James Baldwin (Leeming)

I’ve heard and read that contemporary writers make the complaint that so much is demanded of them. One even bemoaned that he was always asked to write for free and cited the necessity to tweet and to write a book review for the New York Times as examples. But the days of writers being larger than life characters seems to be gone. And the days of writers being both writers and citizens seems to be on the wane. Salman Rushdie was forced into the role, and PEN persists, but pause for a moment – when was the last time a writer (of fiction) was central to a national conversation (Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps, but even he made the point that ‘they’ generally only allow for one at a time), let alone in an international one?

Based on this biography, written by someone who was part of Baldwin’s entourage, someone Baldwin called, “My Boswell,” paints a picture of Baldwin who was personally and professionally everywhere in part because he could find a home nowhere – not in the church, not in New York, not in France, not in a particular genre of writing (I favor the essays) and certainly not in any relationship apart, perhaps, from the one with his brother, David. He felt called as a witness, and so he would travel to where there were things to be seen. The Civil Rights Movement – a name he eventually rejected – kept calling him home and forcing him to the South, a place where he’d return for one of his final pieces, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, about the murders of children in Atlanta.

Leeming narrates Baldwin’s life with engaging fluidity. At times too much the amateur psychologist, Leeming absolutely and painfully bogs down when he provides a few pages of summary / autobiographical analysis of many of Baldwin’s publications. Though short (thankfully), these sections are incredibly hard to read as Leeming rapidly summarizes the novel or play or essay collection interweaving, with an irritating sense of certainty, the parallels in Baldwin’s life and mind. Granted, Baldwin was apparently not shy about discussing these things, but these pseudo-academic digressions seem to serve little purpose. I started to grimace when I knew yet another one was coming. Okay, enough. They were frustrating.

How much autobiography is in Baldwin’s work? Leeming certainly makes the case for a few common threads (father-son, the boxes we are all put in and put ourselves in, etc.) and even does a decent job of acknowledging how Baldwin’s thinking changed and became more refined.

I was sorry to read of how he struggled so much – for personal contentment, for money, for a successful relationship, for more theatre and film work. Did the struggle make the man, the writer? Perhaps there is something to the cliche of the necessity of suffering for art.

Mostly, though, I want to return to Baldwin’s work, particularly his fiction, with new eyes and if not a better understanding than at least a deeper one. He put his life onto his pages and while some results have seemed messy or elusive to me, others (“Sonny’s Blues” might be the best short story I’ve ever read) have, like his essays, changed me. I need to give him more attention.

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