James Baldwin has been an enormous influence for writers the past several decades – for Black writers his influence has been profound. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America Some of Baldwin’s essays are book-length, including The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976). An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was expanded and adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro.
Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only African Americans, but also gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement.
Baldwin’s first published work, a review of the writer Maxim Gorky, appeared in The Nation in 1947. He continued to publish in that magazine at various times in his career and was serving on its editorial board at his death in 1987.
In 1953, Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, was published. His first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. He continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known.
Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, caused great controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its explicit homoerotic content. Baldwin was again resisting labels with the publication of this work. Despite the reading public’s expectations that he would publish works dealing with the African-American experience, Giovanni’s Room is predominantly about white characters. Baldwin’s next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental works dealing with black and white characters and with heterosexual, gay, and bisexual characters.
This interview from 1968, promoting the release of Tell Me Long The Train’s Been Gone is from the radio series Book Beat with Robert Cromie, editor of the Chicago Herald Tribune.