An old book, “James Baldwin, artist on fire,” fell out of a box while I was cleaning out the garage recently. I had no idea I had the book and haven’t the foggiest idea how it ended up in my possession.
The piercing eyes on the book’s cover are those of a Marlboro puffing Baldwin, author of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “The Fire Next Time,” “Nobody knows my name,” “Giovanni’s Room,” all novels that garnered international fame – and infamy – in the last century. Written by W. J. Weatherby, the book is a biography of the incredible and often turbulent life of Baldwin.
I couldn’t put this one down folks. It is just that riveting. So rather than tell you to go find the book, I thought it easier to take excerpts from the flap in the front and back of it to create a sense of who Baldwin was and the enormous impact he had on history, literature and the Civil Rights movement and to flesh that out with comments of my own as I plowed through its pages.
The story begins with his funeral in 1987 at a church on the edge of his native Harlem. It moves to Baldwin’s years growing up in Harlem, his days as young preacher, then explores his relationships – some life long, others antagonistic – with his stepfather, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, William F. Buckley Jr., and others.
A diminutive man, “Jimmy” (as he was affectionately called) struggled with his relationship with his stepfather yet was sustained by a loving mother and brothers and sisters. His early life experience with racial strife led to his decision to leave American where he was drawn to Paris to join others, many of them writers like himself and others who sought to escape the pressures of race in the United States. As the book unfolds, Baldwin would make many trips to Paris only to return to Harlem and its harsh realities.
The biography deals candidly with Baldwin’s homosexuality (“Giovanni’s Room”), his constant drinking and sometimes violent lifestyle. Although outrage at injustice and racism seep through much of the book, his sharp wit, humor and financial generosity to family and friends offer a softer look at Jimmy Baldwin.
Now what struck me more than anything about the book were his acrimonious relationships with some of the best writers of the day, namely Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, especially Norman Mailer and the tremendous influence fellow writers like Henry James and William Faulkner had on him.
The book paints a masterful picture of Baldwin’s life in Greenwich Village where he weaved through the wee hours of the night in restaurants and jazz clubs. To get away from it all, Baldwin was an invited guest in cottages in Sweden, Turkey or Provincetown where he could write without distraction.
Deeply curious about the South, Baldwin made many trips to Alabama and Mississippi. His outrage at the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi led to his controversial “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” that opened as a play on Broadway in 1964. He chafed under harsh criticism from his literary peers and had no problem firing back with sharp-tongued essays that often incurred the wrath of many of the old guard.
As his fame grew, adulation of that fame started to take its toll as evidenced by his retreats to Paris, the back streets of Greenwich Village or to guest houses of some of his well-to-do friends, leaving family and friends worried about his whereabouts.
In “Artist on Fire,” one has the feel of being in the room with Baldwin or sitting in a small cottage facing the ocean with him drinking scotch and debating issues with his expressive hands and ageless gap-toothed grin.
An extraordinary book about an extraordinary American. © Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Echo World, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org