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.
ome biographies are weighty, definitive tomes that add substantially to the sum of human knowledge; others are brisker accounts that condense the existing record into a digestible narrative. This new biography of the African American novelist, critic and playwright James Baldwin falls squarely in the latter category, but is well worth a read. It examines the trajectory of Baldwin’s political thought on the interlocking questions of race, class and sexuality. At just under 200 pages, it is a smart and concise introduction to a writer whose trenchant insights into the nature of US politics and culture are as relevant today as they have ever been.