His death from cancer was announced Tuesday morning by Bernard Hassalle, a longtime companion and secretary.
The eldest son of a Harlem preacher, Baldwin, a small, slight man, was looked on for much of two decades both as a distinguished young American novelist and as a black essayist with the extraordinary, almost uncanny power of making his black experience meaningful to a white audience.
But, after the 1950s and 1960s, his reputation waned, perhaps because he had become too strident a black for white audiences, perhaps because he failed, like other American novelists of the 20th Century, to maintain the excitement and freshness of his earlier work.
But there is little doubt that his first novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," an autobiographical work about his youth in Harlem, and his first book of essays, "Notes of a Native Son," a series exploring his life as a black living in Europe, made an unusual impact on the literary scene when published in 1953 and 1955. Both works are still highly regarded.
For a time during the 1960s, Baldwin was in the forefront of the civil rights movement, especially when he published his book of essays, "The Fire Next Time," in 1963. Despite the title, Baldwin was actually appealing to whites of good will to join with blacks of good will in averting that fire.
"If we . . . do not falter in our duty now," he wrote, "we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader and contender for the Democratic Party nomination for president, who knew Baldwin, called the author "a great source of inspiration" during the height of the civil rights movement. Interviewed in Chicago by the Associated Press, Jackson said Baldwin was a "prolific and sensitive writer" whose "voice was not watered down by political considerations."
"He was a great advocate of personal and racial freedom," Jackson said. "He was one of the giants."
Fellow authors had high praise for Baldwin. "He was one of our best essayists in the best American gadfly tradition," said Ralph Ellison, author of the novel "Invisible Man," which deals with the struggles of a black youth in a hostile society.
"I think he managed to bring a great deal of elegance and eloquence to the subjects he chose."
William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Confessions of Nat Turner" and other works, called Baldwin "a great talent." He added, "He was a writer of such force when it came to issues that disturbed him."
Baldwin was so much a symbol of the black experience during the height of the civil rights era that Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, soon after the inauguration of his brother, sought a meeting with the writer to discuss the future of civil rights. The meeting was not a happy one, for Robert Kennedy reportedly lost patience with Baldwin and refused to regard him as representative of the blacks of America.
Baldwin was born in Harlem on Aug. 2, 1924, the eldest of a preacher's nine children. Intent on writing a novel and encouraged by his teachers in New York, Baldwin left for Paris in 1948. In Europe, he kept trying to understand "the West on to which I have been so strangely grafted." Yet, living in Europe made him somehow feel more American, especially when he discovered that young American writers were just as alienated from European culture as he was.
"Negroes are Americans," he wrote in "Notes of a Native Son," "and their destiny is the country's destiny. They have no other experience besides their experience on this continent, and it is an experience which cannot be rejected, which yet remains to be embraced."
Years later, however, his views turned bitter.
"Black people don't believe anything white people say anymore," he told the Associated Press in an interview in 1983. Black people better take care of themselves, he went on, because "no one else is going to do it."
With his early successes, Baldwin left his poverty behind and could afford to alternate between living in France and the United States while writing novels, essays, poems and plays. Fourteen years ago, however, he decided to make his permanent and final home in St. Paul de Vence, a town of hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea that had long been a favorite of painters in France.
Baldwin's other best known works include "Giovanni's Room," a novel published in 1958; "Nobody Knows My Name," a book of essays published in 1960; "Another Country," a novel published in 1962, and "Blues for Mr. Charlie," a play produced in 1964. His last novel, "Harlem Quartet," was published this year.
Baldwin was one of the best-known American expatriates living in France, and his death inspired a front-page tribute Tuesday from Le Monde, France's most influential newspaper. President Francois Mitterrand honored Baldwin last year by appointing him a commander in the Legion of Honor.
"Getting this award from the country that I have adopted," Baldwin said at the time, "means that France has adopted me."
Only a week ago, his novel, "Harlem Quartet," had lost out by one vote in Paris for the Femina Prize for the best foreign novel of the year. But, a few hours after his death, the novel was awarded the French-American Friendship Prize, the only literary prize ever awarded to Baldwin in France.
Hassalle, who announced Baldwin's death, said that funeral services will be held in New York on Friday.