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  • Writer's pictureESSMAT SOPHIE

The significance of using the epistolary (letter) form in the “My Dungeon Shook” section of James Ba

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

James Baldwin wrote this open letter to his nephew, which was published later for a wider audience. He conveyed a message to his nephew and potential audience. Instead of dialogue-driven scenes, Baldwin employed an epistolary format to focus on his thoughts, feelings, and emotions presented as memories. The epistolary format emphasizes the first-person point of view, allowing him to demonstrate his strong emotions.

Baldwin purposefully emphasized the closeness of a specific relationship. His letter contains a sincere reflection on his family history, though it also required him to face the challenges that his family members have encountered due to their race. The letter demonstrated a balance between happy and sad situations in an intimate relationship.

The letter’s content emphasizes how the writer communicates with his nephew not only through letter-writing but also by sharing the story about his life and family history. He also pointed out that he was writing the letter to James, not to the “innocent countrymen” who supported a racist system. This important point is partly because white Americans have historically ignored the lives of boys like James. Baldwin doubted they would be interested in the story.

The letter was written specifically for Baldwin’s nephew, not for the general public.

Baldwin started with a personal letter to James. He continued with phrases like, “I am sure your father has told you something about all that,” emphasizing that James was the only audience he had in mind when writing the text. “I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, because most of them do not yet really know that you exist,” Baldwin said later. Baldwin explained why he addressed the text in this manner: He did not believe that a larger, white American public would be interested in this subject.

Although Baldwin solely had his nephew in mind when he wrote this letter, the letter’s open format and eventual publishing in one of his books (The Fire Next Time) demonstrated his belief that personal and family problems are rooted in the political, social, and historical aspects of society where we live. This, in turn, recalls the famous Slogan “Personal is Political”.

Although he explained painful truths to his nephew, Baldwin believed in the redeeming power of love. This open letter style, which is utterly private and intimate, added to the importance of his belief.

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