It is perhaps not straying too terribly far from the certainty known as absolute truth that without the release of the so-called “Kinsey Report” in 1948 and the subsequent release of two highly regarded semi-autobiographical novels dealing openly with homosexuality by Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, the world not have gained the access into the sexuality of author James Baldwin through the 1956 publication of his novel Giovanni’s Room. Of course, making predictions of the present that was the future of the past can be a dangerous, if tempting, game, so who knows for sure. James Baldwin may not have needed the underlying foundation of a new openness toward dealing with homosexual subjects in mainstream fiction to gain the confidence to add to that snail-like movement toward acceptance at level never known before. One thing is for certain, however: Giovanni’s Room is situated quite comfortably in the line of late 1940s to mid-1950s literary works that begin with Kinsey’s non-fictional report and traces a straight line through the 1955 debut of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway to Baldwin’s novel.
What is interesting about Baldwin’s addition to the literature of this period that opened the floodgates to the more mature examinations of sexual themes in film (the one literary media notably absent from the list of above titles) is the very direct focus and significance he places upon the issue of guilt as it relates to homosexuality. Giovanni’s Room becomes, in essence, one of the leading charges in the moral crusade to throw off the shackles of using guilt to create the illusion that sexuality between consenting adults of any nature violates the distinctly immoral imposition of moral authoritarianism held so dear by, among other entities, every major organized religion. Or, put more simply: with this novel James Baldwin does more damage to the “conversion” movement among the league of homophobes than any damage they are capable of inflicting upon argument against their motivations.
Proof of this assertion can be forwarded by taking a look at the world today and then taking a look back at the world in which Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room. That world was one in which his own publisher advised Baldwin that if he wanted to preserve the tiny audience of those willing to read literary novels by a negro author which he currently enjoyed, the best thing he could do with a manuscript certain to strip away any illusions any perceptive reader still had regarding Baldwin’s sexuality would involve flammable material and a match. Rather than burn the manuscript, Baldwin pressed forward with his desire for publication. The result was a reaction surprisingly less ferocious than expected and more than half a century later, Giovanni’s Room still routinely ranks near the top of any ranking of the best and most influential novels dealing openly with homosexuality.
An additional part of the legacy of Baldwin's book would be its contribution to what is routinely referred to as the "oldest gay bookstore in America." The store--named Giovanni's Room--was founded in Philadelphia in 1973 and after being sold by the original owner closed briefly before gaining new life shortly thereafter.