A slender but sturdy life of the centrifugal author at home in New York.
Baldwin was many things; consistent is not necessarily one of them. Boyd (Pound for Pound: A Biography of Sugar Ray Robinson, 2005) notes that Baldwin was “committed to black radicalism” and a fellow traveler of Malcolm X, yet not so committed to the cause as to endorse younger activists such as Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who returned the favor. We meet Cleaver as he and Baldwin were supposedly kissing at a 1967 dinner party in San Francisco, “a graphic contradiction of [Cleaver’s] merciless attack on Baldwin’s homosexuality, or an indication of his own deep-seated sexual ambivalence.” Baldwin advocated racial rapprochement, telling Harlem schoolchildren, “Color doesn’t matter. Color is a political reality which certain politicians use. There is no moral value to black or white skin.” Yet he excused his vigorous anti-Semitism by saying that nearly all blacks in Harlem, after all, hated Jews: “We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the building.” Baldwin, writes Boyd, was a student of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen and was active in the small literary circle that succeeded the movement. Yet where Cullen was concerned with community-building, Baldwin seems to have thrived on feuds, such as a long-running one with Langston Hughes and, calculated to fuel anti-Semitic sentiments, another fierce one with Norman Mailer. Boyd traces those conflicts to their roots, delivering a refined sort of literary gossip ennobled by substance: We hear, for instance, of Henry Louis Gates’s running argument with Baldwin over whether Harriet Beecher Stowe was a worthy writer, of Amiri Baraka’s dismissal of Baldwin for not being a sufficient revolutionary and so forth.
Less thorough than James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (1991), but still of much interest to students of recent American letters.