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James Baldwin: A Biography

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James Baldwin was one of the great writers of the last century. In works that have become part of the American canon—Go Tell It on a Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen—he explored issues of race and racism in America, class distinction, and sexual difference. A gay, African American writer who was born in Har James Baldwin was one of the great writers of the last century. In works that have become part of the American canon—Go Tell It on a Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen—he explored issues of race and racism in America, class distinction, and sexual difference. A gay, African American writer who was born in Harlem, he found the freedom to express himself living in exile in Paris. When he returned to America to cover the Civil Rights movement, he became an activist and controversial spokesman for the movement, writing books that became bestsellers and made him a celebrity, landing him on the cover of Time. In this biography, which Library Journal called “indispensable,” David Leeming creates an intimate portrait of a complex, troubled, driven, and brilliant man. He plumbs every aspect of Baldwin’s life: his relationships with the unknown and the famous, including painter Beauford Delaney, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and childhood friend Richard Avedon; his expatriate years in France and Turkey; his gift for compassion and love; the public pressures that overwhelmed his quest for happiness, and his passionate battle for black identity, racial justice, and to “end the racial nightmare and achieve our country.”


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James Baldwin was one of the great writers of the last century. In works that have become part of the American canon—Go Tell It on a Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen—he explored issues of race and racism in America, class distinction, and sexual difference. A gay, African American writer who was born in Har James Baldwin was one of the great writers of the last century. In works that have become part of the American canon—Go Tell It on a Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen—he explored issues of race and racism in America, class distinction, and sexual difference. A gay, African American writer who was born in Harlem, he found the freedom to express himself living in exile in Paris. When he returned to America to cover the Civil Rights movement, he became an activist and controversial spokesman for the movement, writing books that became bestsellers and made him a celebrity, landing him on the cover of Time. In this biography, which Library Journal called “indispensable,” David Leeming creates an intimate portrait of a complex, troubled, driven, and brilliant man. He plumbs every aspect of Baldwin’s life: his relationships with the unknown and the famous, including painter Beauford Delaney, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and childhood friend Richard Avedon; his expatriate years in France and Turkey; his gift for compassion and love; the public pressures that overwhelmed his quest for happiness, and his passionate battle for black identity, racial justice, and to “end the racial nightmare and achieve our country.”

