James Baldwin: His books and his legacy

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.

James Baldwin's novels

Published in 1953 and semi-autobiographical. This is the story of a Harlem teenager in the 1930s and his struggles with religion and family. Religion is shown as a positive and negative influence.
Published in 1953, this novel describes an American man living in Paris and his feelings for an Italian bartender named Giovanni whom he meets at a gay bar. Pioneering gay literature.
Set in New York in the 1950s, this novel, using a third-person narrator, addresses multiple taboos including bisexuality, interracial couples and extramarital affairs.
Baldwin tells a series of stories relating to the life of a Black actor called Leo Proudhammer with each one explaining a relationship. More on race, sex, society and religion.
Published in 1974, this is a Black love story set in Harlem in the 1970s that also addresses the criminal justice system. The title refers to Beale Street in downtown Memphis.
Published in 1979, this book recounts the lives of a group of friends spread around the world. It addresses Harlem, war, poverty and other issues.

Collections of James Baldwin's writing

Baldwin's breakthrough essay collection ranges from Harlem in the 1940s to his experiences in Paris and the complexities of Black life.
Essays on race relations and the role of the writer in society with personal accounts of Richard Wright and Norman Mailer.
A powerful depiction of Baldwin's early life in Harlem and the legacy of racial injustice.
Eight short stories where ordinary men and women are trying to keep their heads above water – a redneck cop, a father, a jazz pianist.
Essays where Baldwin recalls his Harlem childhood, the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and his life in Europe.
Nineteen poems from Jimmy’s Blues, and all the poems from a limited edition volume called Gypsy, of which only 325 copies were printed
Baldwin explores a series of child murders in Atlanta that took place over 22 months in 1979 and 1980.
A wide ranging collection of essays that address racism in American society.
A selection of essays including one where Baldwin imagines the United States’ first African American president.

James Baldwin's plays

This play depicts the dilemma facing the congregation of a Harlem church when they realize their leader Sister Margaret is no saint.
A Black man is murdered. This play is is loosely based on the notorious 1955 killing of Emmett Till.

Biographies of James Baldwin

David Leeming paints a portrait of a complex, troubled, and brilliant man, from Baldwin's relationships with Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Richard Avedon to his life in France.
Herb Boyd offers an insight into Baldwin's connection to Harlem, from his relationship with poet laureate Countee Cullen and student life at Frederick Douglass Junior High to his diverse views on the Harlem community.
Published in 2020, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr looks at Baldwin's legacy in the era of Black Lives Matter. He asks what can be learned from Baldwin's struggle for civil rights.

More James Baldwin books to collect

Richard Avedon and James Baldwin were friends in high school. This book is a remarkable mixture of text and image. Baldwin's writing reflects on the American identity and the moral state of the nation in the wake of JFK's death and the struggles of the civil rights movement. Avedon's black and white photographs show hospital patients, intellectuals, politicians, a former slave, newlyweds, preacher Billy Graham, pop singers, and civil rights activists.
In 1979, the Franklin Library produced a limited edition of Go Tell it on the Mountain. James Baldwin signed each copy. The books are bound in brown leather stamped in gold with gilt page ends. They have five raised spine bands, patterned endpapers and a sewn-in satin bookmark. This edition contained illustrations by Burt Silverman.


More author features

January 25, 2023
Janet Evanovich, author of the bestselling Stephanie Plum series, has published more than 60 novels and sold over 75 million copies around the world. Learn more about this writer and her books.
September 21, 2022
The Nobel Prize for Literature is the world’s most important international literary honor. Browse the complete list of winning authors since 1901.
1 Min Read
June 28, 2022
The J.R.R. Tolkien empire goes beyond the mainstream editions of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and his other Middle-earth books. We’ve combed through thousands of listings on AbeBooks to identify eye-catching examples of Tolkienabilia including a map, posters, art and unusual editions.