Baldwin: revisiting a mountain of a man

June 03, 1994|By George Grella | George Grella,Special to The Sun

Like a lot of contemporary authors, James Baldwin underwent a sort of double death -- when he died in 1987, his works seemed to die with him. Although he was very much a celebrated public figure as well as an honored author of novels, plays and essays, his books almost immediately disappeared from the display shelves. As with other writers, the biographical and critical studies that appear after the passage of time will surely resurrect his reputation, recall his memory and revive interest in his work for a new generation of readers.

David Leeming's new biography should serve the useful and quite honorable purpose of returning attention to James Baldwin and his works. The subject, after all, was probably the best-known black American writer of his generation, an important contributor to his nation's literature and discourse. The biography also suggests, however, some reasons for the period of neglect that has followed its subject's death.

James Baldwin's life and work, the author shows, were haunted by an even more complicated set of sorrows than most impoverished black Americans of his time. Born in 1924 in Harlem, Baldwin never knew his real father but suffered a painful relationship with his preacher stepfather, David Baldwin, a troubled man who died in madness.

Baldwin felt his own personal illegitimacy reflected the position of all black people in America, searching always for a genuine acceptance; it also explained his lifelong inability to enjoy permanent relationships, settle in a particular place or find a sense of peace.

But the Rev. David Baldwin also bequeathed to his stepson a profoundly religious vision of his art, his people and his duty in the world. Mr. Leeming constantly refers to Baldwin not only as a writer, but also as a prophet and a witness, a voice instructing his people -- both white and black Americans -- about the realities of racism, the fact of rage and the need for love.

Like a lot of black Americans, Baldwin also learned from his religious upbringing the lessons and rhythms of the Bible and the hymns he sang in church. It is no accident that both his content and style (and such titles as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "The Fire Next Time") reflect that background.

His ambiguous sexual identity further complicated his sense of himself as an outsider, a perpetual "Stranger in the Village," as he titled one of his most famous essays. Although he enjoyed many close friendships and even some sexual relationships with women, Baldwin was essentially homosexual, which not only alienated him all the more from the mainstream of life but also led him through a long series of disastrous, sometimes sordid, affairs. He drank heavily and self-destructively all his life, often wasting time, talent and energies on a desperate need for friends and lovers.

Perhaps the most telling ambiguities surrounding Baldwin's career involve his position as a black American writer. Born during the Harlem Renaissance, Baldwin met and learned from such older writers as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.

But he often vacillated between accepting the role of black intellectual and spokesman -- witness and prophet again -- and rejecting the wearying racial struggle and choosing the life of art. Although he traveled in, and wrote about, the South during some of the most troubled days of the civil rights movement, and usually insisted on the American quality of his work, he also frequently fled to Europe, where he lived most of his adult life.

In style, tone, aesthetic interests, in fact, he may be closer to Henry James than to many of his contemporaries. An expatriate who never felt fully at home anywhere, he understood James' perception of the "complex fate" of being an American, especially a black American, both in and out of his native land. No wonder so many younger black writers and thinkers, such as Amiri Baraka, attacked and rejected him as a spokesman and model.

Mr. Leeming covers the small and large details of Baldwin's life and career with clarity, objectivity and sympathy. In addition to his thorough research, he enjoyed a close friendship with his subject for about 25 years, which obviously provided him with insights and information unavailable to most literary biographers. His book should go a long way toward reviving the reputation and the works of a brilliant, talented and extraordinarily complex figure; James Baldwin deserved this fine biography and deserves the attention of our time.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "James Baldwin: A Biography"

Author: David Leeming

Publisher: Knopf

(Length, price: 439 pages, $25

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