James Baldwin (1924-1987) somehow managed to live most of his adult life in France (from age 24 until his death at 63) and yet became an essential voice of the 20th Century American experience. He seemed to master the living of something — playwriting, preaching, short story writing, novel writing, public speaking — and then to perfect it from a distance of the living. His level gaze, his deliberation of speech, his precise articulation all bestowed an air of authority and of wisdom that a passionate age had in short supply. His prose style is striking in its smooth power, its fluidity, and its threat or promise of an ambush of revelation. He was self-taught, never went to university, and found his deep well of influence in his reading.
He was born in Harlem, New York City. He never knew his father, but in an ambivalent way his step-father, a Baptist preacher, was a profound influence, as was his strong mother. In middle school he had the good fortune of having Harlem Renaissance novelist and poet Countee Cullen as a mentor. When he was attending the Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx he became a junior minister/boy preacher at the Fireside Pentacostal Assembly. He wrote and wrote and wrote during his teen years and read ten or a hundred times beyond what he wrote.
Too young for WWII, he left for France when he was 24 and, despite many trips back to the US and active involvement in the great social issues of the day, he essentially lived the expatriate life. His roll of friends is staggering: Malcolm X, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Yves Montand, and Marguerite Yourcenar, among many others. He was a magnet, an engine for mid-century cultural life across borders around the world. He died of stomach cancer much, much too young.