30 review for James Baldwin: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Insightful, if conventional, James Baldwin clearly charts the course of the famous writer’s life and work. Leemings approaches Baldwin’s life chronologically from birth to death, establishing early on the major themes that structured his career and examining with painstaking detail every piece of art he created no matter how minor. The biographer adeptly demonstrates the impact the ups and downs of Baldwin’s personal life had on his books, and accounts for his turn in the ‘70s toward a bleaker w Insightful, if conventional, James Baldwin clearly charts the course of the famous writer’s life and work. Leemings approaches Baldwin’s life chronologically from birth to death, establishing early on the major themes that structured his career and examining with painstaking detail every piece of art he created no matter how minor. The biographer adeptly demonstrates the impact the ups and downs of Baldwin’s personal life had on his books, and accounts for his turn in the ‘70s toward a bleaker worldview and less formal aesthetic. The biography’s well written but conventional and not especially compelling to read.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    I can see why people consider this the go to biography. It is really good and gives context. Leeming's writing is totally engaging. I learned quite a bit.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    The author of this book, David Leeming (emeritus professor of English at the University of Connecticut), was a close friend to James Baldwin (1924- 1987) for twenty-five years. They first met in 1961 in Istanbul where Leeming was teaching at Robert College. Back in New York, beginning in 1963, Leeming worked as Baldwin’s personal assistant, dealt with correspondence and did lecture research. Returning to Istanbul in 1965, he, Baldwin and Baldwin’s younger brother, David, lived together for a yea The author of this book, David Leeming (emeritus professor of English at the University of Connecticut), was a close friend to James Baldwin (1924- 1987) for twenty-five years. They first met in 1961 in Istanbul where Leeming was teaching at Robert College. Back in New York, beginning in 1963, Leeming worked as Baldwin’s personal assistant, dealt with correspondence and did lecture research. Returning to Istanbul in 1965, he, Baldwin and Baldwin’s younger brother, David, lived together for a year. Leeming and Baldwin maintained a close friendship throughout their lives, writing and frequently visiting each other. During the last days of Baldwin's life at St. Paul de Vence, France, Leeming was one of the few there caring for Baldwin along with his brother David. Leeming's relationship with Baldwin was long, intimate and full of understanding. This is reflected in the writing. However Leeming does not whitewash Baldwin. Both criticism and praise are presented in full measure. Their long friendship allows us to better understand the emotions and thoughts of Baldwin, and it is a reason to choose this biography of the man. So why not more stars? Quite simply because I would have preferred more editing. Parts are repetitive. The book moves forward chronologically; every book, essay, play, as well as Baldwin's venture in film and poetry is detailed. Much of Baldwin's writing is semi-autobiographical. Much can be seen as metaphors of his life philosophy. Repeatedly people and events in his life are used as characters in his writing. This does become a bit repetitive. Some issues are covered only briefly and occasionally I wanted more information, for example concerning Baldwin’s scoliosis. Race, sexuality and love are the central components of this book. Baldwin was sexually active. He spent his life searching for love, honest communication and true commitment, between individuals and between races. For me, excessive use of a term ultimately leads to loss of its significance. Baldwin spoke of love so often and in so many situations and in so many ways, that for me it began to be washed of its value. This is in no way a complaint of the book; I am simply noting the effect this had on me. As an older man, Baldwin remarked, "It took so much time to learn so little." This struck home to me. His constant effort and battle to dig down deep to a person’s innermost feelings and thoughts, his introspection, fascinated me. He saw the femininity in men as well as the white in Blacks and the black in Whites. I like his search for what binds all of us together - Blacks and Whites, men and women, young and old. Baldwin's words are eloquent, intimate and lay bare his soul. His passion is felt. In this book we meet many of Baldwin’s contemporaries, authors and artists many of us have read about: Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac, Martin Luther King Jr. and Beauford Delaney. I am naming but a few. Baldwin highly appreciated Henry James’s writing. The audiobook is narrated by James Patrick Cronin. I think his voice wonderfully reflected Baldwin’s voice. There is an intimacy to it that reflects the intimacy in Baldwin’s character. It was always clear and easy to follow, but the French pronunciation was off. There are many French words since Baldwin spent so much time there. Such an interesting person – born in Harlem, so American, and yet not American too. He lived many years as an expatriate. Now I am going off on a tangent, so I will stop here. This is a good book, and it is worth reading. If you have read all of his writings you will probably appreciate it even more than I did.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sofia

    James Baldwin has become a man I deeply admire. I admire his writing and I also admire his philosophy. Here Leeming helps us follow young to old Jimmy 'keeping the faith' always, through being a preacher, a student, a writer, an activist, a commentator on life, he was a witness and a keeper of the faith always. An imperfect man but such a big heart, such clarity, such trueness. "She was a constant reminder to him of the necessity of “keeping the faith,” of not drifting onto the all-too-tempting r James Baldwin has become a man I deeply admire. I admire his writing and I also admire his philosophy. Here Leeming helps us follow young to old Jimmy 'keeping the faith' always, through being a preacher, a student, a writer, an activist, a commentator on life, he was a witness and a keeper of the faith always. An imperfect man but such a big heart, such clarity, such trueness. "She was a constant reminder to him of the necessity of “keeping the faith,” of not drifting onto the all-too-tempting road of racial or personal hatred." of his mother Leeming was very very good in giving us public Jimmy, I would have loved to have more of the intimate Jimmy. A marvellous read with my Baldwin companion Maya. Reading with Maya Dec 2015

