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Baldwin Collection Essay

One of the astounding things I used to find when talking to students was how few of them could read a map. Most of them had learned to drive with cars that contained GPS systems. As a consequence, many of them had never looked at a roadmap. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit offers a number of essays and anecdotes about people throughout history who became “lost” while they were away from home. She recounts stories of explorers, such as Cabo de Vaca, and pioneers who headed in the wrong direction to the land they were seeking to settle.

But Solnit also examines the more metaphorical ways we have of getting lost, when we lose track of what we are doing in our own lives, and lose sight of what we would like to accomplish. Sometimes, there is great joy to be found in wandering and not knowing where you are, the pleasure of feeling as if you are somewhere that you’ve never been before. Of course, getting lost in the wilderness is also a terrifying experience, that sudden sense that you will never find your way home and might die of exposure or hunger before someone finds you. And we write fairy tales about lost children who are rescued by people who are not what they appear to be, but who turn out to be witches or beasts who mean us harm.

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James Baldwin was a uniquely prophetic voice in American letters. His brilliant and provocative essays made him the literary voice of the Civil Rights Era, and they continue to speak with powerful urgency to us today, whether in the swirling debate over the Black Lives Matter movement or in the words of Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” Edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the Library of America’s Collected Essays is the most comprehensive gathering of Baldwin’s nonfiction ever published.

With burning passion and jabbing, epigrammatic wit, Baldwin fearlessly articulated issues of race and democracy and American identity in such famous essays as “The Harlem Ghetto,” “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “Many Thousands Gone,” and “Stranger in the Village.” Here are the complete texts of his early landmark collections, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), which established him as an essential intellectual voice of his time, fusing in unique fashion the personal, the literary, and the political. “One writes,” he stated, “out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” With singular eloquence and unblinking sharpness of observation he lived up to his credo: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

The classic The Fire Next Time (1963), perhaps the most influential of his writings, is his most penetrating analysis of America’s racial divide and an impassioned call to “end the racial nightmare…and change the history of the world.” The later volumes No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) chart his continuing response to the social and political turbulence of his era and include his remarkable works of film criticism. A further 36 essays—nine of them previously uncollected—include some of Baldwin’s earliest published writings, as well as revealing later insights into the language of Shakespeare, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the music of Earl Hines.

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