- A Historical Guide to James Baldwin
A Historical Guide to James Baldwin is welcome and timely. It caps a decade of renewed interest in this major twentieth-century figure and sets the terms of debate for the decade to come. Moreover, as a Baldwin scholar and a student in an undergraduate seminar on Baldwin, we can testify to how it speaks to scholars at all levels and lends itself to course adoption. [End Page 1145]
Baldwin has long generated scholarly interest, beginning with his audacious early essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949) and successful début novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), followed by one of the most prolific literary and political careers of the latter twentieth century. But as a coherent field, Baldwin Studies can trace its origins to Dwight A. McBride's influential collection James Baldwin Now (1999), which built on earlier Baldwin scholarship while introducing a new generation of scholars steeped in feminist, critical race, and cultural theory. Soon after, D. Quentin Miller and Lynn Orilla Scott led the way in reevaluating Baldwin's later work, which many critics had dismissed as evidence of post-celebrity decline. In the ensuing decade, scholars working in literary, African American, queer, feminist, and political theory deemed Baldwin a central figure. Interest shows no signs of abating, as seen in Magdalena J. Zaborowska's recent prize–winning monograph on Baldwin's Turkish decade and two international conferences devoted to Baldwin, the first organized by Bill Schwartz and Cora Kaplan in London in 2007, which generated an edited volume, followed by another conference in Boston in 2009 organized by Miller.
Douglas Field's collection solidifies a conversation that we can now call "Baldwin Studies." The collection mixes some of the most innovative work on Baldwin (e.g., transnational connections) with reappraisals of longstanding concerns (e.g., religion, music, politics); it provides sober reassessments of lightning rod issues (e.g., sexuality); and it frames all this with a brief, sure–footed biography, bibliographic essay, and two chronologies. In synthesizing Baldwin Studies, Field prepares us for the most urgent area of debate: Baldwin's legacy and place in twentieth–century literary and cultural history.
The introduction surveys several challenges and questions in determining Baldwin's legacy and literary reputation. Traditionally, critics categorize Baldwin by favoring one aspect of his complex career, such as Baldwin's racial over sexual identity, or his essays over his fiction. Field opts instead to value Baldwin's elusiveness. He highlights Baldwin's resistance to labels, what Baldwin calls "the jargon of the age" in Another Country (1962), to explain longstanding divisions in Baldwin Studies and ideological inconsistencies in Baldwin's own work. Rather than assign stable categories (e.g., secular prophet, gay writer), Field examines how Baldwin's roles as artist, celebrity, and spokesperson evolve over the span of his career, requiring critics to read his works as responses to an ever–shifting historical and political field. Recent criticism, Field notes, is recognizing Baldwin's career as an intricate and dynamic amalgamation of the categories critics have imposed upon him.
Randall Kenan's biographical essay presents a concise yet insightful picture of Baldwin's political life and literary career. Kenan has written a young adult biography of Baldwin and edited a new volume of Baldwin's uncollected writings. For this essay, Kenan considers Baldwin's posthumous recognition and presents him as a civil rights figure in order to explain how the demise of the movement and its leaders fueled Baldwin's despair for America's future, resulting in an increasingly pessimistic outlook and bitter undertone in his later works.
In "James Baldwin as Religious Writer," Clarence E. Hardy III argues that Baldwin remained a religious writer despite his movement away from the church after his years as a youth minister. For Hardy, Baldwin's complicated relationship with religion represents the cultural evolution of postwar black America. Baldwin challenged the religious basis of white identity in America while using the church for social critique. Hardy addresses [End Page 1146] religion and racial self–hatred...