  5. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Chaikin

    I read this to get me excited about reading Baldwin this year and learn more about what kind of person he was. And it did get me excited at first because Baldwin is fascinating. He was that kind of energetic personality that can never settle down. It seems he always felt to the need to be bold, and do something slightly unexpected, and somehow to hover on the edge of some kind of self-destabilization, while at the same time always craving a stability. When he wrote, it was from his life. It seem I read this to get me excited about reading Baldwin this year and learn more about what kind of person he was. And it did get me excited at first because Baldwin is fascinating. He was that kind of energetic personality that can never settle down. It seems he always felt to the need to be bold, and do something slightly unexpected, and somehow to hover on the edge of some kind of self-destabilization, while at the same time always craving a stability. When he wrote, it was from his life. It seems his personality, boldness and incisive self-analysis provided the power behind his fiction and essays. And, on top of all that, he was black and gay in an electric time and threw himself into the midst of the Civil Rights movement. It curious because my view of Baldwin isn't as a prominent Civil Right leader, but as curious highbrow writer I didn't know much else about. It's not like I ever thought MLK, Malcolm X and James Baldwin in same formative way. And there was something different about him. He was raised in Harlem, became a preacher at 14 (significantly influencing his writing and speaking styles), but his life led him to a kind of bohemian 1940's Greenwich Village and then to a Paris of expats, hanging out with a more liberal and largely white crowd. He would be mocked as not being black enough, and it seems he was always writing to ear of the liberal white (and very Jewish) crowd. That is to say he was both prominent and on the edge. (I should note I'm liberal, white and Jewish, so maybe I'm the right kind of reader.) Leeming met Baldwin in Istanbul in the mid 1960's, at the height of his fame after [The Fire Next time]. He become close with Baldwin and his milieu in Istanbul, and later worked for Baldwin organizing his papers. So, he writes from some intimacy and knowledge about his writing and world, including some anecdotes on their relationship. After he wrote a letter to Baldwin complaining about how his lifestyle was hurting him and his writing, Baldwin wrote him back, where, paraphrased by Leeming, "He declared...I must understand that disorder was in a sense a necessary aspect of his life as a writer. He could not afford to be tamed." He draws a life of Baldwin through a collection of small details, not so much bringing his subject to life as letting the reader construct it from the information. Every book Baldwin published gets a chapter, and every moment in his and his various intimate relationships, many platonic, gets covered. Sometimes chapters end in what practically amount to lists of various people he met while in one city or another. It's treasure trove of compressed information and oddly works to construct this unusual personality. And, of course, it's a little overwhelming. Instead of rushing out to Baldwin's first book, I need a little break to recover. Recommended to those interested in Baldwin and willing the put in the time this book may take. ----------------------------------------------- 4. James Baldwin : a Biography by David Adams Leeming published: 1994 format: 420 page hardcover acquired: library read: Jan 1-19 time reading: 18 hr 3 min, 2.6 min/page rating: 4

  6. 5 out of 5

    Joe T.

    The author David Leeming worked for James Baldwin as a secretary/assistant and because of that this book gives us an insider's perspective into the works and life of the prophet that America produced. This is a great book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Judy

    This is one of the best author biographies I have ever read. If I love or admire an author, and there is a biography available, I like to read it. Often I follow the author's life as I read their works. I did that with John Steinbeck and discovered that I enjoyed learning what was going on in his life as he wrote each novel. I was going to follow that plan with James Baldwin but I got so involved with his personal story that I could not stop. David Leeming's way of revealing Baldwin is respectf This is one of the best author biographies I have ever read. If I love or admire an author, and there is a biography available, I like to read it. Often I follow the author's life as I read their works. I did that with John Steinbeck and discovered that I enjoyed learning what was going on in his life as he wrote each novel. I was going to follow that plan with James Baldwin but I got so involved with his personal story that I could not stop. David Leeming's way of revealing Baldwin is respectful and sensitive. He traces the man's development from an impoverished Harlem kid, son of a preacher, through the lucky breaks that gave him chances to build on his natural intelligence and improve his writing skills as well as figure out his sexual orientation and his place in the world. From all of that experience he became one of the leading Black writers of the 20th century. Authors are not always "nice" people leading steady, secure lives. They are often driven by certain demons and James Baldwin was no exception. He suffered emotionally, he blazed with righteousness in many public situations, and I feel he created one of the most profound understandings of race relations in America ever. I have read four of Baldwin's novels so far: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, and If Beale Street Could Talk. Reading the biography was like taking a class from a really great professor. It deepened my understanding of those novels, both as to how he came to write them and some of the literary aspects I had either missed or not fully grasped. David Leeming is a professor of literature. He was also a close friend of Baldwin's from 1961 until the author's death in 1988. Baldwin authorized Leeming to write his biography and left all his papers to him. Now I look forward to reading the rest of James Baldwin's novels, stories and essay collections while having this book as a resource. I especially liked learning about Baldwin's relationships with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and many other civil rights leaders, through which I got an excellent overview of the Black race's ongoing fight for freedom. That was James Baldwin's fight, his life and his obsession.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kristianne

