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If you want to read James Baldwin’s thoughts on race and homosexuality, you have only to reach for the pioneering gay, black author’s published essay collections or his devastating gay romance, Giovanni’s Room. But if you want to read his love letters to Lucien Happersberger, the bisexual Swiss painter that he once called “the one true love story of my life,” you’re out of luck because Baldwin’s family is keeping them under lock and key for the next 20 years.
The Baldwin estate has always been possessive of the dead author’s past correspondence; they would only ever let a few scholars see them and even then, they never allowed anyone to publish any direct quotations from them. Despite that, the estate has recently bequeathed a trove of Baldwin’s papers to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a Harlem-based division of the New York Public Library, located close to where Baldwin grew up.
The trove includes “a wealth of manuscripts, drafts and notes” that scholars can immediately access, including letters from lesbian playwright of Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry; singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone; and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But Baldwin’s letters with “four of his closest intimates” (including Happersberger) will remain inaccessible for two more decades.
The New York Times says it’s “a reminder that family members are not always comfortable with the spotlight’s falling on a loved one, even decades after death.” But University of Georgia professor and poet Ed Pavlic said that far from damaging Baldwin’s reputation, the letters would make it shine even brighter by helping provide a clearer view of the private life that compelled so many groundbreaking works.
Even though we can’t see the love letters just yet, the trove also contains lots of other goodies including Baldwin’s teenage poetry, an un-produced play based on Giovanni’s Room and unpublished notes Baldwin wrote about gay African-American painter Beauford Delaney, a man he once described as his “spiritual father.”