Great biographies try to answer questions about the complicated relationship between their subjects’ inner life and outer workings. How did Winston Churchill turn the pain of his early life and his years in the political wilderness into the words that galvanised the free world? How did Frida Kahlo’s physical impairment shape her vision as a painter?
I am endlessly interested in the inner and outer lives of the African–American writer and activist James Baldwin, for my money not just the most important black writer of the past 100 years, but one of the most important American writers ever. Although we differ wildly in our life experience — I am a straight white Christian male raised in the American South, Baldwin was a gay black man from Harlem who left organised religion behind — I find such wisdom in his essays, such beauty in his fiction, that I continue to wonder how he mined his own particular experience as a way of helping to illuminate mine, and I am always wanting to know more.
In this new biography, Bill V. Mullen employs Baldwin’s ever-evolving radical politics as a way of exploring what he wrote and what he said. I feared at first this might be a limiting way to understand him (I’d like to think we are all more than the sum of our expressed political beliefs), but it actually serves as a useful filter to approach the life and art. Since political beliefs do grow out of personal experience, Mullen uses Baldwin’s politics as a way of reverse engineering him to illuminate why he does what he does.
Since he was a great artist, Baldwin’s writing, speaking and activism were, on the one hand, universal, but they were clearly also identity based. William Faulkner once said that all great writers explore universal themes from their own ‘postage stamp of land’.