    A beautiful portrait of a beautiful man. Baldwin explained to Leeming that "He could not afford to be tamed. The writer's job was to confront life in all its complications." This is an account of how Baldwin did exactly that and maintained a profound love for life and for the world, even despite the inequalities in it. In a short film made by Sedat Pakay in Istanbul Baldwin says: "...I've love a few men and a few women...love comes in very strange packages...the trick is to say yes to life."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    This book was so hard to finish and such a slog and I don't know why it had to be. Baldwin is so freaking interesting and his work is just so beautiful. This book was dry and it seemed to flatten him as opposed to bring him to life, which is why you read biographies.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Abigail Smith

    frightful. intense. really, really intense

  11. 5 out of 5

    Maya

    "One must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found—and it is found in terrible places…. For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each oth "One must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found—and it is found in terrible places…. For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out." Quote taken from Nothing Personal.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    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 breadwi 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

    Looks like this excellent biography of Baldwin is due to come out in a new edition in 2015. I read this 17 years ago and it's hard to imagine someone doing a better job of covering this American novelist who never quite seems to be rated as highly as he should be. Of the American novelists writing in those post-war years Baldwin remains my favorite.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Celine

    I always knew Baldwin was tortured and complex, but I'm not sure I completely understood just how much so he was until this biography. I appreciated the way Leeming situated each piece of Baldwin's work in the story of life. It made me want to re-read many of Baldwin's pieces with the backdrop of what was happening at his life as context. Leeming also compellingly captures the weighty mantle of witness that Baldwin felt following the murder of Dr. King and Malcolm. I appreciate James Baldwin so I always knew Baldwin was tortured and complex, but I'm not sure I completely understood just how much so he was until this biography. I appreciated the way Leeming situated each piece of Baldwin's work in the story of life. It made me want to re-read many of Baldwin's pieces with the backdrop of what was happening at his life as context. Leeming also compellingly captures the weighty mantle of witness that Baldwin felt following the murder of Dr. King and Malcolm. I appreciate James Baldwin so much more after reading this, which, I suppose, is what all good biographies aim to achieve.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    Wonderful I'm not black or gay, but this biography, written with clear eyes but also much love by one of Baldwin's close friends, who lived with him and worked for him, resonated with me. James Baldwin, with his rickety private life, his depression, and his rage, was a great man who devoted his life to the quest for love , and to making sense of his cultural inheritance. An extraordinary man. Look up the YouTube videos -- his speech to the Cambridge Student Union when he took part in a debate wit Wonderful I'm not black or gay, but this biography, written with clear eyes but also much love by one of Baldwin's close friends, who lived with him and worked for him, resonated with me. James Baldwin, with his rickety private life, his depression, and his rage, was a great man who devoted his life to the quest for love , and to making sense of his cultural inheritance. An extraordinary man. Look up the YouTube videos -- his speech to the Cambridge Student Union when he took part in a debate with the right wing commentator Buckley (Baldwin got a standing ovation), or the interview with Mavis ?? when one of his plays opened in London. A great man....

