Baldwin the Shape-Shifter

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All Those StrangersAll Those Strangers: The Art
and Lives of James Baldwin

by Douglas Field
Oxford University Press
220 pages, $29.98

 

THIS STUDY is hard to categorize—which, given its subject, is neither surprising nor a criticism. It is definitely not a chronological biography of Baldwin; we learn little about certain periods of his life. Nor is it a text-by-text presentation or analysis of his works. Rather, it is an exploration of certain issues that played an important part in Baldwin’s life and/or works, primarily his leftist politics after World War II, racism, homosexuality, and religion. Field examines Baldwin’s ever-shifting views on these topics in both his fiction and his public pronouncements and does a good job of showing how the shifts parallel, or not, the discussions of these issues in post-World War II America. (For all the time he spent in France, Baldwin appears not to have concerned himself particularly with what French intellectuals, as opposed to American expats in Paris, were arguing at the time. As he explained in an interview: “I didn’t come to Paris in 1948, I simply left America.”)

All Those Strangers is at its best when author Douglas Field accepts Baldwin’s lack of concern for coherence and cohesion over time, and does not try to impose an artificial order where none exists.

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