LGBT History Month: Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin

[by Meredith Wiggins]

In honor of LGBT History Month, the HBW Blog is featuring posts on foundational queer texts by African American authors.  Today, we discuss James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956).
After the triumphant publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, in 1953, James Baldwin found himself facing a new dilemma in his still-young life as a writer.  “I realized that I was being corraled [sic] into another trap,” he would later say. “[N]ow I was a writer, a Negro writer, and I was expected to write diminishing versions of Go Tell It on the Mountain forever.  Which I refused to do.”

His need to break free of the authorial constraints placed on him led Baldwin to write a very different follow-up novel.  Where Go Tell It was semi-autobiographical, set in Harlem, and dealt directly with issues facing the African American community, Giovanni’s Room (1956) featured an all-white cast of characters and was set largely in Paris.

Most importantly, it was also explicitly about a love affair between two men.

In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin tells the story of David, a young American man who travels to Paris, where he meets and has an affair with a young Italian man, the eponymous Giovanni.  Although David and Giovanni genuinely care for one another, David’s cowardice and refusal to commit to their relationship dooms them, eventually leading to Giovanni’s execution for murder. 

Baldwin’s decision to write about the controversial topic of same-sex romantic love met with early challenges (his American publisher famously told him to burn the book), but Giovanni’s Room was actually fairly well-received on publication, with many reviewers praising it for its sensitivity and depth.  Despite its early success, however, the novel later accrued a reputation as weak and unworthy of serious critical attention. Because of this lingering reputation, Giovanni’s Room has never quite ranked among Baldwin’s most popular works, with critic Robert Reid-Pharr asserting in Black Gay Man (2001) that it “has been neglected by students both of black and gay literature.” 

That tide, however, seems to be turning; today, the novel is regularly name-checked as an important early work of queer literature.  The Publishing Triangle, a collection of lesbians and gay men in publishing, even ranked Giovanni’s Room second on its list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels

Increasing scholarly interest in queer writers and texts within the African American literary tradition promises to re-direct attention toward Baldwin’s often-overlooked second novel.  Those readers who answer the challenge to fully engage with its lyrically told tale of human love, responsibility, and frailty will find much to admire and discuss.