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    "He would elaborate on this theme in a later interview with Julius Lester, when he suggested that to say a "new language" was needed was the same as saying a "new morality" was needed. It was time to redefine morality in the area of race, of sex, of identity. It was necessary to reconsider the meaning of 'love in a consumer society.'" (p. 356) "In an interview in the Washington Post he spoke with some disdain of Nixon and Watergate as indications of the falseness of the American myths of "succes "He would elaborate on this theme in a later interview with Julius Lester, when he suggested that to say a "new language" was needed was the same as saying a "new morality" was needed. It was time to redefine morality in the area of race, of sex, of identity. It was necessary to reconsider the meaning of 'love in a consumer society.'" (p. 356) "In an interview in the Washington Post he spoke with some disdain of Nixon and Watergate as indications of the falseness of the American myths of "success" and integrity. How could black people be surprised by Watergate, he asked. It was 'just one more rather sordid scandal in a rather predictable history.'" (p.327) "Love is at the heart of the Baldwin philosophy. Love for Baldwin cannot be safe; it involves the risk of commitment, the risk of removing the masks and taboos placed on us by society. The philosophy applies to individual relationships as well as to more general ones. It encompasses sexuality as well as politics, economics, and race relations. And it emphasizes the dire consequences, for individuals and racial groups, of the refusal of love." (p.123) "Son, don't try to get away from the things that hurt you. The things that hurt you -- sometimes that's all you got. You got to learn to live with those things, use them." Luke from The Amen Corner. (p.379) "He had once been converted to a religion in which salvation was initiated by the fear of eternal damnation. Now he knew that salvation could not be based on fear. Real salvation 'connects, so that one sees oneself in others and others in oneself,' and it clears the way to 'that which is greater than oneself.' The simplistic salvation preached by ideologues and fundamentalists was delusory and dangerous: 'Complexity is our only safety and love is the only key to our maturity. And love is where you find it." (p. 369) "In Atlanta he visited the monument to Martin Luther King -- a monument 'as absolutely irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial.' Making monuments was 'one of the ways the Western world has learned... to outwit history [and] time--to make a life and a death irrelevant... There's nothing one can do with a monument.' Monuments belonged to the "white aesthetic," were the sculptural equivalent of "white English." (p.354) ----- Remembering Irwin's line on the dead of WWI: [Looking at War Memorial] "That's why. The dead. The body count. We don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. And all the mourning has veiled the truth. It's not lest we forget, but lest we remember. That's what this is about . . . the memorials, the Cenotaph, the Two Minutes' Silence. Because there's no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it." (p.28 – H.B//Bennett film script.) "An interviewer for 'Penthouse' asked him if he had any hope for the future of his nation. He answered that he was 'a lover and therefore an optimist... the trick is to love somebody... If you love one person, you see everybody else differently.' (p.329) A holiday gift from Meghan on her New York City trip, 2016. Purchased at McNally Jackson. Thank you Meghan. <3

  17. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    I should preface this review by acknowledging that I love James Baldwin's writing. I love it so much I want to write 'lurve' instead of love and, in deference to Baldwin, I also want to chuck in a 'baby' (as in, 'Baby, I lurve Jimmy B'). Even if you don't feel that way you should read this book anyway. You should read this book, because, as I was raving to a friend, it's like attending a party with all of the leading (and some minor) lights of the civil rights movement and the arts in the sixties I should preface this review by acknowledging that I love James Baldwin's writing. I love it so much I want to write 'lurve' instead of love and, in deference to Baldwin, I also want to chuck in a 'baby' (as in, 'Baby, I lurve Jimmy B'). Even if you don't feel that way you should read this book anyway. You should read this book, because, as I was raving to a friend, it's like attending a party with all of the leading (and some minor) lights of the civil rights movement and the arts in the sixties. Malcolm is in one corner with his crew, Martin is another corner with his people, Huey, Elderidge and Stokely are throwing daggers, Norman Mailer is drunk and about to be thrown out, Elijah Muhammad is in deep conversation and sounds like a fortune cookie, Belafonte and Poitier are singing calypso off-key while Brando watches on, Maya Angelou flits through free of the cage, the Kennedy boys are the balcony smoking. Hell, even Lando is there! And at the centre of it all is Baldwin, alternately 'still screaming' and smiling that enormous, knowing, cheeky grin. You should also read this book because it is an interesting study in identity. The author doesn't shy away from acknowledging the darkness in Baldwin and, as he highlights, acknowledging also Baldwin's contributions to rendering identity politics complex by his often non-hegemonic intersectional identities and his razor sharp awareness of then-contemporary American cultures. It is a biography that highlights that the personal is indeed political and cannot be divorced from a full understanding of the individual. Don't get me wrong, this is not a perfect book; the author was very close to Baldwin and some things are surely left out or made less than what they were, and some of the textual analysis of Baldwin's works can drag, especially if you have read them before and knew the context. But Baldwin himself comes through this book and is, I find, enthralling.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    This book provides as much as a critical primer of Baldwin’s writing as it does his life. Having already read many of his works, I still found this to be an exhilarating read from which I learned a lot and appreciated even more this man who I love. I’ve been putting off writing a review of this book because I feel I have too much to say about it, and I don’t have the time and headspace to review my extensive margin notes, compile all the important Woolfian nuggets for my future reference, and mos This book provides as much as a critical primer of Baldwin’s writing as it does his life. Having already read many of his works, I still found this to be an exhilarating read from which I learned a lot and appreciated even more this man who I love. I’ve been putting off writing a review of this book because I feel I have too much to say about it, and I don’t have the time and headspace to review my extensive margin notes, compile all the important Woolfian nuggets for my future reference, and most importantly, to offer its worthy praise. I read this book slowly, over the course of several months, really cherishing it as I slid it into my suitcase while traveling, my shoulder bag while commuting; moving it from coffee table, to bedside table, to front porch. (It was particularly meaningful to read this in part while I was abroad, being able to consider this distinctly American figure while spending time in another culture, like Baldwin considering the distinctly American problems that preoccupied his lifetime, while living abroad. Baldwin is so generous, sharing so much of himself with us. As Baldwin’s longtime companion, Leeming is also generous in extending their relationship as well as his own insights to us. Leeming is modest and balanced when offering his own interpretations alongside that of others’. In fact, Leeming deftly handles a lot of literary criticism himself, and the magnetic motion between Baldwin’s life and his works powers the book. Leeming is honest, offering us unblinking accounts of Baldwin’s less flattering attributes and episodes as well. So there it is—my woefully inadequate account of this brilliant book. Maybe I’ll have the wherewithal to revisit this review again and offer more. Or after the next time that I undoubtedly read this in the future.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Arthur

