- Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin
Readers of James Baldwin's work have waited a long time for a major biography of the enigmatic writer. Although there are a handful of useful biographies, beginning with Fern Marja Eckman's The Furious Passage of James Baldwin in 1966, and, more recently James Campbell's Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (1991) and David Leeming's James Baldwin: A Biography (1994), there is no single work that compares in detail or breadth to David Levering Lewis's magisterial biography of W. E. B. Du Bois or Arnold Rampersad's acclaimed work on Langston Hughes. In Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin, Herb Boyd does not attempt [End Page 525] to expand on earlier biographical accounts but instead focuses on the writer's relationship to Harlem, where Baldwin was born in 1924.
Boyd, a seasoned writer and managing editor of The Black World Today, has published eighteen books, including editing The Harlem Reader in 2003, a collection of stories and impressions from the Renaissance to the present. Although the publishers describe Baldwin's Harlem as "literary criticism," Boyd's book is rather a blend of cultural criticism and biography. While Boyd is clearly familiar with Baldwin's work, the strength of the book lies in the assured contextualization of the writer's work, such as the chapters on the Harlem Renaissance, Harold Cruse and the Harlem Six. For Boyd, Harlem was Baldwin's "spiritual home" (144), and, although Baldwin did not live there permanently after the early 1940s, Boyd persuasively paints a picture of Harlem's hold on the writer's imagination.
Boyd's chapter on Baldwin's upbringing in Harlem is assured, well researched, and includes interviews with one of Baldwin's brothers (although it is a shame that there are no photographs in the book, particularly of the writer's old neighborhood in the 1920s). Boyd's most engaging chapters are on Baldwin's relationship with Countée Cullen (his former teacher), and his uneasy relationship with Langston Hughes. As Boyd points out, the mature Baldwin seldom acknowledged the Harlem Renaissance despite the fact that his early school years coincided with the height of the cultural movement; his preoccupations with issues of class made him skeptical of the black middle class in Harlem.
Boyd's book is distinguished by his understanding of Harlem's social and political history and his chapter on "The Harlem Six," draws attention to Baldwin's political engagement by mapping the author's commitment to the unjust imprisonment of six young men in 1964 as well as giving details of his speech at a rent strike in 1961. In "The Jewish Question," Boyd sensitively charts Baldwin's at times contentious writings on the Jewish population in Harlem, offering a useful historical and political context. Similarly, the chapter on Malcolm X usefully pulls together Baldwin's relationship and acquaintance with El Hajj Malik El Shabazz.
Boyd's biography also traces Baldwin's relationships with Amiri Baraka and Harold Cruse, taking the latter to task for not referencing a quotation from Baldwin in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Boyd's point is well taken but his own book, though well researched, is not referenced clearly throughout. There are notes at the end of the book but they will frustrate scholars who might be eager to find to whom Boyd is referring in sentences such as "as one writer put it, he left the pulpit in order to preach" (51). Boyd's well paced prose and the inclusion of punchy background information suggest that the book is intended for a nonspecialist, illustrated by the useful chronology and annotated bibliography. But if this is the case, then there are moments where the book doesn't quite stand up. Sweeping comments about wider historical periods might be overlooked in view of the book's aims (such as the discussion of McCarthyism as the period "which made life miserable for anyone perceived as even having an anti-American thought") (35). A more...