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Chapter 10 - Biographies

from Part 1 - Life and Afterlife

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2019

D. Quentin Miller
Affiliation:
Suffolk University, Massachusetts
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Summary

“One writes out of one thing only: one’s own experience.” This pronouncement, from Baldwin’s “Autobiographical Notes” (1955), told his early readers what they already knew: that his work was closely aligned with his life. That conclusion may be too simplistic in Baldwin’s case, though. His life, like his writing, was surprising, difficult to grasp, not always coherent (in the traditional sense of the word), and far from straightforward. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was a bildungsroman (albeit an unconventional one that ranged far into the imagined lives of the protagonist’s parents and aunt) and his most memorable essays from his first collection – “Notes of a Native Son” (1955) and “Stranger in the Village” (1953) – filled in crucial details from the author’s life. Although later novels and short stories were about characters who were clearly not Baldwin – a bisexual white man from a privileged background, a pregnant teen girl, a racist white southern sheriff, a heroin-using jazz pianist – and although his essays were sometimes more journalistic than confessional, Baldwin’s own life (including his imagination and his observation, not just his experiences) was often his subject, and his readers responded favorably when he shared his life’s details. At the same time, he was sometimes coy about the way he engaged his life in his work. Even the word “one” in the quotation above – a recurrent pronoun in his early essays – demonstrates his occasional reluctance to reveal himself in full. Baldwin revealed himself in glimpses only. He left it to others to tell his entire story.

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James Baldwin in Context , pp. 105 - 116
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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