The belated hullaballoo over Norman Mailer is instructive when compared to the muted, quizzical response to the January 9 death of an equally prodigious, notorious man of letters, Amiri Baraka. They had a lot in common, as lower-middle-class youth shown the world by military service, and exploding into the abundance of postwar America, early masters of their chosen forms (The Naked and the Dead for Mailer in 1948; Dutchman for Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, in 1964). Notably, for men who aspired to literary feats, some of their finest work was political commentary: Mailer's Armies of the Night, likely his most enduring work; Baraka's essays collected in Home (1965), beginning with "Cuba Libre" from 1961, a brilliantly self-critical evocation of political awakening on a wild ride around the island.
By any measure, though, Baraka outdid Mailer in nonfiction. Rather than soggy, money-making tributes to Marilyn Monroe and the like, Blues People (1963, still in print) is one of the small pile of indispensable books on African American music and thus all of American culture. While Mailer kept trying to turn out great novels, ever longer and more strained, Baraka produced a spectacularly jazzy piece of prosody in his 1984 Autobiography.
As a political person, Baraka was impressive. Not for him Mailer's swanning around in the salons of the Upper East Side and Provincetown (or Cambridge and Princeton, for that matter). He went back to his hometown of Newark in 1966, and stayed there, immersed in its politics and its travails. In 1969 Mailer ran for mayor of New York city, an exercise in self-promoting dilettantism. In 1970 Baraka led the multiracial black and Puerto Rican coalition that wiped out Newark's old-guard Democratic machine, electing Kenneth Gibson mayor in the first wave of electoral victories that impelled Jesse Jackson's presidential bids in the 1980s and eventually Obama's improbable candidacy. Baraka was also the principal convener of the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, attended by ten thousand, the climax of the Black Power movement. He soon turned to a sincere, vehement Maoism, and kept at it for the rest of his life, somewhat bonkerish but mostly low-key (his wife Amina eventually joined the very pragmatic Communist Party USA, which I think kept him in-bounds; in any case, his real politics were about the practice of "home rule" in Newark, where his sons are major players).
Even if he had been just a topical poet, Baraka's essays, commentary, and political trajectory ensure him a significant historical role, but his literary work stands on its own. He was a serious poet and playwright before he was anything else, and those writings, whether the early Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note and Dutchman, or the later collected poems in Transbluency and plays like The Motion of History, bear seeing and hearing. I heard him read his work at a conference on the Sixties at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario in 2007, and it both seared and amused watching that small firebrand articulate with a spitting precision, including "Somebody Blew Up America," his riff on 9/11.
In one way, however, Baraka and Mailer were fully equal: the ugliness of their political antipathies. Mailer may have 'loved women,' couldn't do without them, but he tried to kill one wife, and remained a serial adulterer and insistent misogynist for much of his life. The shame that Baraka won't live down was casual anti-semitism at the height of his cultural nationalist phase, circa 1967, with vicious lines about "dagger poems in the slimy belly of the owner-Jews." Eventually, in 1980, he published the Confessions of a former Anti-Semite, but that didn't and won't satisfy anyone who equates his vehement anti-Zionism with hating Jews.
I interviewed Baraka twice, first as a graduate student in 1989, about his trip to Cuba, and then for publication in 2003. I didn't go drinking with him, or stand on any barricades, or trade literary barbs. What stood out, for me, were two things. First, his courtliness and self-possession, precise and sharp in everything he said, but also easy to engage; he neither suffered fools nor played one. Second, although I have met eminent writers and even one Nobelist, however naïve it may seem, I felt that here at last was an actual homme de lettres, steeped in, inhabiting books and words, his own and others, and in Newark, one of the most ordinary places in America. He brought it home, which is something for the rest of us to contemplate.