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 James Baldwin

The Irish novelist Colm Tóibín rightly deems James Baldwin "the most eloquent man in the America of his time."   Baldwin held forth on the podium and on the page, where he fashioned a distinctive prose that he described as a fusion of the "rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech – and something of Dickens' love for bravura."  In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Baldwin’s essays, plays, novels, and short stories made him the indispensable literary voice of the Civil Rights Movement.   But his voice proved prophetic in ways that few could have imagined.   His words have inspired and shaped other movements for social change, from Gay Rights to Black Lives Matter.   Political theorists quote his ideas on democracy, and cultural critics cite his analyses of Hollywood movies.  Baldwin’s writings seem more urgent today than perhaps anytime since his death in 1987.

Baldwin’s initial aspirations were more literary than political. An inveterate reader, he was a keen interpreter of literary authors and their texts, from Henry James to Harriet Beecher Stowe and from Andre Gide to Richard Wright.   In class discussions, we will locate Baldwin’s own writing in multiple literary contexts and cultural contexts.   To facilitate our understanding of Baldwin in his time, we will begin each class with a snippet of Baldwin (or his contemporaries) on film.

The seminar will read a wide selection of Baldwin’s works, including the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, and No Name in the Street, the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, and Another Country, and the short stories collected in Going to Meet the Man.  Secondary criticism will be assigned for each volume. 


Regular attendance and participation are required.   Students will submit three critical papers (5-7 pp.) and prepare an oral presentation (10-15 minutes).

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Statue of "Willie the Silent"