    Wow! It took me a month to read this book. Says something about my life, I think, right now. Just this morning, a few minutes ago, I finished the last pages--and, I confess, with tears in my eyes. What a great book and what a powerful story. Jimmy B lived his whole life in the midst of the race struggle and, at all points, for better and worse, bore that struggle in his own life while he was a witness to the truth of that struggle for all of people. He knew everyone and, while controversial and Wow! It took me a month to read this book. Says something about my life, I think, right now. Just this morning, a few minutes ago, I finished the last pages--and, I confess, with tears in my eyes. What a great book and what a powerful story. Jimmy B lived his whole life in the midst of the race struggle and, at all points, for better and worse, bore that struggle in his own life while he was a witness to the truth of that struggle for all of people. He knew everyone and, while controversial and well known, was always an outsider who bore witness to the sad tragedy of our continued divide--that divide which recent political events prove is still deep and wide. I remember years ago reading a quotation that goes something like this: Civilization is thin membrane stretched over unspeakable chaos. Feels like the membrane is tearing, huh? Sometimes it feels as if we have come so far and made so little progress. Yet, even as I want to always celebrate the progress, I regret and lament the distance we’ve had to travel--and how many died along the way--and am fearful that it is far too easy to slide back. At any rate, for anyone wanting to understand the struggle through the lens of one man’s highly engaged life, this is a great read. Well, it's a great read for anyone. Everyone is in it; every major and many of the minor actors on the civil rights stage are here. He knew them all. And his writings bore witness--he thought of himself as prophet. The interesting thing is that even though he lived so fully in the midst of the struggle, he was more of an outsider--his blackness, his sexuality, his personal and religious demons, his sense of the importance of his own voice--these all separated him out and made him “other.” Made him stranger. Made it nearly impossible for him to settle down, yet so prolific. He was complex and troubled and divided within himself; generous and selfish of his own worth--easily wounded and readily forgiving.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

    I love the way the author comes into the text sometimes, as Baldwin's longtime friend. I appreciated reading this alongside Notes from a Native Son, Baldwin's first collection, and If Beale Street Could Talk--gave me context. Loved (as always!) learning about the way his ideas developed. Had not known (!) how involved he was in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Next will read my dad's copy of Nobody Knows My Name.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Burke

    Probably one of the best biographies I have ever read. I have a lot of work to do to get caught up on Baldwin. I have read some of his work, seen the movie "I am Not Your Negro" and watched many of his speeches and tv appearances. He speaks a truth I cannot get out of my head or my heart. He really was a living prophet. I have much to learn.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Zack

    leeming did a great job with his baldwin bio. he was good friends with baldwin, which gave him an interesting perspective. baldwin's life story feels simultaneously life-affirming and heartbreaking to me.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rj

