Baldwin and "Giovanni's Room"

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in New York City in 1924. His step-father served as a Baptist preacher, and frequently treated his step-son more harshly than his other children. Such treatment led Baldwin to take up writing, and he would later publish his first work, a review of the writer Maxim Gorky in The Nation, in 1947.

Published in 1953 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, featured a semi-autobiographical story about the role of religion and the Pentecostal Church in the experiences of Southern African-Americans. The novel was a critical and commercial success, with critics applauding its themes of moral hypocrisy and racial relations, representing Baldwin’s “passionate gesture of identification with his people.”

Yet, in his 1961 collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin wished not to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” He moved to Paris when he was 24 to evade the oppression he faced as a black man living in New York, and his experiences there inspired his second novel, Giovanni’s Room.

Initial Correspondence Regarding Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room"

Giovanni’s Room centered on themes of homosexuality and heteronormativity through the experiences of the novel’s young, white, male protagonist, David, an American who develops a romantic relationship with a French man while staying in Paris. Much of the writing in the novel was based on Baldwin’s own experiences as a young, black, gay man in Paris.

In a September 21, 1955 letter written by Baldwin's agent, Helen Strauss, to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., Strauss claims that the new novel is a “brilliant job” while also “unusual and strange.” A copy of an initial draft of Giovanni’s Room attached the letter. Further, Strauss mentions Baldwin desiring Carlisle to be the first to read the manuscript, as he had previously done with Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

While Strauss comments on the brilliance of the novel, she refrains from providing a description of the work and from illuminating on any of the novel's "unusual and strange" themes. Perhaps Baldwin's own agent knew the difficulties he would face in trying to get the work published. 

Rejection Letter of James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" from Knopf Publishing Co.

In response to Strauss’s letter, Henry Carlisle writes to Baldwin weeks later on October 5, 1955, with a rejection letter on behalf of the rest of the book reviewers at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Carlisle remarks that Baldwin is “successful in what he’s trying to do,” and that the novel “confirms [Baldwin’s] talent as a writer.”

However, Carlisle notes that the decision “was unanimous that [Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.] cannot publish it.” “The important thing though, is not that we don’t like the book,” writes Carlisle,” but that “we think that publishing the book, not because of its subject but because of its failure… will estrange many of your readers.”

In another letter written to Baldwin from Knopf Publishing, Baldwin is told that Giovanni's Room "will ruin [his] career," due to him "not writing about the same things and in the same manner" as he did with Go Tell It on the Mountain. "We won't publish this book as a favor to you," writes Carlisle.