Book Reviews

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

David A. Leeming

Reviewed on May 17, 2017
An important writer of our times, James Baldwin was saddled with the triple burden of being the adopted ugly duckling child in a household of nine children, a black in America at a time when racial tensions were at their highest, and a bisexual man at a time when sex between men was still a criminal offence.

Exceptionally bright, puny, effeminate, ugly, gifted with the power of oratory, Baldwin escaped the ghetto of Harlem, his step-father’s church, and the responsibilities of the eldest breadwinner son by heading to Greenwich Village in New York City and then onto France (and later in life he added Istanbul to his list of semi-permanent homes). He didn’t suffer the rejection of the novice author for too long and was successful in his twenties with his masterpiece, Go Tell it on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical account of his life at the age of 14. This work and the status it conferred opened him to the expatriate community in France and to a multitude of contacts in the literary, theatre, fine art and cinema fields around the world. These contacts included Marlon Brando, Maya Angelou, Henry Miller, Eartha Kitt, Burt Lancaster, Beauford Delaney, the list goes on. Despite this level of acknowledgement, Baldwin always lived on the outside and was full of rage against the injustices done to his people; he considered himself a witness, advocating the rights of the black man in his home country. He had many broken relationships and always craved the love and stability of a happy marriage and a family, something he never achieved. Also dreamed up but never obtained was a strong father figure, and all the surrogates who came and went in his life never measured up. Some periods of his life were drowned in depression and he made several, albeit half-hearted, attempts at suicide.

A key member of the civil rights movement, he constantly travelled back and forth to America, espousing love as the way to solve America’s race problems. He posited that the white man was no more free than his black brother. “The white man will be free only when he let’s go of oppression. The black man bears the sexual paranoia of white people.” He supported Malcom X and Martin Luther King but wasn’t enamoured with more radical groups like the Black Panthers. He fought against ideology, just as he fought against his church, claiming it was just another form of entrapment.

As his books, novels, essays and short stories, began to make him a major voice in the literary firmament of the time, he branched off into theatre and film, but never quite hit the level of success he enjoyed with his writing in these two other art forms. Part of the problem was that he intruded in his theatre and film productions, interfering in the casting (which often resulted in his friends and relatives being included in the productions), and fighting with directors and producers over creative control. He had a large entourage of hangers-on who were regularly in attendance at his various homes where debates, drinking, smoking, and fighting would go on late into the night - grist for his literary mill. “Conflict in life is inevitable. There is no love without conflict.”

On the relationship side, despite having many male and female lovers, the love of his life was Lucien Happersberger, himself a bisexual, who unlike Baldwin, had a bias towards women over men. Lucien betrayed Baldwin many times and Baldwin kept forgiving him until the damage was extreme and irreparable. Later in life, an enlightened but hungry Baldwin took on a string of young male lovers in an attempt to replace Lucien. In addition to spending extravagantly on Lucien, and on his many family members, Baldwin had no handle on his finances and was constantly running short of money, often being rescued by influential friends who gave him funds or a place to hole up and write until the money would start to flow again.

The author of this biography, David Leeming, worked as a secretary for Baldwin, on and off through the years. Much of this biography is culled from Baldwin’s journals and letters, and therefore certain sections of the book read like a chronological run down of events without getting deep into the motivations and feelings of the characters involved, because Leeming himself was absent. Leeming however had the good fortune of being with Baldwin during the last days of his life while domiciled in France, and that portrayal is poignant.

It is ironic that such an accomplished writer, and such a brave and generous soul who was never starved for an audience, had to end his days feeling like the loneliest man on the planet.
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