It is becoming increasingly hard to remember what a towering figure James Baldwin once was.
His novels, often ambitious and experimental in the manner of the day, now seem dated because of their stylistic affectations, while the finer nonfiction, concerned almost exclusively with conflicts and injustices specific to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, are in danger of falling into the category of historical artifacts, like the writings of Upton Sinclair, say, or Henry Ward Beecher.
Add to that the way he is squeezed between renewed interest in his predecessors, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and the literary and popular acclaim of successors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or John Edgar Wideman, and James Baldwin becomes a writer ripe for the kind of critical biography that might rehabilitate his reputation and return him to a rightful place in American letters.
Baldwin’s Harlem, with its narrow focus on the writer’s relationship with the famous neighborhood that bred him, is not that kind of book, so it would be churlish to grouse that Herb Boyd has failed to give Baldwin his due. Indeed, despite the subtitle, this is not even properly a biography, lacking both the scope and the detail biography requires.
But alas, while the theme is clever to the point of originality, Boyd has produced an odd combination of academic treatise and newspaper-style prose that manages to indulge the worst qualities of each.
Boyd explores important aspects of Baldwin’s life and career, among them his childhood as an odd-looking and sensitive child in Harlem; his attacks on the older writers who nurtured him, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Richard Wright among them; his relationships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.; the way in which he was attacked, on one hand, for currying favor with Jewish intellectuals, and vilified, on the other, for anti-Semitism. But Boyd treats all this in a way that provides no context for the reader not thoroughly schooled in Baldwin’s life.
Indeed, Boyd devotes an entire chapter to the vicious lifelong jeremiad against Baldwin mounted by a mostly forgotten black intellectual gadfly named Harold Cruse. Despite the length lavished on Cruse, I had to look him up to get some notion of who he was and what the contretemps amounted to.
It would be one thing if Baldwin’s Harlem were a “for-us, by-us” book, intended primarily for a black audience. But almost anyone reading in the 21st century — black, white or other — would be grateful for more than an objective reporting of the various aspects of Baldwin’s life, especially coming willy-nilly, as they do here. That’s not even to mention Boyd’s skimpy treatment of Baldwin’s homosexuality.
The central problem with Baldwin’s Harlem is that there is not enough Boyd in it. Missing are the personality, biases and analytical intelligence that can make this kind of treatment a joy to read. Judging from his bona fides — he’s a teacher at two New York colleges and a writer with 18 books to his credit — I doubt he is lacking in these qualities. Yet not until the very end does Boyd’s sensibility enter the text, and it comes mostly in an appendix consisting of interviews with academic Michael Thelwell and poet Quincy Troupe.
Only then does Boyd emerge as a partisan of Baldwin the writer. Up until that point, going on the basis of Boyd’s numbingly evenhanded presentation of the controversies surrounding Baldwin’s various books at the time they were published, it would be almost impossible not to assume he shared those negative assessments.
What makes Baldwin’s Harlem essential is that it does carry the day for Boyd’s argument that Harlem, however much Baldwin wished to leave it behind, proved to be a constant theme and touchstone throughout his work and his life. Despite the book’s considerable flaws, it does manage, however awkwardly, to cast both Baldwin and Harlem, so romanticized as a black oasis, in a fresh light that neither can now escape.
Harlem, by the way, has repaid Baldwin’s disdain. As Boyd notes at the end of the book, in present-day Harlem there is no monument for Baldwin, among its greatest native sons, not so much as a plaque.