If Beale Street Could Talk is James Baldwin's sixth novel, published on June 17, 1974. It was published the year that Baldwin turned 50. The novel received ambivalent reviews following its publication, but in recent years its reputation has grown. At the time, critics of Beale Street argued that the novel was an "unsatisfactory portrait of racial pride," and that Baldwin is "largely irrelevant in a post-integration world" (Brian Norman). However, Beale Street was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and bestseller, and positive contemporary reviews of Beale Street lauded it for the newness of its content. Critics noted that the novel felt like a natural evolution of themes that Baldwin had been working through for years. Trudier Harris, in her 1978 essay "The Eye as a Weapon in If Beale Street Could Talk," argues that the depiction of the Rivers family in the novel represents "the realization of the family relationship Baldwin has been struggling for years to portray."
Perhaps the most ambiguous (and most cited) review of Beale Street is Mary Fair Burks' 1976 review called "James Baldwin's Protest Novel: If Beale Street Could Talk." In her review, Fair Burks notes that the novel's "appearance is a welcome contribution, coming as it does when the creative fervor of the Black Revolution has spent itself." However, she also sees Baldwin's latest novel as too "laden with suspended action while the author makes a point of protest" (Fair Burks). For Fair Burks, Baldwin's novel does not hit the mark in its intended effect on the reader. However, Fair Burks does ultimately see Beale Street as contributing to a "rich, [Black] cultural heritage worthy of being shared, understood, and appreciated."
Contemporary literary analysts, when approaching Beale Street, analyze how it is different from Baldwin's other works. Lynn Orilla Scott, in her book chapter dedicated to the novel, notes that Beale Street "represents, in several aspects, a major departure from his previous novels" (Orilla Scott). One of the reasons why Beale Street is different from the rest of Baldwin's work is because it was the first Baldwin novel without any white protagonists. It is also, as Scott notes, "the only Baldwin novel in which neither homoerotic love nor interracial love are present as subject or theme." Similarly, Brian Norman notes that Beale Street is a continuation of themes that Baldwin has examined throughout his career: those of "race and sexuality in America." He also notes, however, that Beale Street "marks a turning point in Baldwin's career: he moves away from stories of interaction between black and white characters and focuses almost exclusively on African American life and history in a story about black heterosexual love" (Norman). Finally, as many critics have noted through the decades since Beale Street was published, Beale Street is the only Baldwin novel with a female narrator, which sets it apart in content, narrative style, and tone from the rest of his published works.
In her book James Baldwin's Later Fiction, Orilla Scott muses on the forces that influenced Baldwin to write Beale Street. She shares the story of Tony Manyard, "Baldwin's former bodyguard, chauffeur, and friend." Like Fonny and Daniel in the novel, Manyard had trouble with the law and "was taken into custody in Hamburg, Germany, in October 1967 when the United States charged him with the murder of a Marine in New York" (Orilla Scott). Though Manyard had a fraught relationship with law enforcement in the past, he swore to Baldwin that he did not commit the crime he was accused of. Orilla Scott speculates that Baldwin's frustration with how that case was dealt with, as well as the flimsy evidence that they had on his friend, inspired Baldwin when "depicting both Daniel Carty's and Fonny Hunt's problems with the police and justice system."