sister, and her Southern in-laws would make of Mardou. During bouts of paranoia he is sure that all black women are thieves and that Mardou will steal his “white soul.” The love binge ends when, after three months of drinking, smoking, and yapping until dawn, he is careless with her once too often. Leo had hoped she would bring clarity to his tragic vision of himself and America, but she moves on instead. As a story of love gone wrong, Kerouac’s evocative novel demonstrates how racial images filtered through sexual desire—very much like those in Baldwin’s novel—can take on tender meanings when the intention of a work is self-criticism rather than social criticism.

Another Country has both a deliberate emphasis on the sexual images of blacks in the white mind as well as an unreflective endorsement of the image of blacks as being more passionate than most whites. Such images have a long history in the US. That black women were said to be wanton helped to justify the coercive practices of slavery; after the Civil War the image of black men as rapists of white women formed part of the campaign to disenfranchise black male voters. By the Jazz Age, when the tom-toms were beckoning, the cult of the primitive had transformed many low-down qualities that were supposedly innate in blacks into cultural virtues. One of the legacies of the Harlem Renaissance was the take-over and literary embrace of “being loud,” that thing many black people had been taught to be ashamed of. In time, celebrating the earthiness of blacks became a measure of a black person’s self-acceptance and pride in black culture. In Baldwin’s day, the insisted-upon sensuality of blacks was seen as a cultural advantage, something whites could be mocked for wanting. Nobody urges Ida to give up her sexual capital.

In US fiction up until Baldwin’s time, white men who take up with black women may renounce their inheritances or find themselves disinherited, but they are not automatically cast out in the way that Becky in Jean Toomer’s Cane (1921), who has long been living by the train tracks with her two black sons, is. Or such white women tend to be nowhere on the country’s social scale to begin with. Leona can only take without protest the beatings Rufus gives her, which may be partly why Baldwin made the white woman in the life of his bisexual black hero in his next novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), rich enough in her own right to defy convention.

That Ida is dark and poor lets Baldwin bypass the complications to black identity of class, light skin, and education that figure so importantly in much of the fiction since the 1920s about black women being with white men. Though black women in novels about interracial love affairs are often shown having to deal with either family and community disapproval or the internal disquiet of feeling that they have deserted the cause of black freedom, seldom are they portrayed as women who have fallen to the lowest depths because of their romances. There is always the suggestion that these women may be trying to escape the black condition through whatever status they can derive from a connection with a white man. Significantly, no novels about a black woman going off with a white man who is poor come to mind before Another Country.


A black woman character in Baldwin’s short-story collection, Going to Meet the Man (1965), is mindful of slavery’s legacy when she tells her white boyfriend that they’re not on the plantation and he’s not the master’s son. In the title story, a white sheriff taunts a jailed black protester, saying that black people were lucky white men had pumped some white blood into the black race. He then realizes that he has given himself an erection. In his fiction about human relations between people of different races Baldwin had to take into account the closeness of sex to violence. As a young critic he had complained that in fiction by blacks violence occupied the place where sex ought to have been. Part of the appeal of Another Country when it was published was that it showed emotional intimacy between people of different races as well as sexual intimacy. It captured the mood of a special, unrepeatable time, those discussions inspired by the Freedom Summers of cooperation and listening, when blacks and whites could sit down in an equality of self-consciousness and say the most sincere and helpless things to one another. Baldwin’s tone promised them an absence of ridicule, which was a new variation on an old theme.

Chester Himes was the first black writer to take the sexual image of the black man and shove it back into America’s face. In The Primitive (1952), he offers a bitter anatomy of the affair between Jesse Robinson, a black writer, and the financially secure Kriss Cummings. Most of the novel takes place in Kriss’s apartment. The telephone summons deliveries of food that goes bad and bottles of Scotch that quickly empty. In the mounting chaos Kriss screams, “Niggers! niggers! niggers! That’s all you niggers talk about.” Jesse hates himself for sleeping with a white woman, but at the same time he tells himself that it is good therapy: “White man kick his ass until he gets sick; get some white woman ass and get well. Good for her too. White man kick her ass till she gets sick; screw some black niggers and get even.” The hysteria ends when Jesse stumbles blind drunk into her bedroom with a kitchen knife. He phones the police the next morning. “I’m a nigger, and I’ve just killed a white woman.” As Himes would later explain,

