Setting his house in order: the crisis of paternity in James Baldwin's Giovanni's room

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University of Alabama Libraries

In this thesis, I argue that James Baldwin's critically neglected second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), constitutes a necessary and proper addition to the literature that is recognized more widely as part of the author's personal canon. Perhaps the biggest area of scholarly research on Baldwin's writings is his mapping of paternity, yet critics consistently fail to realize the many ways in which Giovanni's Room contributes to this scholarly discussion. I argue that Baldwin consciously embeds a homoerotic subtext in the character of David's father, suggesting that the character is by no means as purely and uncomplicatedly straight as critics have read him heretofore, and that Giovanni's Room, while necessarily a product of its generally homophobic social moment, serves as a sustained critique of the ideological system that queer theorist Lee Edelman calls reproductive futurism. In this system, parenthood becomes the true marker of an individual's subjectivity and worth, and the figure of The Child (different from actual, individual children) becomes the ultimate symbol of societal value; I suggest that the mental, physical, and emotional crises of the novel's main and supporting characters are caused by their failure to fully participate in this system, which shapes the values of the world in which they live. I further suggest that the many autobiographical resonances present in the novel indicate that Baldwin might have looked on Giovanni's Room as a chance to continue working out in writing his complicated relationship with his late stepfather, David Baldwin, Sr. I contend that throughout the text, Baldwin employs literary strategies designed to call attention to the pronounced role that paternity plays in the novel, suggesting that in at least one key way, Giovanni's Room fits squarely within the traditions that shape Baldwin's canonical work.

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African American studies, GLBT studies