James Baldwin tended to write controversial novels, and Giovanni's Room was definitely controversial when it was published in 1956.
Baldwin was born in Harlem, NY in 1924. In his teens, he worked as a Pentecostal preacher, under the influence of his father. Yet as he grew older, he moved away from the influence of the church. He found himself an apartment in the artist's district of Greenwich Village, NY and then, in 1948, in part due to the alienation he felt as a gay black man, he moved to Paris.
Baldwin's literary reputation bloomed with his semi-autobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953. He wrote several other works before Giovanni's Room, all of which dealt with the experience of being a black man in America before the Civil Rights Movement.
During this time, Baldwin also had a love affair with a man named Lucien Happersberger, an experience upon which he must have drawn for Giovanni's Room. The two became very close, but after several years, Lucien married a woman. Baldwin dedicated Giovanni's Room to Lucien.
Giovanni's Room was completed in 1956 and presented for publication. Upon finishing the manuscript, Baldwin's publisher suggested that he might as well burn the book due to its focus on a romantic relationship between two men. As an African American writer, Baldwin was already rebelling against the racial prejudices of his time. Now, by writing about his sexuality, the publisher feared that he would even further alienate his audience – both black and white.
The book stirred up a great deal of controversy when it was released. However, the critics proclaimed it a masterpiece, and it is still recognized as such today. Even in the 21st century, it is one of the few widely accepted books to openly deal with a same-sex relationship in a direct and complex way.
In Giovanni's Room, the main character, David, feels ashamed of being gay. It's the 1950s, and his family and society are simply not ready to accept his sexual orientation, and neither is David. The fact that he is gay is obvious, and yet he manages to trick himself over and over again – until his secret becomes public and he's finally forced to confront the truth.
Can you imagine what this might feel like? Think of something about yourself that maybe your family or your society doesn't approve of, something that perhaps makes you feel deeply ashamed. Now imagine that tomorrow morning you wake up and that thing is on every news channel; it is on the front of every paper; you come downstairs and your parents can't even meet your eyes. Imagine how you would feel, what you would say, and what you would you do.
Now maybe you're thinking, "This is stupid. Nothing embarrasses me." Maybe you're right. Maybe nothing leaps to mind. Who knows?
But what's interesting is that David would give the exact same answer. David is so ashamed of his sexuality that he can't even admit that he is ashamed. He goes to Paris, claiming that he is searching for himself, when in reality he is fleeing from himself. In his case, the result is tragedy because the lies that he tells to himself inevitably become lies that he tells to other people.
As one reads Giovanni's Room, it's hard not to recognize something of David in oneself. William Faulkner once said, "We have to start teaching ourselves not to be afraid" (source). You might think of the message of Giovanni's Room in similar terms. Perhaps the message is less dramatic, but it is also subtler and more personal and more poignant: "We have to start teaching ourselves not to be ashamed."