“I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
With this simple statement, James Baldwin (1924-1987) concluded the autobiographical essay at the beginning of his first non-fiction book Notes of a Native Son (1955). A writer of novels, essays, and plays, his work was grounded in his experience as a gay black man in the middle of the 20th century and tackled complex issues of race, class, religion, and sexuality. Revealing the harsh realities of everyday life and racism in America, Baldwin gave voice to thousands of others, while underpinning all his writing with love and humanity. His eloquent prose and bitingly insightful critique of American society are as vital today as they were when first published.
In 1976, the Lilly Library purchased a collection of thirty letters from Baldwin to friend and editor William Rossa Cole, who was involved in the publication of Baldwin’s first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain at Alfred A. Knopf in 1953. Most of the letters date from the 1950s when Baldwin was living in France. Many are filled with notes about his writing – ideas he has, the progress he is making, details about publications – as well as comments on his health, financial woes, and living situations. Over the next few months, we will be highlighting selected letters to reflect on the extraordinary life and writings of James Baldwin.