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The biblical foundation of James Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues”.

SONNY'S Blues" is James Baldwin's most anthologized

and most critically discussed short story. Most critical analyses of

"Sonny's Blues" have centered on the story's unnamed

narrator's identity issues (Bieganowski, Reid, Murray) and

Baldwin's use of blues / jazz music within the story (Jones,

Sherard, Byerman, Goldman). Surprisingly, few critical discussions of

"Sonny's Blues" have focused on the story's

religious themes. Robert Reid, in an article devoted mainly to

Baldwin's narrator's identity concerns, compares the narrator to the biblical Ishmael and Sonny to Isaac (444-45); Jim Sanderson

discusses the role of grace in the story; and Marlene Mosher, in a very

short essay, explicates the biblical allusion in the story's final

image--the "cup of trembling" glowing and shaking above

Sonny's head as he plays the piano (Baldwin, "Sonny's

Blues" 141). But no critical analysis of "Sonny's

Blues" has identified the two main biblical texts that form the

foundation of Baldwin's story: the Cain and Abel story from the

Book of Genesis and the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke's

gospel.

That Baldwin would use Bible stories as a foundation for his

fiction should not be surprising. Like so many Christian African

Americans, Baldwin knew the Bible intimately and once claimed, "I

was born in the church" ("Notes" 14). Indeed, the King

James Bible became his signal literary text during his Harlem childhood.

In his biography of Baldwin, James Campbell states that Baldwin's

"moral world" was "fortified and sanctioned by

generations of deep believers" and that "the vocabulary and

cadence of the King James Bible and the rhetoric of the pulpit were at

the heart of his literary style" (4). According to Campbell,

Baldwin "knew the Bible so well that he coloured his phrases with

Old Testament rhetoric and poetry, with full conviction" (10), and

Baldwin's "personal theology" was drawn from the Bible

(11). Baldwin grew up listening to sermons in the storefront churches of

Harlem, reading the Bible, and living in fear of the wrath of his

religiously puritanical stepfather, David Baldwin, a self-ordained

minister.

At the age of fourteen, Baldwin underwent a dramatic religious

conversion in a Harlem church, an event described in detail in "The

Fire Next Time" and used in his first novel, Go Tell It on the

Mountain. As he explains in "The Fire Next Time," Baldwin

escaped the hazards of the Harlem streets by fleeing to the safety of

the church (20). Soon after his conversion, he began preaching regularly

in Harlem's churches as a Junior Minister. By the age of seventeen,

however, Baldwin would become disillusioned with religion and leave the

church, as the Bible gave way to the novels of Feodor Dostoevsky. But

Campbell is correct when he states that "although he [Baldwin] left

the church, the church never left him" (4). Indeed, religious and

biblical themes and motifs are at the center of Baldwin's best

literary efforts, including "Sonny's Blues."

Considering Baldwin's personal experiences in the Christian

church--which are discussed in the standard biographies of Baldwin and

generally noted in Baldwin criticism--and the vital role that religion

has played in African American letters, it seems puzzling that critics

have not discussed the biblical foundation of a key Baldwin text such as

"Sonny's Blues." African American writers since Phillis

Wheatley have been incorporating biblical themes and references into

their literary texts; by using the Bible to shape his...

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