    Leeming who acted as Baldwin's secretary for years has written the definitive biography of the author and critic, James Baldwin. While the writing is not always stellar, Leeming's subject, Baldwin is such a fascinating individual that it made me want to finish the book. He captures not only the details of Baldwin's life but also how his writing was informed by common themes that appeared in both his fiction and non-fiction. "The hopes of each have been dashed by the failure of the American nation Leeming who acted as Baldwin's secretary for years has written the definitive biography of the author and critic, James Baldwin. While the writing is not always stellar, Leeming's subject, Baldwin is such a fascinating individual that it made me want to finish the book. He captures not only the details of Baldwin's life but also how his writing was informed by common themes that appeared in both his fiction and non-fiction. "The hopes of each have been dashed by the failure of the American nation to see through it own myths, by the dominance of the myth of racial interiority over the reality of what it is to be human." 86 "Love is at the heart of the Baldwin philosophy. Love for Baldwin cannot be safe; it involves the risk of commitment, the risk of removing the masks and taboos placed on us by society. The philosophy applies to individual relationships as well as to more general ones. It encompasses sexuality as well as politics, economics and race relations. And it emphasizes the dire consequences, for individuals and racial groups of the refusal of love." 123 "In the Ambassadors essay Baldwin discusses James's use of manners at some length, commenting on the fact that James demonstrates how disaster arises when we confuse manners with truth." 255 "In an interview in the Washington Post he spoke with some disdain of Nixon and Watergate as indications of the falseness of the American myths of "success" and integrity. How could black people be surprised by Watergate, he asked. It was "just one more rather sordid scandal in a rather predictable history." 327 "To him education meant the courage to ask questions, to confront the dominant priorities, and to challenge them. The student, the teacher, and the poet were at their best when they were disturbers of the peace, when they threatened any given society's sense of safety." 340 "Baldwin's point in the Times pieces is that "people evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not be submerged by a reality they cannot articulate." Language, he said is "a political instrument...the most crucial key to identity." 343 "Making monuments was "one of the ways the Western world has learned...to outwit history [and] time-to make a life and a death irrelevant...There's nothing one can do with a monument." Monuments belonged to the "white aesthetic," were the sculptural equivalent of "white English." 354

  24. 4 out of 5

    Paul Frandano

    I'm old enough to remember the Freedom Riders, and the sit-ins, and Bull Connor, and Martin, all in black and white on a 19 inch Zenith. I've received unsubtle guidance and reading material from African-American comrades in arms during our Vietnam era military service. I've studied the history of the movement with a militant professor. I thought I had a reasonable, historically informed view of racism in America. Then I read Jimmy Baldwin, and this marvelous biography, and my world shifted. Baldwi I'm old enough to remember the Freedom Riders, and the sit-ins, and Bull Connor, and Martin, all in black and white on a 19 inch Zenith. I've received unsubtle guidance and reading material from African-American comrades in arms during our Vietnam era military service. I've studied the history of the movement with a militant professor. I thought I had a reasonable, historically informed view of racism in America. Then I read Jimmy Baldwin, and this marvelous biography, and my world shifted. Baldwin saw himself as prophetic, and history bears his prophesies out. David Leeming does indefatigable service to his friend and sometime employer, reading every draft, all the unpublished manuscripts, letters, notes, outlines, and hiding nothing (apart from the occasional Baldwin paramour, in the interest of privacy) in placing Baldwin's life in superb context, showing, in detail after detail, how Baldwin, the consummate auto-novelist, placed his life and beliefs completely on the page, and then walked the talk. Essential as both a tale of a turbulent time in our national life and as a literary biography of a wholly self-made genius, from a Harlem ghetto to international fame and literary acclaim as perhaps the most formidable bad conscience of his time. It also passes muster as a commentary on Baldwin's novels, albeit from a very favorably biased point of view. Still, Leeming gives Baldwin's critics their say, even as he guides his readers back to the Baldwin oeuvre. Leeming has made me determined to read the entire published catalogue, or at least the three Library of America volumes. So hats off to Prof. Leeming for an insightful bio of a complex, tormented man and how Baldwin turned his pain into art.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Brent M. Jones

