by Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)
22 February 2008
Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography
by Herb Boyd
January 2008, 272 pages, $24.00
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
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 centuryblack, white or otherwould 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 fideshe's a teacher at two New York colleges
and a writer with 18 books to his creditI 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.