New James Baldwin letters

January 1, 2014

The 100 letters recently acquired by the Beinecke Library are not to famous people, just Baldwin’s friends.  The letters to Painter began in 1954, when his play “The Amen Corner” opened at Howard, and came up to 1964, when his novel “Another Country” was just published, a novel he dedicated to Painter.

The letters to Lerner and Leeming, dating from 1965 to 1977, were written primarily from Istanbul.   Baldwin had spent almost 10 years there, from 1961 to 1971.    What the letters now highlight is just how crucial that city was to the compositional process itself.  It was in Istanbul that Baldwin finished three of the books that he found most difficult to write: The Fire Next Time (1963), on race and religion; Another Country (1964), on interracial sex and bisexuality; and No Name in the Street (1972), on the deaths of his personal friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King.

I’m also struck by the dedication of Another Country: to Mary Painter.   I think of other authors — Hemingway’s dedication of For Whom the Bell Tolls to Martha Gellhorn, or Ralph Ellison’s dedication of Invisible Man to his mother, Ida — maybe not entirely predictable, but definitely not surprising.   And Langston Hughes’ dedication of his last book of poems, The Panther and the Lash (1967) to Rosa Parks, a public gesture, also  easy to understand.   There’s nothing mysterious or untoward about Baldwin’s dedication of Another Country to Mary Painter; all the same, there’s something under-explained about it, especially given all the people Baldwin knew, people he could have dedicated the book to.


About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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