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Novelist James Baldwin Dies in France at 63

December 01, 1987|Times Wire Services

ST. PAUL DE VENCE, France — James Baldwin, whose first novel "Go Tell It on the Mountain" established him as a major American writer and helped awaken the consciousness of American whites to the plight of blacks, has died at age 63.

Relatives said the writer died overnight at his home in southern France after a long struggle against cancer that forced the removal of half his stomach earlier this year.

Surrounded by members of his family, including his brother David, Baldwin had not lost hope and was planning to finish a book on Martin Luther King Jr.

Baldwin had lived in France on and off for about 40 years. Four years ago, when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nice, he said he considered France a "refuge far from the American madness."

Baldwin, a wiry figure with protruding eyes, made his last public appearance only a month ago to launch the French edition of his last novel "Just Above My Head."

Called 'Indispensable'

Looking tired and more frail than ever, he was nevertheless dressed with his customary elegance. He took part in a debate on racism with his usual warmth and fire.

Baldwin--author of "Notes of a Native Son," "The Fire Next Time" and "No Name in the Street"--was called one of the "few indispensable American writers," by American critic Benjamin DeMott.

He spent his childhood years in the destitute streets of Harlem and his adult life fighting for racial equality in the United States, a theme that haunts his works.

Born in 1924 the son of a Baptist preacher, he was placed in the pulpit when still a teen-ager. At 19, on his father's death, Baldwin turned from the church to take up writing but retained a style reminiscent of the pulpit.

In the artist's village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where Baldwin lived with two friends in a converted farmhouse, restaurateur Francis Roux said he will be missed for his friendliness and intelligence.

Moved to France in 1948

The writer was a regular at Roux's famed Colombe d'Or restaurant, hung with paintings by Picasso and Braque. He was one of scores of writers, painters and sculptors who in past decades took root in the sunny, pine-studded hills of the Riviera.

Baldwin came to France for the first time in 1948 from Greenwich Village, where odd jobs had supported his writing.

In Paris he headed straight for one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite literary cafes, Les Deux Magots, where he ran into black American writer Richard Wright, author of "Native Son."

Another acquaintance was U.S. novelist James Jones, who ran a salon where Baldwin met writers Henry Miller and Mary McCarthy, artists Man Ray and Alexander Calder, and formed a lasting friendship with Southerner William Styron.

His first novel in 1953, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," viewed by many critics as his most moving and successful work, recounted the traumatic pilgrimage of an American black family moving from the South to the North.

A Literary Voice

It was to be the first of a string of novels, plays and essays which hammered home the message of black civil rights campaigners. He gave a literary voice to the new black consciousness that had radical Malcolm X and King as its two political poles.

Baldwin's first book was written in France. But in the mid-1950s, when the federal government moved against school segregation and whites began to respond to growing calls for equality, the writer decided to return home to join the struggle.

The period saw the publication of "Another Country," an appeal for racial harmony, and "The Fire Next Time," which predicted the race riots of the 1960s.

Violence brought him back to France. Baldwin said the 1968 assassination of his friend King prompted his return.

In the southern village where the grandson of a slave was known as "the monsieur with the hat," artists and locals flocked to his home today to pay their last respects.

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