To describe a black man, the blackness of his skin, black sexual organs, black shanks, the thickness of his lips, the aphrodisiacal texture of his kinky hair, alongside the white breasts, pink nipples, white thighs and silky pubic hair of a white woman, no matter how seriously intended, is unavoidably pornographic in American society. 10

“All love is white,” the failed black law student tells the white girl who becomes his wife and his ruin in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924). But the notion that whiteness represents purity is left far behind in Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman (1964). The silent, smiling white girl stabs the black student whom she has invited to come on to her on the subway. Interracial sex has been firmly politicized. Baraka’s warning to black men about white women is unequivocal: don’t trust them. In this charged cultural climate, a controversy erupted over William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Styron, well aware of how the black man had been characterized as a “sexual carnivore of superhuman capacities” with “mythical powers of eroticism,” took a historical figure as his protagonist, a married Virginia slave preacher who in 1831 led the most serious slave revolt in US history. Moreover, he chose to write in the first person, made Turner celibate, and then imagined an obsession with a white woman as the decisive drama of his black hero’s inner life.11

Years later, when looking back on the fury of his black critics, Styron remembered that he was encouraged by Baldwin in his effort to get inside his black character’s skin, to find the “sense of withinness”12 of a black character that Faulkner had not found. Turner, Styron decided, was a madman animated by Old Testament revenge. But for all of Turner’s biblical flights in Styron’s “meditation,” his Turner is really Rufus Scott. What Styron has Turner say about filling a white girl with his “milky spurts of desecration” is very like Rufus’s revenge fantasies, as though Styron had consulted Baldwin’s novel about how far he could go.

Meanwhile, the black man’s involvement with white women as a theme continued to attract black writers who wanted to stress how liberated young blacks were. In Cecil Brown’s The Life and Loves of Mr. Jive Ass Nigger (1969), George, a young black teller of tales on the loose in Vietnam War-era Copenhagen, embarks on a series of conquests of white women. Like the other expatriate black men he hangs out with, George regards the black lover as a warrior. He rejects the masochistic guilt of Wright’s Bigger Thomas, whose fear of the white man was so great that a “mere kiss stolen from a white woman’s breath” had to be “smothered in a fiery furnace.” Instead, he relates to the outcasts of life and literature, among them “James Baldwin.” But suspecting that he’s become what whites expect, George concludes that for him to see the black gigolo as existential man is false. “Existentialism is a white man’s attempt to get at blackness.” “If you’re black you don’t need to get at anything. You’re already there.” This had been Baldwin’s point all along.

Baldwin was always urging whites—and heterosexuals—to put themselves in the outsider’s position, which was why, as the civil rights movement of the 1960s unfolded, his work supported the belief that at heart blackness was a purifying and refining aesthetic. At a time when blacks were being instructed to be more middle class—or white, as militants claimed—so that integration would appear less threatening, Baldwin was speculating that maybe whites could find their better selves and a truer vision of US society on the black side of national life. Come by me. This deep confidence in the morality of the black experience, as it was then called, is also why black identity itself is seldom the thing at stake in Baldwin’s novels. However, a number of factors, including the growing influence in the late 1960s of Frantz Fanon—his reproachful language about the colonized mind and the interracial relationship as an expression of a black individual’s unconscious desire to be white—would make Baldwin’s argument for the necessity of something like a conversion experience on the part of white people seem to many blacks in his audience either too coddling of them or long beside the point for black people.

Baldwin also must have felt that he had exhausted intimate relations between blacks and whites as a subject. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) represents his return to the Harlem family. Baldwin knew more than a few people who had landed in prison. He tries to show the impact that getting caught up in the US justice system has on ordinary people. In his scheme it simply makes them heroic. No other novelist since Balzac has hated the cops so much, but Baldwin wants to celebrate a black family’s survival, to praise the bonds between sisters, between parents and child. Similarly, Just Above My Head (1979), a saga bringing in three decades of a family’s history, meanders sentimentally and everyone is uniformly “caring.” The hagiographic approach results in an all too neat symmetry: us versus them. Clearly, Baldwin considered portraying the black family as healthy and enduring, in spite of racism, to be sufficiently provocative, but the idealized family members in these novels suggest a loss in audacity of conception.

