James Baldwin (1924-1987) was versatile. Novels, plays, essays, short stories, poetry – he wrote in all these formats. Baldwin was also a pioneer, addressing Black civil rights and gay rights in his writing before these movements were visible in mainstream life.
As if that wasn’t enough, the author was also a committed political activist, speaking at countless events across America in the 1950s and 1960s on the subject of racism.
Baldwin was so disenchanted with America’s racism that he went to live in France for much of his later life. He’s now seen as one of the great writers of the 20th century, an expert in dissecting painful social themes that remain relevant in the 21st century.
He is remembered for two books in particular - Go Tell it on the Mountain, his first novel which was published in 1953, and Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays published in 1955. It takes something to conquer fiction and non-fiction in the space of two years.
Go Tell it on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel. It tells the story of a Harlem teenager and his struggles with family and the church. Religion is a reoccurring theme in Baldwin’s writing. Notes of a Native Son addresses race and racism in the US and Europe with a series of hard-hitting essays that first appeared in magazines. Giovanni's Room is also important - this novel openly addressed homosexuality in 1953 when it was strictly taboo. Unlike numerous Black writers who came before him, Baldwin enjoyed critical and commercial success.
There’s much to explore when it comes to Baldwin. After high school, he collaborated with Richard Avedon on a portrait photography book called Nothing Personal. Original copies are scarce but Taschen issued a reprint in 2017.
Baldwin's fifth novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. He had an interesting love-hate relationship with fellow author Richard Wright who encouraged Baldwin to write in his early career. In Paris, he met the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Truman Capote. He influenced a generation of Black writers that followed him, including Toni Morrison.
Signed first editions of Baldwin's books sell for four figures and there is a Franklin Library edition of Go Tell it on the Mountain. Also the scarce British first edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain boasts an attractive gothic-style dust jacket designed by Peter Rudland. The most expensive Baldwin book ever sold by AbeBooks was a signed first edition of Go Tell it on the Mountain, which went for $6,500.