No American writer became more famous in the decades after World War II than James Baldwin; by the time his picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine in May of 1963, his novels and books of essays had been read and reviewed everywhere, and he had been interviewed endlessly, both about his writing and about his country’s racial problems. No writer, however, shows more clearly the dangers of such fame to his art. James Campbell’s biography captures both the power of Baldwin’s writing and the tragedy of his literary life.
Campbell is rather disingenuous in the preface to his work, offering the biography “not as a definitive picture but as a host of sketches and perceptions aimed towards a definition, yet finally backing down from one.” If the book lacks the interminable detail of other recent biographies, it does not lack a depth of perception about its subject. Readers will leave the biography with a sense not only of Baldwin himself but also of the times—chiefly defined by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War—in which he lived.
Like other British writers (W. J. Weatherby, who wrote a 1990 biography of Baldwin, is a good case in point), Campbell somehow has the distance to come to grips with what Americans are still wrestling with, that tangle of incident and feeling that is the tapestry of black-white relations in the United States. Certainly, England is not without its own racial difficulties, but British commentators on American life seem somehow able to achieve both a frankness and a sensitivity that Americans rarely attain.
The book is organized into five major sections, each centered on a period of Baldwin’s life, and in each Campbell captures the central triumphs and conflicts of the writer’s career. Yet Campbell always brings the story back to the writing. In dealing with Baldwin’s childhood, for example, Campbell describes the Harlem poverty that became part of Baldwin’s motivation for writing. In Campbell’s vision, Baldwin’s domineering stepfather becomes not only another reason to leave home but also an important character in the early fiction, and the storefront preaching that Baldwin began at fourteen not only provides the subject of his first novel but also influences the oratorical delivery in his best writing. As Campbell notes, “The prophesy of wrath and the quest for salvation shaped his imagination, just as the vocabulary and cadence of the King James Bible and the rhetoric of the pulpit were at the heart of his literary style.”
Before Baldwin, only one black writer had ever received national acclaim: Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son was a sensation in 1940. Wright would become an early friend to Baldwin, both in New York in the mid-1940’s and later in Paris, but Baldwin would have to slay this literary father in the creation of his own persona. (Baldwin would title his first collection of essays in 1955Notes of a Native Son.) His other early creative influence was a black painter, Beauford Delaney, whom Baldwin met in Greenwich Village and with whom he would remain friends throughout his life.
In many ways Baldwin’s career is paradigmatic for the postwar American writer. Forced to drop plans for college because of his large family’s needs but driven to write, Baldwin finally abandoned the one for the other, and, after some early writing in New York, arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-five, broke, self-educated (“Baldwin had read everything,” said his admirer Mary McCarthy), and with a literary dream. The next forty years would be nomadic for Baldwin, as he would move back and forth between Europe (he lived for long stretches in France, Switzerland, and Turkey) and the New York where he had grown up. In a sense, he would never have another home, although he would always have a family, whom he would later overindulge, perhaps because he had abandoned them so early.
In a sense, Baldwin’s writing shows his peripatetic style. His first success was a...
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