In the beginning Baldwin adapted Henry James’s man of leisure to his own purposes. And just as James’s main characters are usually bereft of immediate family, in Baldwin’s early work his sensitive protagonists also are at liberty in “vast bright Babylon.” But increasing disillusionment with racial politics may have led him to look for a way to address more directly the concerns of a wider black audience. His biographers tell that as Baldwin’s years accumulated he became more dependent on his own family. His last two novels were perhaps his way of honoring what they stood for, of making up for his earlier writings in which he demonstrated that he had a far more complicated picture of family. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) is about the fatigue of a world-class black actor, his search for a place to rest and people to trust. The novel seems very much about the loneliness of Baldwin’s own international fame and his need to be taken care of. It is also the last time a rebel outcast speaks for himself in Baldwin’s fiction.

Though Baldwin’s best-known short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” about an addict who succumbs to the ravages of the street, is beautifully told by an algebra teacher, for the larger canvas of the novel he usually stayed with the life of the artist. His theater world in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone is full of lines like “The flame demands you. The flame will have you.” Sometimes Baldwin could analyze the situation of the artist better than he could dramatize it. Nevertheless, Baldwin is intensely associated with the idea of the artist as a witness of his time. The irony is that for all his literary sensibilities, Baldwin was not by temperament avant-garde. But he was both to profit and to suffer from the cultural tendency back then whereby a work by a black was greeted as if it were the latest from some experimental scene. It helped that his titles were at once biblical and bluesy.

Robert Louis Stevenson had been one of Baldwin’s favorite writers as a youth, and his own novels subliminally try to reclaim the homoerotic innocence of the adventure story. They are replete with nostalgia for the protection of an older brother. The seventeen-year-old Elisha who wrestles with Johnny as they clean up the church in Go Tell It on the Mountain; the seventeen-year-old black youth who works as a porter at the town courthouse and whom Eric remembers as his first sexual encounter in Another Country; the fiery older brother that the actor Leo Proudhammer recalls nestling up next to in their childhood bed in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone; Crunch, the eighteen-year-old repentant lady-killer whom Arthur, the young gospel star, falls in love with in Just Above My Head—perhaps these were messages to himself about what he had not forgotten and still hoped to find, someone like the son of his stepfather’s previous marriage, who used to carry Baldwin on his shoulders at Jones Beach but never returned after his father, Baldwin’s stepfather, drove him from the house.

But thought was also adventure—another James mantra. The sexual life that Baldwin rarely wrote about in depth in his essays he investigated in his earlier fiction, and that is why these novels were like news. They were on youth’s side, though youth culture, as people have come to think of it, was only just beginning when Baldwin’s reputation was at its height. Now his work has gone the way of Steinbeck’s—into the curriculum, and as the province of ever younger readers. No matter. His was the voice that understood, the instructor and confessor of the young and forlorn. It was okay to see things differently, okay not to fit in. He leaves his young characters at their various crossroads, unashamed of vulnerability, with destinies to decide. Even as his main characters get older, their glance is always retrospective, looking back to the place where the road forked.

Baldwin once said that an abandoned novel could destroy a writer’s life. But the huge success of Another Country put an unfortunate pressure on his life as a novelist. To justify the advances he needed from publishers in order to support his generosity to others, to stay in competition with the major white novelists of his day, Baldwin couldn’t hand in the small, perfect work to which his lyrical gifts were most suited. He had to turn out another blockbuster, to reproduce somehow the winning formula of Another Country. The last novel, Just Above My Head, duly thickened. Baldwin had summoned it all from the interior before and was gambling on the arrival of another moment of daring that would let him tell “as much truth as one can bear, and then some.” But in their rawness and denials, his novels after Another Country tell us little more than that life can be pretty bleak without metaphors.

This Issue

April 13, 2000