His best known novel was his first, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a semi-autobiographical novel about a young black man growing up in Harlem in the 1930s. It is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Baldwin grew up in a repressive household with a strict stepfather who was a preacher. Baldwin himself became a preacher at age 14, and in his three years in that capacity discovered his love of writing. He said being in the pulpit was like being in the theater. "I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked," he wrote in The Fire Next Time.
Baldwin came to view religion as misguided and partly responsible for perpetuating in institution of slavery in America, though he also praised it for inspiring some of his race to cast off the shackles of oppression and seek a better life.
He spent much time as a teenager in Greenwich Village, an experience that awakened him to the possibilities of a larger world beyond Harlem. In 1948, he moved to Paris, and spent much of the rest of his life living abroad, but always reflecting on life as a black man in America.
Baldwin became a friend of African-American writer Richard Wright, and wrote Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of essays on race, sex and social structure in America. The title is a reference to Wright's 1941 novel, Native Son. Later, Baldwin wrote an essay criticizing Uncle Tom's Cabin and Native Son as lacking credible characters. Baldwin's friendship with Wright dissolved after that. Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956) and Another Country (1962) deal with homosexuality, race and the bohemian lifestyle he became familiar with in Greenwich Village.
Baldwin participated in the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, the march in Selma, Alabama, in 1964, and was in demand as speaker on civil rights. He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1963 as part of an article on the growing unrest. His book No Name in the Street (1972) dealt with the despair he felt after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all personal friends.
Baldwin was said to have influenced poet Maya Angelou and novelist Toni Morrison. Among his friends were Josephine Baker, Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley, Elia Kazan, Margaret Mead, and Lee Strasberg.