Lecture notes: James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin (1924-87)

  • One of the most influential African American (and simply American) writers of his time; work was read much by white Americans; became a major voice in the 1960s civil rights movement.
  • Father was a Harlem evangelist, Baldwin himself tried preaching when he was very young.  Left home at age 19 to live in Greenwich village (NYC), worked for various papers as a messenger boy and writer (his first essay appeared in 1948).  Important event of his youth: suicide of his 24-yr.-old Af Am friend Eugene Worth; had indirectly confessed his love to Baldwin (Baldwin recalls in essay “The Price of the Ticket”: “I wish I had heard him more clearly: an indirect confession is always a plea.  But I was to hurt a great many people by being unable to imagine that anyone could possibly be in love with an ugly boy like me . . .”
  • Worth’s suicide was one of the reasons why Baldwin went to Paris at age 24 (for 10 years).  Here he met a young Swiss artist, Lucian Happersberger; they were lovers for a short time, and Happersberger became his closest friend for 40 years.
  • Wrote novels, essays, book reviews, plays.  Among his most important works: essay essay collection Notes of a Native Son, Go Tell It On the Mountain (his best-known novel, published in 1953), “The Fire Next Time” (1963, book-length essay, one year on the bestseller list).
  • Subject of homosexuality in three novels: Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962) and Just Above My Head (1979).
  • American context: Giovanni’s Room was quite daring to write in 1950s, pre-Stonewall, Joseph McCarthy-era America (McCarthy persecutions notoriously homophobic and “queer-baiting”; suspected homosexuality made many people a target and could seriously damage someone’s personal and professional reputation).  By this time, Baldwin was already living in Europe, but the cultural climate in America was anti-gay and Baldwin had only just established a name as a writer.  Giovanni’s Room was first published in UK and only then in the USA.

“Although relatively open about his homosexuality from a young age, Baldwin was also ambivalent about it.  He saw little possibility that shared sexuality could be the basis of a community, an attitude largely formed by his experiences in the 1940s as a black gay man in New York City.  In later years, he recalled a gay world of impersonal and demeaning sexual encounters, of being called ‘fa***t’ on every streetcorner of a world where his existence was ‘the punch line of a dirty joke’.  Eager, vulnerable, and lonely, as he put it, he survived only by finding older ‘protectors’—a Harlem racketeer who fell in love with him when he was 16, an Italian man who threatened to kill anyone who touched him.  In a 1954 essay on André Gide, called ‘The Male Prison’, he wrote,

The really horrible thing about the phenomenon of present-day homosexuality . . . is that today’s unlucky deviate can only save himself by the most tremedous exertion of all his forces from falling into an underworld in which he never meets men or women, where it is impossible to have either a lover or a friend, where the possibility of genuine human involvement has altogether ceased.”  (Out of the Past, p. 286)

In a 1984 interview with The Village Voice, Baldwin was apparently still ambivalent and uncomfortable with the notion of gay community life and culture, and rejected the notion of a group’s sexual difference: “I loved a few people and they love me . . . It had nothing to do with these labels” (qtd. in Out of the Past, p. 287). In the same interview, Baldwin said that Giovanni’s Room was about love in general, not homosexuality per se: “It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody” (ibid.).

Source for this summary: Neil Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present.  Revised and updated ed.  New York: Alyson Books, 2006.  Pp. 284-89.

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