    James Baldwin became a literary giant with his writings exploring racism, class distinction and sexual difference in America. He was best known for his books: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanmi’s Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Thing Not Seen. “Blackness and whiteness do not matter,” was at the core message of James Baldwin confrontation of the black alienation in American society. He felt that race forced and shaped ever aspect of African-American life. His writin James Baldwin became a literary giant with his writings exploring racism, class distinction and sexual difference in America. He was best known for his books: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanmi’s Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Thing Not Seen. “Blackness and whiteness do not matter,” was at the core message of James Baldwin confrontation of the black alienation in American society. He felt that race forced and shaped ever aspect of African-American life. His writings were accepted by the white community because of his view that racism hurt both sides. It not only softened their view but hardened some fellow black writers such as Langston Hughes who said: “Jimmy, I fear you are becoming a 'Negro' writer,” Baldwin personalized the issue of race transforming the issue of local conflict into one of individual conscience. He defended the arts saying they should not be reduced to tools of political writing. Baldwin’s approach resonated and led to his being the best known black writer of his times. David Leeming was close to Baldwin and wrote the story of his life tying his thoughts and growth with the books and essays Baldwin was so well known for. Leeming is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut. He personal closeness allowed him to include and focus on Baldwin difficulty in accepting his homosexuality, his attempted suicide in Paris in 1956 and his relationship with his unloving stepfather. The book did a good job of seeing the development t of Baldwins life and how it was part of his various writings but left many questions on who Baldwin really was. For more on this book see https://connectedeventsmatter.com/blo...

  26. 4 out of 5

    El Profe Aguila

    I am embarrassed to say that before I read this biography, I knew very little about James Baldwin. Now, I can't wait to begin reading Nobody Knows My Name. I am elevating him to one of my current top five favorite authors alongside Tony Judt, Rick Steves, and Christopher Hitchens. I have read the Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I think every U.S. high school and college student should read), Marble's biography of Malcolm X, and various books about Martin Luther King (although not his autobiogr I am embarrassed to say that before I read this biography, I knew very little about James Baldwin. Now, I can't wait to begin reading Nobody Knows My Name. I am elevating him to one of my current top five favorite authors alongside Tony Judt, Rick Steves, and Christopher Hitchens. I have read the Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I think every U.S. high school and college student should read), Marble's biography of Malcolm X, and various books about Martin Luther King (although not his autobiography). Baldwin's scholarship and his place in history as a "witness" is equally essential reading for anyone interested in civil rights, U.S. history, transnationalism, globalization, etc. His life and work is a curiosity of and respect for the global community and humanity. Comprehending his love for the United States would help alleviate many of American society's contemporary fears. As he stated: "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

  27. 4 out of 5

    hellocarmel

    I knew very little of James Baldwin's life, so I've enjoyed spending some time walking round in his shoes with this biography, and learning how well-connected and influential he was. Also how crucial his voice was as a social commentator and polemicist during the civil rights era. Unfortunately I listened to the audiobook (all 17 hours and 22 minutes of it!) which was drearily read in a monotone voice by someone with terrible French pronunciation, which didn't help my irritation at the plodding I knew very little of James Baldwin's life, so I've enjoyed spending some time walking round in his shoes with this biography, and learning how well-connected and influential he was. Also how crucial his voice was as a social commentator and polemicist during the civil rights era. Unfortunately I listened to the audiobook (all 17 hours and 22 minutes of it!) which was drearily read in a monotone voice by someone with terrible French pronunciation, which didn't help my irritation at the plodding level of detail outlined in the book. Could have been half as long and twice as engaging.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tom Musbach

    This was remarkable to read for all the activity, writing, and suffering that marked Baldwin's 63 years on this planet. I had only read 2 of his novels before this, both of which I really liked, and it was fascinating to learn details of his life that were part of those works. But also the sheer volume of his output was new to learn, not to mention the constant battles due to race. He really was a prophet, and his insights and calls to action reverberate powerfully today. (8)

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dru

    An incredible book about James Baldwin, an author, An orator, an advocate, an activist, an American, an expatriate, a traveler, a poet, a philosopher and a black man. He’s somebody that we all should learn and know about in our history classes. He was hugely influential during the Civil Rights movement and used his literary skills and powerful voice to combat racism and white supremacy in America. A must read for anybody who wants to know our history!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Hal Schrieve

    This lengthy, beautiful tribute by David Leeming is comprehensive and occasionally personal. Its scope is astounding and the access Leeming has had to personal papers for Baldwin deeply enrich the narrative's ability to pin down what Baldwin was feeling when, and to track shifts in his mentality on politics and love. A must-have biography.

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