Apart from his celebrity, apart from his fabled youth as a Harlem preacher, apart from his open homosexuality and his decision to leave the United States -- apart from all of that -- James Baldwin was a great American writer. He wrote beautifully, with passion and compassion, about the brass tacks of American life: race, sex, religion and violence.

Long before his death yesterday, Baldwin's writings became a standard of literary realism. His essays on America evoked place, time and emotions so successfully that they rival the carefully carved worlds of novelists. Given the messy nature of racial hatred, of the half-truths, blasphemies and lies that make up American life, Baldwin's accuracy in reproducing that world stands as a remarkable achievement.

His accuracy was the key: In his works, the reader could resonate to the sounds of the street corner, as drawn by Baldwin, could feel the anger of black Americans so long denied a role in American life as Baldwin wrote about that anger. Black people reading Baldwin knew he wrote the truth. White people reading Baldwin sensed his truth about the lives of black people and the sins of a racist nation.

Baldwin achieved his status principally as an essayist. "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (1953), his first and best novel, is more remarkable for its autobiographical glimpses of Baldwin's youth and black New York society than it is as fiction -- though it is a good work of fiction. After that, however, his fictional works paled next to the reality -- the irony and bite -- of his essays, particularly in "Notes of a Native Son" (1955) and "The Fire Next Time" (1963), books that stunned their readers when they appeared three decades ago.

Baldwin often referred to himself as a "Witness," and his essays witnessed the lives and ways of the people around him, black and white, rich and poor. His insights did not stick out; they were part of the fabric of the vivid life he painted with words. He didn't have to advertise himself as a smart man. He resisted the corruption of being a cheerleader or a critic for his family, his country, for black people or white people. He never abided by the conventionality of citing expert or statistical evidence. James Baldwin stood apart. We were invited in to see the world with James Baldwin. He witnessed and he wrote.

This sense of admiration for the truth, for the world as it is, that infuses Baldwin's work is what attracted him to writing. His literary heroes, he once said, were the novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He later had a falling out with Wright. But at the start of his career it was Wright to whom he went for advice on the craft and crucible of being a black American writer. And he idolized Wright and Ellison because they told the truth about the life of black America, unlike some black writers who wrote, he said, about a world that "had nothing to do with me ..."

"Richard {Wright} was very different, though," Baldwin said in a 1984 interview. "The life he described was the life I lived. I recognized the tenements. I knew the rat in 'Native Son.' I knew that woman in the story 'Bright and Morning Star.' All of that was urgent for me."

He found the same urgency in Ellison's "Invisible Man." He credited Ellison with the ability to wrench truth out of black American life in language that used "some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life."

Baldwin became a journalistic idol for me for the same reason Wright and Ellison were idols to him. He told the truth, beautifully, and yet complete with the "ambiguity and irony."

Here he is writing about Harlem in "Notes of a Native Son," dropping truth so it explodes like ripe fruit being thrown against a concrete sidewalk:

"If an outbreak of more than usual violence occurs, as in 1935 or in 1943, it is met with sorrow and surprise and rage; the social hostility of the rest of the city feeds on this as proof that they were right all along, and the hostility increases; speeches are made, committees are set up, investigations ensue. Steps are taken to right wrong, without, however, expanding or demolishing the ghetto. The idea is to make it less of a social liability, a process about as helpful as make-up to a leper. Thus we have the Boys' Club on West 134th Street, the playground at West 131st and Fifth Avenue; and since Negroes will not be allowed to live in Stuyvesant Town, Metropolitan Life is thoughtfully erecting a housing project called Riverton in the center of Harlem; however, it is not likely that any but the professional class of Negroes -- and not all of them -- will be able to pay the rent."

Baldwin's ability to describe the world he saw was awesome, but even that was enlarged by his ability to confront himself as a black American who lived in a land where black skin meant to be judged dumb, ugly and insentient by the mainstream, white culture of blond beauties and red-cheeked cowboys. Not only could he write in self-mocking tones about the psychological confusion that bedeviled him as a black American, but he could also honestly confront his homosexuality. Baldwin had the rare human capacity to be a witness to himself.

But honesty was not always in fashion. In the late 1960s he was criticized by some black activists as insufficiently black because he did not fall in line with every variety of militant rhetoric. Some black writers did not appreciate his insistence on truth when it did not fit their drive to create a "Black Is Beautiful" literary esthetic. Eldridge Cleaver, for example, in "Soul on Ice," wrote that "there is in James Baldwin's work the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer of note in our time."

Julius Lester, a professor and novelist, in a 1984 interview with Baldwin, said he knew of no contemporary black writers who had Baldwin's interest in being a "witness" to the world. "What are you a witness to?" asked Lester.

"Witness to whence I came, where I am," Baldwin replied. "Witness to what I've seen and the possibilities that I think I see ... Now in order for me to execute my responsibility, I may have to offend them all {whites and blacks, young and old}, but that also comes with the territory. I don't see how I can repudiate it ... Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth."

The success of Baldwin's effort as the witness is evidenced time and again by the people, black and white, gay and straight, famous and anonymous, whose humanity he unveiled in his writings. America and the literary world are far richer for his witness. The proof of shared humanity across the divides of race, class and more is the testament that the preacher's son, James Arthur Baldwin, has left us.