Saturday, February 12, 2005

A biographer's tale

An interesting essay in the Guardian by James Campbell on the difficulties he experienced (as the biographer of James Baldwin) dealing with restrictions on use of Baldwin's letters:

At a celebration in New York a few years ago, the drama critic of the New Yorker, Hilton Als, drew attention to 'one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published, and that is a volume of his letters'. Does this 'masterpiece' belong to Baldwin's family, or to his readership (a readership forever in danger of shrinking)? Few writers have come out so publicly in favour of full disclosure, in both public and private affairs, as Baldwin. 'There is no refuge from confession,' he had scribbled on a piece of paper pinned to the noticeboard in his study. Confession, bearing all its soul-cleansing overtones, was practically his artistic criterion. The refusal of the estate to permit an edition of the correspondence might be judged to go against the writer's wishes, given his own appointment of a biographer in the person of Leeming.

I would buy a volume of Baldwin's letters in a second. I hate the idea that his readership is in danger of shrinking. He and Rebecca West have something in common, it seems to me; I hadn't thought before about the reasons that they're two of my most favorite twentieth-century writers, but they both were people who wrote truly superb novels on occasion but who were more generally engaged with an intellectual and political project that of necessity had to be scattered across lots of different kinds of writing and real-world interactions. Baldwin's very much read in colleges and universities; not sure about outside, and there are things that slip through the cracks, like my most favorite novel Just Above My Head.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to agree with your notion that Baldwin's readership may be shrinking. He'll always have a loyal following of course among a certain brand of African-American intellectuals. The general public however, in this web-connected and web-directed age, is not likely to find his work all that engaging.