New Acquisition: James Baldwin Letters and Manuscript

November 6, 2013

By Melissa Barton

James Baldwin Letters and Manuscript

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is thrilled to announce that it has acquired an archive of some 100 letters of James Baldwin, as well as a corrected typescript of Baldwin’s third novel Another Country. The letters constiute one of the largest groups of Baldwin manuscripts held by any institution. They were purchased from Walter O. Evans, a collector and patron of African American arts and letters.

The archive consists of one edited draft typescript and approximately 100 letters from James Baldwin to three recipients: his friends Mary Painter and Eugene Lerner, and his sometime assistant and biographer David Leeming. The letters to Painter cover the period of Baldwin’s rise to national prominence, between 1954, when Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner was performed at Howard University, to 1964, just after the publication of his third novel Another Country, which he dedicated to Painter. Throughout these long, news-filled letters, Baldwin frequently alludes to the composition of his novel, including early insight into the characters’ names and ethnic backgrounds, as well as his ever-present magazine essay assignments. The typescript draft of Another Country includes emendations in Baldwin’s hand. The letters to Lerner and Leeming date from 1965-1977, the bulk from 1965-1968. Writing primarily from Istanbul, Baldwin recounts visits from Marlon Brando, among others, and refers to composing his novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.

This group of manuscript material joins Beinecke’s collection of Baldwin’s Early Manuscripts and Papers, whose provenance is a matter of some intrigue. The donor, Bart Kaplan, acquired the papers by eminent domain when he took possession of a storage building in downtown Philadelphia, in which the papers were found in a suitcase. The space in which the papers were found had once been occupied by a publisher, but the relationship between Baldwin and the publisher remains uncertain. The materials are known to have been created by Baldwin, and it is believed that they were simply discarded or forgotten. Other Baldwin papers held in the Beinecke include various letters and a typescript draft of his fourth novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.