David Leeming knew and worked with James Baldwin for the last twenty-five years of the writer’s life, and that intimacy has helped him to produce a biography that gets beneath the celebrity to the writer and the man below. Leeming accurately sees Baldwin as an Old Testament prophet, a biblical witness or “voice in the wilderness.” Baldwin’s “essays stand out as among the most articulate expressions we have of the human condition in his time,” Leeming writes, and Baldwin’s three plays, six novels, and many short stories create “parables to illustrate . . . the words of his essays.”
Leeming also portrays the private Baldwin, a man who sought love unsuccessfully throughout his life and who suffered terrible bouts of depression and loneliness for most of it. Almost from birth, Baldwin faced multiple strikes against him. Illegitimate—he never knew who his biological father was—and reared by a stepfather who became increasingly mad in a Harlem with few escapes even for the sane, Baldwin in the end used these very conditions “as starting points for a lifelong witnessing of the moral failure of the American nation—and of Western civilization in general—and the power of love to revive it.” In the telling titles of his works, Baldwin became the persona of Nobody Knows My Name (1961), No Name in the Street (1971), or “Stranger in the Village,” the outsider who could see and depict so clearly the social conditions in his own country.
Baldwin was fortunate as a youth to have his talent recognized early by mentors, white and black—the poet Countée Cullen, for example, and Orilla (“Bill”) Miller were both influential early teachers. He needed such support, for he carried a double burden, not only his blackness but his emerging homosexuality as well. At the age of fourteen he became an apprentice preacher, but his religion was really a temporary escape from his emerging sexuality. As Leeming demonstrates here, however, it was in the pulpit that Baldwin first learned to use rhetoric effectively, and “the Word” would become the foundation of a prose style that would be used as a powerful instrument, not only in his literature but in his country’s moral development as well. “Baldwin was a writer who could combine the cadences of the King James Bible and Henry James with what he liked to call the ‘beat’ of African-American culture.” No prose style has had a greater impact on modern American life.
After graduation from high school, Baldwin lived in and around New York, took on a series of dead-end jobs, and worked on his writing. (His first published piece, a review of Maxim Gorki’s short stories, appeared in The Nation in April, 1947.) His earliest influences were Beauford Delaney, the African American painter, who would introduce Baldwin to jazz and the blues, and Richard Wright, the African American novelist, who would provide Baldwin with a writing model but whom he would in a few short years have to reject as a literary father figure.
After eight years in New York, Baldwin left for Paris and the exile that would be his state for much of the remainder of his life. Like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other American expatriates twenty-five years earlier, Baldwin found Paris an exciting, creative place, even if he was too poor to experience all of it. As often happens, Baldwin really discovered his American identity there; while on one level his exile may have been an escape, it also brought him face-to-face with himself and with his Americanness. His early works reflect that truth. In 1953, his first (and possibly best) novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, appeared, based on his religious experiences in his Harlem adolescence, and two years later, Notes of a Native Son, the collection of essays that would make his name thereafter synonymous with civil rights, was published—only a year after United States schools had been desegregated in Brown v. Board of Education.
Baldwin’s career was...
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